Ice wreaked havoc on the fixture list scheduled for Saturday 12 January 1963, with 41 of the 46 league fixtures scheduled to take place falling foul to the inclement weather.
Among those 41 fixtures were Sunderland’s trip to Swansea and Aston Villa’s game at Blackpool – which were called off on the Thursday. So, rather optimistically, Sunderland and Aston Villa decided at late notice to play their League Cup Semi-Final first leg at Roker Park instead.
The optimism, it turned out, was well-founded – although the fixture did have a question mark against it in the hours preceding the game. Two to four inches of snow had fallen nearby, but the Roker Park pitch had less than half an inch covering, and was protected by straw.
The League Cup was still a new competition – this was the third season it had been part of the fixture calendar, and had originally been envisaged as a competition for teams knocked out of the FA Cup, however, it was never used in that way. It was launched as the Football League tried to wrestle some prestige back from the FA, and enabled clubs to attract more revenue and make use of their recently-installed floodlights, too.
Its introduction wasn’t universally popular – 16 clubs opposed it, with 31 giving it the go ahead, and in the early years, teams could reject the opportunity to enter – and many did.
In fact, in its second year, the competition was won by Norwich – who at that point had never played top-flight football – beating Rochdale.
The semis and the final were both two-legged affairs – the competition wouldn’t introduce a one-off final at Wembley until 1967, and until then – and with the carrot of European qualification – it was looked upon as a second-rate tournament.
However, on this wintery day on Wearside, the first leg semi, pitting second division Sunderland against top-flight Villa, was the pinnacle of the footballing calendar. Sunderland had got there by virtue of home wins over Oldham (7-1), Scunthorpe (2-0), Portsmouth (2-1 in a replay, after a 0-0 draw at Fratton Park), and Blackburn Rovers (3-2).
Sunderland had enjoyed Christmas in fine form, sitting second in the table, but back-to-back festive home and away defeats to Bob Stokoe’s Bury had proved to be far more damaging than the simple dropping of four points.
Brian Clough’s Boxing Day injury had ruled him out for a prolonged period of time – it eventually finished his career, of course – while fellow forward Willie McPheat was a long-term absentee too, but a 4-1 away win over Preston in the FA Cup had provided temporary reprieve.
Given the sparsity of the fixture list, league officials were hoping for a 50,000-plus crowd, but it was a more modest 33,237 that braved the elements to see Alan Brown’s team take on future England caretaker manager Joe Mercer’s Aston Villa.
Frank Wignall of Everton, Derek Kevan of West Brom, Leyton Orient’s Dave Dunmore and Keith Ellis of Sheffield Wednesday had all being linked as Brown sought striking reinforcements, but it was Nick Sharkey who led the line on this day 59 years ago.
While the pitch was predictably tricky, it wasn’t dangerous, and it was the visitors who struck first – Vic Crowe was played in by Burrows, and he hammered a left-foot drive past Montgomery, and they made it two just before half-time through Thomson, who tapped home after Nelson cleared a Villa free-kick across his own goal.
Villa’s second goal, however, came immediately after a clear penalty shout was turned down by the referee – Crowe punched the ball away from Sharkey’s head just as the forward was about to head the ball towards goal.
In the second half, playing in something approaching blizzard conditions, Sunderland peppered the Villa goal, and found a way back into the contest thanks to Sharkey, who slammed the ball home at the second attempt.
Sunderland pressed for an equaliser, however, an injury suffered to Montgomery early in the second half eventually caught up with the keeper, who collapsed in his area on 70 minutes and was forced to leave the field.
With no subs at this point in time (it seems remarkable in hindsight that sub keepers weren’t introduced until the 90s), Monty had been forced to carry on until it was physically impossible, and he was replaced in goal by defender Colin Nelson.
Nelson did as well as could be expected of an outfield player in goal, but Villa smelled blood and got an undeserved third late on when the stand-in keeper couldn’t collect a shot from Burrows, and Dougan turned the ball home.
Of course, there was still the matter of the second leg, which took place more than three months after the first – a 0-0 Villa Park draw on Easter Monday securing Villa’s position in the final, where they were beaten by near neighbours Birmingham.
As for Sunderland’s season, the loss of Clough, in particular, was devastating and had a decisive impact on the club’s fortunes. A run of only one win in 10 games in all competitions from the end of March to early May saw the lads exit both cup competitions and drop valuable league points.
We eventually missed out on promotion thanks to a last-day home defeat to Chelsea – after starting the day top of the league and two points ahead of the West Londoners.
No one ever said it was easy being a Sunderland supporter.