After needing replays to see off Notts County, Reading and Manchester City, Sunderland had reached the FA Cup Semi-Final with a relatively routine 2-0 Quarter-Final win against fellow Division Two side Luton Town.
Awaiting the team at Hillsborough were Arsenal, who’d defeated Chelsea after a replay, and Sunderland were fully focused on making sure the difference in divisions mattered little come kick-off.
In the run-up to the game, there was a confident mood emanating from the Sunderland camp, and Bobby Kerr was certain we’d emerge victorious, despite the views of the majority of the footballing world.
In his newspaper column the day before the game, the Sunderland captain said:
Sunderland will be at Wembley, and we’ll be preparing to take on Leeds or Wolves in the final. And thinking about shaking hands with the Queen.
Something deep inside me tells me we will beat Arsenal tomorrow. All the so-called experts mightn’t be giving us a chance, but we are confident.
Sure, Arsenal are a good, workmanlike team. They must have something to be on the edge of their third successive final.
But while this is just another big match to them, for our lads it’s the game of their lives.
We will run till we drop. And, if Arsenal hope to win they’ll have to climb over 11 bodies to do so. We haven’t come this far just to be fodder for them.
And it wasn’t just bravado from the skipper. Sunderland’s manager Bob Stokoe, who’d arrived in November to replace Alan Brown, was in an equally confident mood.
Sunderland will today become the first club from the Second Division to reach the FA Cup Final for nine years. For once Arsenal’s luck will run out. For once fate will give their opponents the breaks. I’m convinced of that as much as I am that Sunderland are on the verge of greatness again.
I don’t take credit for our success. I give that to the players and the thousands of Wearside fans who have come out of hibernation. It’s been like rolling back the years to when all roads led to football grounds on a Saturday afternoon.
Stokoe, who’d had a long playing career at Newcastle, also revealed he was a Sunderland supporter in his youth.
I’m back among my people . My father was a Sunderland supporter and I feel the same as those on the terraces because I used to be there too.
Although I was with Newcastle as a player, Sunderland was always my first love. Success for Sunderland is not just an ambition – it’s a religion.
Stokoe also fired some shots over the bows in the direction of Tyneside, with Malcolm Macdonald in particular in his crosshairs.
Macdonald had said he wanted Sunderland to get beat, a result that would have helped Newcastle’s chances of qualifying for the UEFA Cup, and Stokoe said the striker’s words ‘made me sick’.
I am annoyed that a player with another club in the North East wants us to be beaten. When I was at Newcastle I never regretted Sunderland winning any game. There was a rivalry, but it was a healthy one. And I am not turning against Newcastle now.
I’m not making an issue of this against anyone but Malcolm Macdonald. In fact, I was delighted when Ipswich lost last night because it helps Newcastle’s chances of getting into Europe.
But, let’s face it, the UEFA Cup stinks from the point of how you get into it. It’s a competition where you don’t have to win anything [to qualify].
Sunderland headed to Hillsborough to face Bertie Mee’s Arsenal without David Young, who was missing from the squad thanks to a booking in a reserve game, which earned him a ban under the totting up process. Brian Chambers took his place on the bench. Arsenal, meanwhile, were without Frank McLintock.
Sunderland: Montgomery, Malone, Guthrie, Horswill, Watson, Pitt, Kerr, Hughes, Halom, Porterfield, Tueart. Sub: Chambers
Arsenal: Wilson, Rice, McNab, Storey, Blockley, Simpson, Armstrong, Ball, George, Kennedy, Kelly. Sub: Radford
In front of an official crowd of 55,000, Sunderland – wearing all white – faced a yellow-shirted Arsenal side, and immediately took the game to the North London team. Roared on by a typically vociferous travelling support, Sunderland almost took an early lead as Horswill’s left-foot shot from outside the box was well tipped over by Bob Wilson.
It didn’t take long for Sunderland to take the lead, however. Horswill’s long ball was intercepted by Arsenal defender Blockley, who attempted to pass back to the safety of Wilson. His ball was under-hit, however, and Halom – who was closing down with an enthusiasm that typified the pre-match belief held by the team – nipped in between defender and keeper to put Sunderland ahead.
Horswill cleared an Arsenal effort off the line, while a Hughes corner from the left hit the bar, before Halom’s miscontrol from a Kerr pass spurned an opportunity to extend the Wearsiders’ lead.
It was a frantic, end-to-end game, with both teams slugging it out – however, Sunderland were dominating. Halom almost scored again. He was giving Blockley a torrid time, and he bustled through once more, only to be denied by Wilson, who moments later saved again from the big striker – this time parrying away Halom’s left foot close-range shot.
While Sunderland could have been three or four up, we had Monty to thank at the other end for maintaining the lead; the Sunderland keeper making a superb double save down to his right to keep his clean sheet intact as half time approached. Armstrong’s left-footed shot took a deflection and forced Montgomery to change direction midair to keep the ball out of the net, parrying the first and then getting in ahead of the onrushing forward to tip the ball away.
The second half started in a similar fashion to the first, with Billy Hughes, in particular, troubling the Arsenal defence, and after ten minutes centre half Blockley, who was having a torrid time, was replaced by striker John Radford, who was coming back from injury.
The excellent Wilson, who was solely responsible for Arsenal only being one down, saved again at the feet of Hughes, but Hughes couldn’t be denied moments later heading Tueart’s flick-on over Wilson to make it two-nil.
Of course, it’s rarely a Sunderland win without a few heart-stopping moments, and Arsenal piled on the pressure in an attempt to rescue the game.
Malone pulled Radford back when clean through on the edge of the box – it would have been a straight red today, in 1973 it was just a bookable offence. Charlie George but the free-kick wide, fully justifying Malone ‘taking one for the team’.
Tempers were fraying, and Guthrie and George were cautioned for an off the ball scuffle – George appeared to throw a punch – but with just six minutes left on the clock George pulled one back. Montgomery probably could, and should, have done better.
It set up a tense finish, which Sunderland defended on the front foot by forcing a string of corners, and the final whistle marked our first FA Cup Final appearance since 1937.
Supporters and players celebrated, and for what seemed like an age a chant of ‘We want Stokoe’ came from the North East contingent after the team had retreated to the dressing room. He reemerged in grey trousers, cream shirt and club tie, to receive the adulation of people who’ll readily reciprocate to those who show passion, desire and talent.
It was quite the most moving moment of my life.
You just can’t put feelings like that into words.
Of course, we all know how this one ends. For those of us who didn’t experience it first hand, it’s part of the supporter’s rite of passage. But for Bob Stokoe, it was Bobby Kerr who earned special praise. After twice breaking his leg, the Cup Final seemed like a deserved reward for the man he called ‘the little general’.
When the final whistle went, the first guy I wanted to see and hug was my little skipper. We’ve stood by each other and now we’ll walk up the tunnel at Wembley together. He is my little general and i’ll stick by him through thick and thin.
Sunderland’s players, meanwhile, had promised to help the 42-year-old manager’s hair out for the final.
The players have promised to buy me a toupee. They say they don’t want to see what’s left of my hair flopping all over the place when I lead them out of the tunnel.
Sunderland’s 1973 win is part of FA Cup folklore – and quite rightly so. And, while it’s the Final against Leeds United – who overcame Wolves 1-0 at Maine Road – that gets much of the attention, it was the superb performance at Hillsborough that set it up.
And, while Malcolm Macdonald was conspicuous by his absence in the post-match commentary, his Newcastle manager, Joe Harvey, said:
I’m just delighted for Sunderland and for my old pal Bob Stokoe. They have now reached football’s Mecca. It’s an incredible feeling, stepping out on the Wembley turf. And, although Leeds will be the favourites, I wouldn’t bet on them.