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The 1980s: When following Sunderland around the country was fun! (Part 2)

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Being a football supporter in the 1980s was very different to today. While you just could turn at and pay a reasonable price on the gate at almost any game, there was an undercurrent of violence – particularly away from home. Lars Knutsen takes a journey back in time to Chelsea away in the 1985 Milk Cup semi final.

Soccer - Milk Cup - Semi Final - Second Leg - Chelsea v Sunderland - Stamford Bridge Photo by PA Images via Getty Images

In my previous piece on Sunderland in the 1980s, I made the point that that decade represented more innocent and spontaneous times for the Sunderland fan.

That is true, in the sense that money had not taken over football to the extent that it has in the English Premiership now. Back then, one could simply decide to go to most games unplanned, paying a reasonable entry fee at the turnstiles.

But there was a major downside – the issue of football hooliganism and the effect it had on the game.

More about that in a moment.

One link to present-day football is that Sam Allardyce was an imposing centre half for us in 1980-81, making 27 appearances and scoring 2 goals. According to his autobiography, he never moved his family to Wearside which made his stay at Roker very time-limited.

Soccer - Football League Division One - Tottenham Hotspur v Sunderland
Big Sam in action during his short-lived first spell at Sunderland
Photo by S&G/PA Images via Getty Images

When writing this blog, I was listening to the 5Live commentary on Big Sam’s first game as manager of West Bromwich Albion, with the inevitable thoughts of how he came to coach Sunderland October 2015 and steered us away from relegation.

Over four years of misery have been grinding by since the time Allardyce resigned in July 2016; if only England had not come in for his services we might still be in the Premiership.

Back to the 1980s.

Although football hooliganism was endemic in many parts of the UK, I never saw Roker Park as a violent place. Standing at the Fulwell End I always felt secure and generally happy to be there. When in my teens in the 1970s I used to cycle with friends from our homes in East Boldon along the A184 to Park Avenue, Roker, where my aunt would greet us and store our bikes until after the game. Tea was on the menu and a quick inquest on the game afterwards. It all felt quite orderly and peaceful.

Those who have met me in person know that I am 6 ft. 6 in. and not easily intimidated. I went with a friend, Dave Carroll, who is also quite a unit, to the most violent and frightening game either of us have ever experienced: Chelsea vs. Sunderland in the two-legged League (Milk) Cup semi-final in March 1985. That night at Stamford Bridge, we experienced football in crisis, permeated by genuine violence.


Setting the scene

Painting the picture of that season, Alan Durban had been dismissed a year earlier after almost three years at Roker Park during which time he was often at loggerheads with the Board. He played a defensive style of football and was once quoted as saying he played striker Colin West “for his defensive qualities”.

Soccer - Sunderland Association Football Club - Photocall - Roker Park
Colin West - a striker selected for his defensive ability
Photo by PA Images via Getty Images

Signing Mark Proctor, fine player as he was, and playing him in just front of the back four, was the last straw.

As I noted previously, the excellent 2018 book by David Snowdon, about manager Alan Durban’s time at the helm of the Black Cats, appropriately entitled: Give Us Tomorrow Now: Alan Durban’s Mission Impossible, is amazingly detailed and helps the reader to relive those years. No transfer window, one substitute and with Tom Cowie as chairman, the Welshman’s life was never easy.

Cowie was a successful businessman but an unpopular chairman who was very tight with funds for the club, despite his personal wealth. From 1980 to 1986 he demanded a lot of his managers, and Durban’s replacement Len Ashurst was under pressure from day one when he arrived from Cardiff City.

Soccer - Football League Division Two - Sunderland
Ashurst had been a Sunderland stalwart as a player before being appointed as Durban’s replacement
Photo by Peter Robinson/EMPICS via Getty Images

In 1983-84 he took the club to a respectable 13th spot in the top league, hitting a 52-point total in a 22 club Canon League Division 1.

Growing up as part of the substantial Norwegian community around Sunderland, my parents knew the Cowie family well, as he was married to a lady from Norway.

He could be a tough negotiator and despite being a supporter his tenure remains, in the eyes of most supporters, a real low in the club’s history.

His appointment of Lawrie McMenemy as manager after Ashurst’s departure in 1985 eventually culminated in the Black Cats’ relegation to the Football League Third Division in 1987. Bob Murray replaced Cowie as chairman in 1986.


Heading to the Bridge

Dave and I duly sent off to our hometown club for tickets and made our way to Stamford Bridge on Monday, 4 March. Sunderland’s team that day was Turner, Venison, Pickering, Bennett, Chisholm, Elliott, Hodgson, Berry, West, Daniel and Walker.

That’s the Clive Walker, ex-Chelsea winger.

The Black Cats were leading 2-0 from the first leg at Roker after Colin West, a hero of mine, scored from two penalties. Chelsea eventually finished 6th in the top division, so we knew this would be a tough game. There were thousands of Sunderland fans in the crowd of almost 40,000 so we thought that there would be safety in numbers.

How wrong we were.

By the end of the match, 20 policemen had been injured and 104 fans arrested.

It was DEFINITELY a tough game... but not in the way we expected.

If you had somehow forgotten how terrible the scenes of football hooliganism could be, or are just too young to remember those horrors, here’s a reminder.

The massed Sunderland contingent was in the open end of the ground, opposite “The Shed”.

Sunderland fell behind to a David Speedie goal early on, but then Walker stamped his personality on the game.

Soccer - Milk Cup - Semi Final - Second Leg - Chelsea v Sunderland - Stamford Bridge
Walker drives forward to get Sunderland back into the game
Photo by PA Images via Getty Images

He equalised on 36 minutes with a crisp finish, and effectively ended Chelsea’s hopes of a comeback on 71 with a shot between the legs of The Blues’ keeper Eddie Niedzwiecki after a quick break.

Then shocking violence erupted as Chelsea fans invaded the pitch, trying to get the game abandoned.

Soccer - Milk Cup - Semi Final - Second Leg - Chelsea v Sunderland - Stamford Bridge Photo by PA Images via Getty Images

We were effectively caged in behind wire fences as Sunderland fans and the Chelsea hooligans were throwing whatever they could into our end of the ground.

Seats, cameras, whatever was available – and even though order was partially restored after a series of charges by police horses,

Walker had to cross the ball over a policeman’s head from Sunderland’s left wing for West to net the third on 77.

Chelsea FC Archive Photo by Hugh Hastings/Chelsea FC via Getty Images

Although Pat Nevin pulled one back late on, the 5-2 aggregate victory was assured. At the final whistle, the players just scarpered to the dressing room to avoid any further violence.

I’d love to hear Nevin’s version of the game as he is a regular 5Live summariser.

We were caged in along with thousands of other Sunderland fans and not allowed out into the streets of West London for a further 40-odd minutes, while the authorities waited for the home crowd to clear.

When we finally did emerge, Dave and I decided that it would be expeditious to find a place to grab a pint, given the level of violence we witnessed on the streets, so we went into the first pub we saw. It turned out to be my first and last visit to a gay bar, but the beer was good and when we finally headed for home the streets were quieter.

Altogether a crazy night, my emotions were mixed even though we had beaten a top-six club emphatically over two legs.

I went to the Wembley final where the team collectively froze, Walker missed a penalty, and Norwich won 1-0. Sunderland were relegated to the second tier, McMenemy was appointed as manager and two years later we were in the old Third Division for the first time in the club’s history.

Clive Walker of Sunderland
Walker’s penalty miss at Wembley was decisive
Getty Images

The abiding memory of that March evening is not of the football, though, but of the scenes of brutality following the pitch invasion, as well as the undercurrent of violence on the streets afterwards.

A quarter-century later, when living in the US, I was employed in the 2010 US Census which involved volunteering to follow up on non-responders door-to-door in the bombed-out and crime-ridden city of Chester, PA.

There had been several recent murders and the police had imposed a 6 PM lockdown on the area due to gun violence, with nobody allowed on the streets after dark.

All I can say is that that night at Stamford Bridge was much more frightening than Chester, PA...