The 1991/92 Cup run was undoubtedly the highlight of the early 1990’s - a time of turmoil and despair.
The season started with some optimism. Fresh from relegation we hoped and expected to be challenging for a return to the top league, but by Christmas Marco Gabbiadini had been sold, Denis Smith no longer had a red and white army and we had a new strike force of John Byrne and Don Goodman - changing times.
The third round of the FA Cup saw us drawn at home to Port Vale on the traditional early January Saturday. Back then, Port Vale were a struggling second tier team and included the likes of Robin van Der Laan, Martin Foyle and Cup Winner Keith Houchen in their squad, all of whom were handy players at that level.
It is interesting that back then the 3rd round of the FA Cup attracted what was, at that time, a more or less average crowd of 15,564. These days of course the early rounds of the cup see a big drop in attendances compared to league games - that’s a great shame.
A comfortable and straightforward yet forgettable three nil win courtesy of Brian Atkinson, Peter Davenport and John Byrne saw us through to the fourth round.
Given our poor league form and the difficulties of recruiting a permanent manager, dreams of Wembley were merely that - dreams. Don Goodman was cup tied and Neil Warnock was rumoured to be Bob Murray’s first choice to replace Denis Smith, yet Malcolm Crosby was doing a steady job and remained in post to see us drawn away to Oxford in the fourth round.
Oxford were also a second division team and included future Sunderland player Andy Melville in their defence as well as Charlie Methven’s favourite player Joey Beauchamp. We raced into a three goal lead with goals from Byrne, Hardyman and Atkinson. But we allowed what should have been a straightforward win to become a little nervous with Oxford scoring twice at the death.
So into the fifth round and the cup run really got started. West Ham at home. The Hammers were a decent top division side, with Trevor Morley and Ian Bishop in the team.
Shortly afterwards these two were bound up in all sorts of rumours about their relationship, their wives and a pair of scissors. Goodness knows where that story would have ended up at in the internet age.
The home game was played in front of 25,475 on a freezing and typically windy February day. I remember taking my granddad to what would be his last visit to Roker Park, and we witnessed a hard fought one all draw with who else but John Byrne equalizing for Sunderland.
The replay was a classic - a night match in East London and a couple of John Byrne goals in a wild atmosphere saw dreams of Wembley becoming a bit more than mere dreams.
That nutcase Martin Allen pulled two back before David Rush netted the winner to send us into our first quarter final since 1976.
The clamour for Malcolm Crosby to get the job permanently was growing but Murray was reluctant, and Crosby seemed just as reluctant to take it should it even be offered. Kevin Keegan had just rocked up in Newcastle and it felt like the North East football world was changing.
The quarter final was an away tie at Chelsea, a reminder of the Milk Cup Semi Final seven years previous.
This was live on TV. Other than some England matches and cup finals, football live on TV was still a new concept, and those who couldn’t get down to London midweek like me watched it in the pub.
Again, as there was still so little televised football back then watching a match in the pub was a strange thing. Pubs with big screens didn’t exist so we watched the match on a TV not much bigger than a portable in the front bar of The Sportsman’s Arms in Belmont.
The Chelsea team included one Gareth Hall, a not so popular future Sunderland right back. That team also included two strikers who featured against us in our 1985 Milk Cup run Kerry Dixon and Clive Allen - 33,948 were at Stamford Bridge to witness a one all draw, with Byrne equalising with a fine looping header and keeping up his great record in the cup.
The replay is talked about as one of the great nights at Roker Park. A crowd of “only” 26,039 were there yet the atmosphere was raucous. Chelsea had the whole of the Roker End although there were large gaps. The other three sides of Roker packed and in fine voice remembering the events 7 years previously.
In truth Sunderland at this time were a pretty poor side, but in this cup run the team played above themselves and they certainly did that night. Chelsea were not what they are now, but they were a strong and physical first division team with Paul Elliott, Vinnie Jones, Andy Townsend and Denis Wise. Add in our nemesis of 1987 Tony Cascarino and we were all set under those magical lights in Roker.
The match can only be described as a typical cup tie - it’s a cliché, but we went at Chelsea from the off and every player in red and white gave everything they had and more. Peter Davenport put us ahead mid way through the first half and then it was heroic goal keeping from Tony Norman, blocks and tackles from Kay, Hardyman, Rogan and Ball before Denis Wise equalised in the 85th minute. When that went in the feeling was that we had missed our chance, the energy which we had expended in keeping Chelsea out for so long would tell.
Surely we would lose and they would win - but this team had a bit more.
A corner was won at the Roker End, Brian Atkinson swung one out to the penalty spot and Gordon Armstrong rose to plant an outrageous header past Dave Beasant to send us to the semi final. Cue a mini pitch invasion and great celebrations an atmosphere rarely seen in the latter years of Roker - a magical night.
Ticketing arrangements for the semi final were a nightmare, chaos on a Friday night, as queues formed from early evening and Roker Baths road resembled a camp site. Many were unlucky but not us, we secured our tickets for the other Kop, the one at Hillsborough - the same venue as our last FA Cup semi final in 1973. An omen?
This time, another link to a cup run, 1985, as we faced Norwich who were a very handy first division team including Chris Sutton, Robert Fleck and Ruel Fox. Norwich were clear favourites.. but why couldn’t we beat them?
The night before the match Sheffield was full of Sunderland, the Leadmills nightclub full of well oiled daft lads. After a sleepless night on a mates floor we rocked up at Hillsborough, outnumbering Norwich, as is our custom. In truth the match was poor, but when Brian Atkinson crossed to allow Byrne a straightforward header to score the winner the Kop exploded with joy, as it seemed did all of the other stands as red and white tops were seen in the Norwich sections.
We were in the FA Cup final!
We had a crap team and we were in the cup final.
Bob Murray was still reluctant to give Crosby the job full time - he clearly still had doubts and our poor league form justified those, but how could he not reward Crosby? He did though as we headed to Wembley to take on the mighty Liverpool.
Liverpool were a top side - in fact, probably better than that. Barnes, Molby and Rush were past their best but still class players. For Sunderland, Jon Kay missed out through injury so Owers was at right back and Hardyman was dropped in favour of Anton Rogan.
This is the only time that I have been to Wembley and felt intimidated by the opposition. Not physically, but there were Liverpool fans everywhere. Their years of success and songbook dominated the day. Their team of stars, after a missed chance by Byrne, dominated the match.
I remember feeling flat on arrival at Wembley and flat all the way through that final - the adrenaline of West Ham, Chelsea and Norwich just wasn’t there. We lost two nil and with Graeme Souness recovering from a triple heart bypass, the cup went to Liverpool.
This was the most unexpected of cup runs - we had a struggling team with flaws who all over-performed to get there. The final was a step too far and the seasons that followed are best forgotten.
The road to Wembley in 1992 however will never be forgotten - they were great times.