There have been some stirring meetings between ourselves and Manchester United over the years. I seem to recall rather well the 3-2 win at Roker Park in November 1984, when we recovered from 0-2 down thanks to a first-half Clive Walker hat-trick, while David Hodgson and Mark Hughes also saw red to add to the drama.
Then there was the 2-1 home win in September 1990 - our first success back in Division One thanks to “Benno’s” last-gasp winner - and another 2-1 victory at Roker in March 1997 which most of perhaps thought would help keep us up, though this was not to be. As far as meetings in Manchester go a notable occasion came in season 1967-68, when our 2-1 win at Old Trafford in the final game not only helped to preserve our top-flight status but also deprived United of the championship which, to add insult to injury, went to their fierce rivals City who had rather ironically won 4-3 at Sid James Park on the same day!
So in view of the overall history of the fixture a Second Division meeting between Manchester United and Sunderland AFC might seem a bit out of place, but that is exactly what happened in the 1974-75 season when ourselves and United met for the very first (and so far only) time at the second-tier level.
The Red Devils had been relegated at the end of the 1973-74 campaign, the culmination of several years decline, when their star-studded side - which included messrs Best, Charlton & Law - slowly began to fall apart. However, maybe not too surprisingly, United were still hot favourites for an immediate return to the First Division, and indeed after having topped the Second Division table early on in the 1974-75 campaign were never to relinquish their position. But with Sunderland also strong contenders for promotion our much-anticipated meeting with United at Old Trafford in late November 1974 had all the ingredients of a cracking 1st v 2nd promotion battle, and that’s exactly how it turned out.
And not surprisingly in view of the fixture’s billing, a mammoth crowd of 60,585 were packed into Old Trafford at the first whistle, with many more locked out. United kicked off with the advantage of a strong breeze behind them and after their initial threat had petered out, a right-wing centre from Bobby Kerr tested United ‘keeper Alex Stepney, then Bryan Robson tried an ambitious long-range effort but it lacked any real power and Stepney saved easily.
Jim Montgomery had to cover a deflected effort from Sammy McIlroy carefully, then in the eleventh minute the game exploded into life when United drew first blood. Dave Watson failed to control a long ball down the middle and the ball broke rather conveniently for United’s leading marksman Stuart Pearson, who took full advantage to beat Monty with a well-placed shot.
However, this early setback stung us into life and would mark the start of a rather frenetic period which saw three goals scored in just four minutes. Just sixty seconds after falling behind we were level, as Bobby Kerr capitalized on some slack play in the United defence and put over a hard, driven cross which picked out Billy Hughes, who hammered the ball home from close range. Then just three minutes later it got even better, when we stunned the Old Trafford faithful by taking the lead when Robson and Hughes (not the United duo of later years I must add!) played a neat one-two, and the latter went on to leave Stepney helpless.
Shortly afterwards we thought we’d made it 3-1 when Bobby Kerr netted, but his effort was disallowed for offside. United then caused us one or two anxious moments as they sought to try and get back in the game, then when play swung to other end Towers sent a left-foot drive high into the crowd, while Hughes also twice went close as we began to turn the screw a little, forcing the United defence into several errors. We then had two great chances to make it 3-1, firstly when Towers and Hughes combined well to set up a chance for Robson, who only had Stepney ahead of him, but instead of trying a shot he tried to round the keeper, who was able to snatch the ball from Robson’s feet. Then following a left-wing corner, Watson sent in a powerful left-foot drive which forced a great save from Stepney.
So 2-1 to us at half-time and it had been a thrilling first half, with the game certainly having lived up to it’s top-of-the-table billing so far and in all fairness we’d appeared to have edged proceedings. What would the second half have in store? Well United, who’d no doubt had a bit of a roasting from manager Tommy Docherty at the break, came at us in a rather determined fashion and Jim Montgomery had to make a couple of important saves. But then the game was turned on it’s head with two goals in five minutes, although the first was a shade controversial; a poor clearance from Monty was intercepted and played to Pearson, who beat Dick Malone on the left before crossing for Willie Morgan to score from close range, even though McIlroy appeared to be well offside. The referee, after consultation with his linesman, allowed the goal to stand - tough luck indeed. Then just before the hour mark this rather epic encounter saw another twist, when the lead changed hands for the third time, only once more in United’s favour when a left-wing centre from Gerry Daly was converted by “the villain of the piece” Sammy McIlroy. Quite incredible stuff.
United, now with the advantage, appeared much sharper up front but Sunderland still had their chances and Alex Stepney had to make fine saves to deny Malone and Robson, while our Scottish full-back also sent a thirty-yard drive over the bar. But no doubt United fans were pleased to hear the final whistle such had been Sunderland’s storming finish in their bid to retrieve the game, which had sadly been to no avail. Indeed, such had been our contribution to what had been a gripping battle that many thought we’d deserved a point at the very least, and for those not privileged enough to have witnessed this “clash of the titans” first-hand, there was the consolation of being able to watch highlights of the game on BBC TV’s “Match Of The Day” that evening.
Unfortunately it was a similar hard luck tale in the return game with United at Roker Park the following January when, in spite of us having laid siege to the United goal more or less from start to finish, a one-man show on the part of United ‘keeper Alex Stepney ensured that we had to settle for a point from a 0-0 draw. In the final reckoning these three lost points against United perhaps proved to be rather critical, for while The Red Devils returned to the First Division as undisputed Champions, we narrowly missed out in fourth place after having seemed virtually certain ourselves of a First Division place, for the most part. However, recompense came the following season when we ourselves went up as Champions, and thus resumed meetings with United in the more traditional setting of the First Division.