I’m sure all of us have those matches. You know, the ones that pinpoint the transition from being partially aware of football to being fully aware of every single aspect.
For me, those games were cup finals. I have no memory of FA Cup Finals before 1987. But I remember watching Spurs vs Coventry at my grandparents’ house. Keith Houchen’s dramatic header, some Spurs players sporting ‘Holsten’ on their shirts, others not.
I recall the England vs Argentina 1986 World Cup quarter final being on the TV. I’d just got back from swimming lessons and it was on. I have very vague recollections of our Milk Cup Final appearance in 85.
Fast forward a year after Coventry vs Spurs, however, and I can still recall minute detail of Wimbledon vs Liverpool, as I can of the games in the years that immediately followed. Everton vs Liverpool (still one of the best Cup Finals as far as I’m concerned), Palace vs Man United (the demise of Jim Leighton), and of course the ‘Gazza’ final of 91. 1992 is another story, for later on in the week.
Quite simply, thought, the FA Cup was huge then. Huge. Everything stopped, and everyone gathered round the TV. The build up lasted all day, the Twin Towers were heroed as the pinnacle, the glamour of English football.
League Cup Finals were also of huge significance, and every England international game - from Euro 88 qualifiers onwards were lapped up, but central to all of these games, of course, was Wembley. The Empire Stadium. A ground that held huge mystique and awe. As a young Sunderland supporter, this seemed a lifetime away.
In my first season we were relegated to Division 3, in my second we were promoted. My third season was one of grinding out our place in the Second Division; my fourth season – 1989/90 – ended at Wembley.
The season started well, and the signing of Paul Bracewell – who’d started the Everton vs Liverpool cup final only three months earlier – added some glamour, for me at least.
From my Panini sticker album I knew he’d played for us before, had two caps, and had struggled with injury. Signing a player from the sticker book was a coup.
Of course, that season we beat the mags in the play-offs and headed to Wembley to face Swindon Town. Swindon, under Ossie Ardiles – who’d played for Spurs in the 87 Cup Final – had had an impressive season, playing nice football and employing a diamond midfield which was causing teams all sorts of problems – hard to imagine that simple change to a 4-4-2 would be such a noteworthy occurrence, but there you have it.
We’re off to Wem-ber-ley
As soon as we beat the mags, we all – well, me and my dad – decided we were off to Wembley, and my mam and sister decided to come along for the ride too.
We managed to get tickets and drove south on the Sunday for the Bank Holiday Monday game. It was the first year for the play-offs in the format we currently know – previously, they involved teams from division above, too.
We stayed in a Travelodge somewhere the night before. I can’t remember where, but it was miles away from Wembley, and I’ve never had the urge to return.
After a night’s sleep we drove some of the way, parked up and headed in on the train for what seemed like hours. The nearer we got to Wembley the more the atmosphere built. The more tense we became.
Swindon fans seemed in a celebratory mood; Sunderland fans nervous. Whether it was supreme confidence from the Wiltshire lot or not I don’t know, but they seemed certain they were going to win – despite only taking one point from us in the two league fixtures.
As we approached Wembley from the train, I remember being in absolute awe.
This was it.
Wembley. Where Manchester United and Palace had played out yet another memorable Cup Final only weeks before.
The Twin Towers. Wembley Way. It was a hive of noise, the buzz of activity all around.
Wearing my blue Hummel away shirt I climbed the steps, through the huge turnstiles, into the concourse.
My only previous experience of football grounds to that point (as far as I recall) had been Roker Park, St James Park, Boothferry Park and Boundary Park (I obviously didn’t like any grounds that didn’t end in Park). Wembley was immense. It was on another scale. In a different league.
In hindsight, if I’d looked too closely I probably would have seen beyond the veneer, but it was 1990 – football grounds weren’t ‘nice’ places to go to in that respect. They weren’t supposed to be.
And, in that context, Wembley was just fine.
A chance of promotion
Stood at our seats, the teams emerged from our left for the warm up to a cacophony of noise, which increased immeasurably 40 minutes or so later when Denis Smith led out the side for real in front of over 72,000 supporters.
We were wearing our blue away shirts with blue shorts – an unusual combination for us that season. I believe we were the ‘away’ team by virtue of finishing lower than Swindon. Maybe there was a coin toss. Either way, it didn’t really matter.
For Sunderland, Paul Hardyman missed out after booting Burridge in the first leg of the play off final, while Colin Pascoe made a surprise return from injury.
Sunderland: Norman, Kay, Bennett, MacPhail, Agboola, Owers, Bracewell, Armstrong, Pascoe, Gates, Gabbiadini. Subs: Atkinson, Hauser.
It was a baking hot day and, from the off, we weren’t at the races. Pascoe was patently unfit, while one of Swindon’s more agricultural defenders went for Marco very early on. While he stayed on the field he was clearly a shadow of what he was.
The pace, hard work and endeavour that had typified us that season just weren’t there.
Swindon played their nice football, kept possession and made us run. And run. And run.
And, on a hot Wembley day, that was only every have one outcome.
Our goal was peppered from the off, but thankfully Tony Norman was having the game of his life.
The Robins took the lead on 25 minutes, Alan McLoughlin taking on a shot from distance. Skipper Gary Bennett got to it but could only deflect the ball away from Tony Norman and into the goal.
After that, wave upon wave of attack came, and Norman met each one equally, making a whole host of saves and keeping the scoreline respectable.
If it had been five nil, we couldn’t have complained – not at all.
We’d froze, and the longer the game went on the less we could do about it.
We trudged out of the ground after applauding the players off the field; Swindon fans hanging out of cars, singing in our faces ‘We’re going up, we’re going up, you’re not, you’re not.’ They weren’t celebrating, they were goading, and it left a bad taste.
Of course, they got their comeuppance in the most beautiful way.
Summer was here, Italia 90 was on, and suddenly news broke that Swindon had done some dodgy stuff and we were up. There had been bits in the newspaper over the weeks leading up to the game, but it didn’t seem to be that big a deal.
I remember climbing up to the top deck of the number seven school bus from Lanchester to Blackhill when Johnsy, a Sunderland supporter in the year above, shouted to me ‘We’re up, we’re up!’
On a bus that was 50/50 red and white/black and white, you can imagine the journey home.
After the verdict was announced, a song quickly did the rounds. My mam, I think it was, brought a photocopy of the words home and I stuck it to my bedroom wall. It was there for years.
One or two words may have been altered by the annuls of time, but you’ll get the gist.
To the tune of the Blaydon Races...
We went to Wembley Stadium on the 28th of May,
Headed for the play-offs, Swindon Town to play.
We didn’t win a trophy, we didn’t win a cup.
What really riles the magpies is we lost and still went up.
It started 12 days previously, at St James Park.
It was soaking, it was freezing, but wasn’t it a lark.
The Geordies made some noise that night, they really made a din.
But you should have heard the Leazes End, when Marco’s goal went in.
They came on from the Milburn Stand, the Gallowgate the same.
Dancing round like arseholes, as the tried to stop the game.
They got stopped at the half-way line by all the boys in blue.
We only had one complaint that night, they should have let them through!