The winter of 1984-85 was a bleak time in the north east of England. The Miners’ Strike had been ongoing since the previous March, and as union strike pay ran out and food ran low, desperate hunger scabs began to be peeled off the picket lines. The resolve of our communities - in the face of the brutal, unforgiving power of the British state - started to break.
But even though they too were in the doldrums, fighting at the wrong end of the league, Sunderland AFC had the chance to give people a little hope in the form of a good old-fashioned cup run. As Len Ashurst told the Chronicle:
Cup football has a magic of its own and we have the opportunity tonight to give the whole area a lift. It’s up to the lads to grasp it.
The League Cup Quarter Final against Watford was, according to the Sunderland boss, the most important game of the season for his struggling side. Despite being in terrible form in the league, Sunderland had earned their place in the final eight of the Milk Cup with a 2-1 win in a replay away at Tottenham Hotspur in December 1984.
The Wearsiders were huge underdogs and were without a host of first-team regulars for this fixture, but did get clearance for new signing Ian Wallace to play following his return to Britain after a short spell at French club Brest.
The former Scottish international and Nottingham Forrest striker started on the bench, with John Cook in the starting eleven in place of Howard Gayle and young David Corner in defence. The lads were also missing Rueben Agboola, Gary Bennett, Mark Proctor, Stan Cummings and David Hodgeson. But Ashhurst was confident that he knew how to win the game:
The adrenalin is already pumping. Only once in a while do you get an opportunity like this. The prize for getting through is enormous. We would just be a two-legged semi-final from Wembley.
Future national team boss Graham Taylor had built the Hornets into a force to be reckoned with, finishing runners-up in both the league in 1982-83 and the FA Cup in 1983-84. Watford’s starting eleven included notable names including England stars John Barnes and Luther Blissett, as well as a 24-year-old Tony Coton in goal.
The pitch was frozen and patched up with black cinders in the goalmouths and centre-circle, but the match went ahead in front of over 22,000 spectators at Vicarage Road, including a significant and vocal travelling band of Lads fans. It all created a wonderful cup atmosphere under the lights in Hertfordshire that was captured by the TV cameras that broadcast the game.
Sunderland started quickly and Cook had the biggest opportunity of the first 45 minutes early on, skying one unmarked from eight yards out after Colin West had headered the ball across goal from a looping cross into the box from Barry Venison.
Chris Turner was on good form throughout, making a string of first half saves and cutting out crosses before they could reach their targets - invariably Barnes or Blissett. Half time came and went with the scores level, and the first chance of the second period fell to the hone side’s tricky Worrell Stirling, but his shot for 20 yards was again stopped by Truner.
Shortly afterward Clive Walker received a quick free kick on the left wing, cut inside, and had a pot shot. it was clearly headed wide before it deflected off Nick Pickering’s back, wrong-footed Coton, and nestled into the bottom corner.
The goal is credited in the records as it was in the next day’s papers as being the former Chelsea man Walker’s tenth of the season, but the video evidence would suggest that it should have been credited to the midfielder.
Pickering later said he wouldn’t be claiming it, and no matter whose it was, the team celebrated widely on the pitch and the Mackems in the stands were in raptures.
Rounds of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” and “Falling in Love With You” rang out from the Sunderland faithful as Watford piled on the pressure in the final stages of the game. Two glorious opportunities fell to defender Steve Terry in the final stages following corners from the left, but his shots were tame and smothered by Turner once more.
Upon the final whistle, the scenes in the away end were what we would these days spread gleefully around social media with the comment “limbs”. People climbed the pillars of the terracing as the players went over to share the moment with the Sunderland faithful. The joy was clear for all to see.
There seems to have been something of a release of pent-up emotion and energy, a dozen years after the glories of 1973, three years since Watford had demolished the Lads 8-0, with jobs and families and industries being destroyed back home; at least Sunderland were back on the hunt for silverware.
Ashurst paid tribute to the 5,000 who had come down to cheer them on, even after five straight defeats in the league:
We have given them nothing in the last month or so. Yet they turned out in their droves tonight. I hope we have re-paid some of that debt of gratitude. This has to be the best feeling of my career. I know what this will mean to the north east.
At times in the last month or so we have been shocking. But now we have given the area something to be proud of.
The manager singled out 18-year-old David Corner as having done fantastically well to cope with the threat of Luther Blissett, and the hero of the evening, Chris Turner, was described by the man who had himself been a legend in his over 400 games for the club, as having the safest hands in the business.
Turner also praised the supporters after the game:
That win was for them. Around 1,500 of the stood in the pouring rain in the opening round at Crystal Palace. Here they were again, having travelled down after a month of misery.
Alas, despite coming through the money-spinning Semi-Final against Chelsea and being presented with a golden opportunity to lift the trophy for the first time against fellow relegation candidates Norwich City, it wasn’t to be.
Corner would again be singled out at the end of this cup run, but that time as the scapegoat for the Wembley loss by some unforgiving locals, and as a result of the impact of the goading from his fellow Sunderland fans, he would never achieve his potential in the game.
There is perhaps a lesson in this story that’s relevant to today; when times are tough for our people and our communities, football can bring us joy, solace, and a short-lived collective escape from the troubles of the world around us. But we should always remember that the players and managers are also human beings, they live to play the game for us and invariably want us to share their success. They also feel our pain.