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Road To Wembley: Remembering Sunderland’s dramatic run towards the 1985 Milk Cup final!

We’re on the road to Wembley! Today, David Holloway looks back at the cup run which saw Sunderland head to England’s national stadium for the 1985 League Cup final. Can you remember it?

Norwich City

My first personal experience of any sort of decent cup run was the 1984/85 Milk Cup run when, at the height of the Miners Strike and at a time of great struggle for many in the region, Sunderland and half of the North East went to Wembley.

This was the first season after the Alan Durban era - a time of functional football. Durban was building a team to a plan until the Sunderland board of directors decided that a different, cheaper, plan was needed and they looked to Len Ashurst for a new start.

The cup run started off in the early autumn with a two legged tie against Crystal Palace. The home leg was first and we achieved a two to one victory courtesy of a brace from the well traveled, mostly hopeless, and best forgotten Roger Wylde - Roger Wylde who a couple of years later had a hand in relegating us to the third division (think Darren Bent without the ability).

Twin Towers
The old Wembley
Photo by Peter King/Fox Photos/Getty Images

The Palace side included former Sunderland hero Stan Cummins, who scored at the Fulwell End on his first appearance at Roker since the cock up of his free transfer departure a year or so earlier. Stan returned to the club a few weeks later, but was cup tied and barely featured.

The second leg at Selhurst Park holds no memories - as I wasn’t there - but a goalless draw was the final score, and, as is entirely normal for this stage of this competition, we were unspectacularly through to a third round tie, away to Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest.

An excellent and hard fought one all draw at the City Ground saw Dave Hodgson net his first goal for the club and Trevor Christie equalising for Forest.

Forest featured former Sunderland disaster Iain Bowyer and future average striker Peter Davenport whilst Mark Proctor played for Sunderland - a quality player who we had taken from Forest.

The replay at Roker was a classic. A night match under the lights with 23,184 lucky enough to witness the magic bright green pitch that only seemed to exist at Roker Park in the late summer and early autumn.

general view
That pitch, though!

I recall queuing up at the kids and OAP’s gate to get in the Roker End with my granddad - it seemed like there were hundreds of people trying to get in and the match was well underway when we emerged into the middle of the Roker End.

The giant bald-headed Dutchman, Johnny Metgod, was strutting around the Forest midfield sending 40 yard passes with accuracy, the like of which I hadn’t previously seen - Steve Berry chasing, harrying, hiding. No contest.

Shortly after half time, Paul Raynor was sent off for Forest for a nasty elbow on Hodgson, but I may be wrong. We still we couldn’t capitalise, though, and the game went into extra time.

Extra time is entirely normal now, but back then it was rare and a new concept to me - the atmosphere was crackling.

In the 111th minute this particular cup run really started - Howard Gayle received the ball on what seemed like on his own 18 yard line and motored directly towards me, my mouth open in the middle of the Roker End.

He was running at pace towards me, just me and no-one else, pace which had never been seen in years - not one yellow and blue pinstriped shirted Forest player seemed to get anywhere near him as he unleashed a low right footed shot from the edge of the box into the bottom left corner of Steve Sutton’s net.

Johnny Metgod Nottingham Forest v Everton 1987
Johnny Metgod.
Photo by Simon Bruty/Allsport/Getty Images

Pandemonium broke out and Cloughie’s team were beaten - we were through to a fourth round home tie with Spurs. Two rounds were done, a novelty for that era; the pace which Ashurst had sought to bring to the squad had won us the game.

It was now November and a huge crowd of 27,421 came to see the fourth round tie against a very good Tottenham team which included Hoddle, Hazard, Roberts and that season’s league top scorer, Clive Allen. But this wasn’t a great night for poor Clive as a superb performance by Chris Turner kept the scores goalless.

A trip to White Hart Lane in those days was not for the faint-hearted, so a midweek fixture in North London wasn’t an option for this 14 year old. The match was televised - well a few minutes of highlights were shown late at night on Sportsnight with Tony Gubba.

So with milk and toast a stereotypical 1980’s match was watched with ankle deep mud, yellow cards, violence, long hair, penalties scored, penalties saved and a classic Nike strip beating a classic Le Coq strip two goals to one. Clive Walker and Gordon Chisholm bringing victory after Graham Roberts’ early penalty had put Spurs in front.

The night and the round though belonged to Chris Turner who was magnificent in both ties.

Chris Turner Sunderland 1985
Photo Allsport/Getty Images

After the excitement of the previous two rounds, the quarter final is often forgotten. It was an away trip to Watford. Back then Watford were a very good side and they had played in the FA Cup Final the previous season. They were the side of John Barnes and Luther Blissett, expertly managed by Graham Taylor.

They also had Sunderland links including Wilf Rostron and Tony Coton - two players who played for Sunderland nearly 20 years apart from each other.

A second half strike from Clive Walker saw us through to a semi-final against Chelsea.

The first-leg of the semi final against Chelsea saw as big a crowd and as big an atmosphere at Roker Park for some years - over 32,000 packed into the great old ground that March night - this was the mid 80’s and Chelsea weren’t the team that they are now, but on and off the pitch they were a handful.

On the pitch they had a front three of Nevin, Speedie and the great Kerry Dixon - off the pitch they caused mayhem with seats flying from the Main Stand Roker wing. The Fulwell End swayed backward and forward - my mate’s dad broke a couple of ribs on a barrier. Two penalties from Colin West saw us take a two nil win to Stamford Bridge.

I am not the person to describe the scenes and the experiences of the second leg at Stamford Bridge as I wasn’t there, but those who were will have the memories and the physical and mental scars. Those who were there have their own stories to tell.

We have all witnessed the scenes of the troubles that night, the police horses on the pitch, another goal in the tie for Colin West and two for Clive Walker which saw us to a three goals to two victory - this despite the dirty tricks of Ken Bates and the violent attempts of the head hunters to stop the game.

Sunderland were going to Wembley.

Ken Bates
Ken Bates.
Photo by Allsport UK/Getty Images

Panic! Wembley! Tickets?

In the days before season tickets were the norm: would we get them? Tokens were to be collected in the programmes and success in a random sort of draw meant we were fortunate and we were off to Wembley on a clapped out bus that broke down on the M1, the day the run ended in a dull defeat to Norwich.

We could have won, we probably should have won but David f*cking Corner and a Clive Walker miss from the spot ended dreams of a cup win and of Europe. My journey home was surreal and unforgettable, a life changing ride on a bus that didn’t stop.

The season died and we suffered a miserable relegation.

As it happens we would have missed out on Europe in any event after the horror of Heysel.

It was the end of a time, the end of an era and in many respects the end of days.

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