The memories and stories from this day 29 years ago, indeed the 1992 FA Cup run overall, are enough to just about sustain fans of my generation and older for the rest of our time supporting Sunderland AFC.
For back then I was a ten-year-old football obsessive; I’d already seen us promoted, despite being beaten by Swindon at Wembley, and then immediately relegated back down to Division Two. I’d watched England get to the Semi-Finals of the World Cup, and cried along with Gazza as we exited on penalties. But this day felt extra special; my club had the chance to upset the odds, win what I believed was then the most important game in English football, and claim a place in Europe for only the second time in our history.
In the weeks leading up to the match, I’d been on a Football in the Community goalkeeping course at Silksworth Sports Complex being coached by Tony Norman, Tim Carter and Jimmy Montgomery. All the talk at training had been about what had occurred 19 years previously, when Monty’s heroics had won us the famous old trophy for the second time, and being a Sunderland fan at that moment truly felt like being part of a huge and loving family.
The parallels with 1973 were everywhere, we had a young manager, a Sunderland fan, who had been thrust into the limelight as caretaker after Denis Smith was dismissed at the turn of the year. We were in the second tier, but we’d matched and knocked out top-flight opposition along the way. We had a young side made up of local lads and journeymen whose individual qualities were accentuated by a togetherness and team spirit that made up for the many shortcomings.
I’d watched transfixed on the telly at my Nana and Grandad’s flat as Norman’s saves and John Byrne’s goals had taken us past West Ham United, I’d been there on the faithful evening when Gordon Armstrong’s last gasp header had rocked Roker Park against Chelsea, and travelled with my Dad in the car to Hillsborough to see us nervously edge past Norwich City. I’ve been fortunate enough to speak at length with Byrne about the cup run, and his memories are worth listening to again.
JOHN BYRNE! ⬜️— Roker Rapport Podcast (@RokerRapportPod) January 25, 2021
YouTube: https://t.co/5SoczAFdN2 pic.twitter.com/FxWXkWvIIV
We’d beaten top-flight teams, we’d scored great goals, won epic contests against the odds. I’d consumed every programme, every copy of the Echo and Sports Echo, every minute of TV coverage I could in that cup run. It had felt somehow inevitable that we would get to Wembley, something that full-back Anton Rogan, who had won the Scottish Cup with Celtic, commented upon in The Echo in the lead up to the game:
Never in my wildest dreams did I think that I would play in an FA Cup Final when I came to England... [yet] I had a funny feeling we would get to the final after the Oxford game. I remember saying to John Byrne that we would get there.
The night before the match, I remember coming away from playing my last Under 11s game of the season - yet another defeat for Vaux Own Cubs with the hapless Speight between the sticks - and feeling almost melancholy that the buzz and the excitement and the anticipation that had taken over my life would be gone in another 24 hours.
I somehow knew that I might not ever get this feeling back, I might not see my beloved team be front-and-centre of the national conversation, the name of my home town on the lips of millions of others around the world, again. Did I sleep much? Probably not, and the next thing I remember is gathering before dawn in Park Lane to pile onto the busses bound for the capital.
I had by this point utterly convinced myself that it was our destiny to repeat Bob Stokoe’s miracle. I knew, of course, that Liverpool were one of the most famous names in English football. I’d been in the Fulwell End when they’d visited two years before and come away feeling like a 0-1 loss was something akin to a victory, given that John Barnes, Ian Rush and Peter Beardsley had lined up for the Reds. But their manager, Graham Souness, had recently suffered a heart attack and I was well aware that they weren’t quite the force they had been in the 1980s.
This was our big chance for glory, despite The Echo’s pre-match souvenir special pronouncing Liverpool’s “unique record” in the English game as “just awesome”, even when viewed alongside our own “fine and proud” history of winning leagues and cups. The bookies had Sunderland as 12/5 outsiders, with Liverpool favourites at 3/10 in a two-horse race.
On match day, back in Sunderland, the newly-chartered city had ground to a halt. That day’s Echo reported that Sainsbury’s had almost sold out of beer and Nissan had shut down production so that the workforce could witness the match. The papers, which my Mam saved for me and which I treasure to this day, reported that TV viewers around the world, from China to Brazil, from Russia to New Zealand, and, for the first time, the USA, would be tuning in to the game. The shops closed early. A local vicar prayed for divine intervention.
Following the semi final win over Norwich, Sunderland had to play their final ten league games in less than a month to ensure their survival in Division Two, which they did successfully but at a massive physical cost.
The club under Chairman Bob Murray had done everything possible to help Crosby prepare for the big game; a week at a luxury hotel by the Thames, golf and squash at Turnberry, training at the FA’s facilities at Bisham Abbey, but looking back now it was perhaps unsurprising that we ultimately ran out of steam and where dominated by the star-studded Merseysiders.
I’m not going to go into any great detail about the game itself - you must understand that I have never quite got over it - and you can watch the Match of the Day highlights below if you want. I was stood in the paddock with my Dad, almost below pitch-level, and in line with the 18-yard-box at the end that Sunderland attacked in the first half; so I had a close if not good view of Byrne’s glorious first-half opportunity, Michael Thomas’ 47th minute screamer and Rush’s tap in to seal the win for Liverpool with a little over 20 minutes remaining.
They’re etched into my memory along with Micky Gray’s penalty miss in 1998 and Charlton’s scrambled last minute winner in 2018, to be replayed and ruminated upon ad infinitum.
I remember being stood amongst a fair few Liverpool fans, who were mixed in with thousands of Sunderland supporters, but there being absolutely no bother at the match all. The respect and affinity between the two grand old clubs and their fans was in marked contrast to the underlying hostility that framed the ‘73 final against Don Revie’s Leeds.
Indeed, the single clearest recollection that I have of the day was being consoled by a friendly Scouser after the final whistle, who told me “it’ll be alright, lad, you’ll be back here soon enough” as I wiped away my tears. I also remember losing my brand new Sunderland scarf as the players did a lap of honour to show their appreciation for the legions that had travelled from Wearside, but I don’t remember the medal ceremony and the journey back home is now a blur.
Geoff Storey’s match report in that evening’s Sports Echo summed up the game as it played out; “Liverpool are just too good in the end” read the headline, despite reporting that Sunderland were more than a match for the Anfield side in the first half.
Crosby recently appeared on Sachin Nakrani’s FANS podcast with his daughter, broadcaster Nicky, to discuss the game in detail, and he was asked about how it felt to lead out his boyhood club onto the pitch for the biggest occasion of the football calendar:
It was a fantastic moment for me. You realise how lucky you are to be able to do it because a lot of good managers have never actually got to a cup final, and there was I walking out after being manager from January, walking out there in May. It was a fantastic feeling, it was a nervous time, we were very nervous because obviously you’ve got a cup final and you want to win it.
The podcast is so evocative and well worth a listen, perhaps because Nakrani, a Liverpool fan the same age as me, has such affection for this game too. Despite the loss, Nicky Crosby recalled the open-top bus tour that saw tens of thousands of people line the streets from the A1 at Durham right over the seafront, and the affection in which her Dad is still held by people in the north east:
People love Dad’s story, at the time... they love that fact that he was from the area, that he was a rookie manager, and he got this job by chance, and he took them all on this journey, and he made the fans feel like they were really on it with them, and I think that’s why they came out in force that day because it gave the people of Sunderland a lift.
The emotion that this game and everything that surrounded it lives on. It’s shadow looms large over my fandom and many others who came of age as Sunderland supporters in the early 1990s. It cemented into our psyches that we are indeed a big club, with a big history and, potentially at least, a big future ahead of us. And, although Crosby’s time in charge wouldn't last too far into the following season, those five months in 1992 are the ones that will live longest in my memory - until, perhaps, we manage to go one step further, and lift the FA Cup for a third time.
Sunderland: Norman, Owers, Ball, Bennett, Rogan, Rush, Bracewell, Davenport, Armstrong, Byrne, Atkinson Subs: Hardyman, Hawke
Liverpool: Grobbelaar, Jones, Burrows, Nicol, Molby, Wright, Saunders, Houghton, Rush, McManaman, Thomas Subs: Walters, Marsh