The 1972/73 season had not started well.
Alan Brown had paid the price with a mutual termination of his contract, and with the winter of discontent in full throttle - as prices rose and wages were frozen - it seemed to me that Sunderland’s fortunes matched the depressing mood of the region if not the country.
Attendances had fallen to a mean average of just over 14,000 as working-class folk prioritised their hard-earned cash, and a misfiring football team was not going to be high on that list.
The miners’ strike in 1972 had taken a toll on the region. As the festive period approached it seemed that every week more strikes commenced, and layoffs were announced. Money was tight for most working-class folk, and especially in our house, with me and four other siblings to feed and clothe.
My Dad, a grafter and highly regarded civil engineer’s engineer (that’s how he described his job), was struggling with an eye complaint that would over the course of the next few short years take his sight and his ability to work.
As for me, I was 14 year-old, football mad and Sunderland daft and applied my not inconsiderable fiscal ingenuity in the face of the difficulties at home, to a variety of cash producing schemes which included a Sunday paper round, helping on a market stall, helping an aged family friend in her confectionary shop, helping the park-keeper tidy Morpeth “paddley pool” area, I also worked in the school dining room and kitchens at lunch-time which not only ensured a good feed for my then hollow legs but also a subtle income trading extra courses to more affluent regular pundits. Last of all, but probably the most rewarding - gambling, in the school toilets and back of the gym, toss-a-penny was my particular favourite, though 3-card-brag also generally bought results too.
It sounds chaotic but somehow, I managed to feed my Sunderland fix and gravitated to fairly regular away games as well as my ‘entitled’ trips to Roker for every home game.
Brown’s departure had triggered a lot of rumours with ex-players Clough, Revie, and Len Ashurst in the frame. Tommy Docherty, Jackie Charlton and Dave Mackay were also being talked up in the press. I learned much later that chairman Keith Collings had interviewed Clough, Revie and Stokoe, who had seemed to me at the time to be the longshot of all the names in the frame!
The announcement of Bob Stokoe as manager on the 20th of November in the press completely underwhelmed me. My feelings were not helped by my dad, who was a Newcastle fan as a boy and young man and delighted in telling me all about the Newcastle team that Stokoe played in, what an honest upright professional he was and what a good job he would do (dad was not wrong, I just did not know it then). My mood was not helped by the news that Stokoe would not take the reins until Blackpool’s League Cup run was done!
Clough had seemed to be the fans' choice - what were the board playing at? At the time this appeared to be a cheap option, a lot of younger fans did not know who Stokoe was! The older fans who did know who he was inevitably referenced his Newcastle roots. I remember being told as well that some of the younger Sunderland players had no idea who he was. This appointment seemed like out of the frying pan into the fire to many of us at the time!
What I had not considered, was that Blackpool were doing very well under Stokoe and were mounting a credible promotion challenge. Stokoe was prepared to leave and come back to his native Northeast to a team struggling at the wrong end of the table. I heard much later that Stokoe who had been born and raised in Mickley not far from Prudoe, was the son of a Sunderland supporting miner, I wish I had known this at the time, I might have been a lot less negative about his appointment.
Stokoe took up the reigns on November 26th 1972, the day after his Blackpool team had lost their quarter-final replay against Wolves. Sunderland allegedly paid £12,000 in compensation to Blackpool to release him from his contract. I can remember being particularly upset about this payment, we had not paid a fee for a player for almost two years and here we were paying good money for a manager a lot of fans had not even heard of, I was not happy!
16,800 turned up for Stokoe’s first game in charge, a home game against Jimmy Adamson’s Burnley, which we lost by the only goal of the game. I remember getting home that night and telling dad that Stokoe was welcome to go back to Newcastle, little did I know I would soon be singing a different song (to the tune of amazing grace).
The Lads had followed up the Burnley defeat with a 3-2 win at Portsmouth and a 0-0 draw at home to Preston. Despite the draw, I was able to report an improvement in attacking play and a sense of unlucky not to bag the two points to my dad, who had assumed the role of my chief tormentor where Stokoe was concerned.
A flu epidemic then hit the club leading to the cancellation of our festive programme. Stokoe himself was laid up with the illness, but allegedly used the break to analyse what was required to take the team forward. He returned to work and promptly bought David Young and Ron Guthrie from our near neighbours Newcastle. Both were experienced defenders and came highly recommended by Stokoe’s good friend and Newcastle manager Joe Harvey.
Stokoe also put an offer in for former Sunderland centre forward John O’Hare at Derby. There was not a great relationship between Clough and Stokoe, which stemmed from the day Clough was injured playing against Bury in 1962. Many will have seen the photograph of Clough and Bury keeper Chris Harker as the injury occurred. The other Bury player in that picture is Stokoe, who allegedly accused Clough of trying to con the referee by diving. Clough apparently never forgot the slight, refused the approach and Stokoe would need to look elsewhere.
The Lads returned to action at home to Brighton with an all-action 4-0 victory on January 6th, I really enjoyed this game, not just for the goals, but the manner of the performance. All over the pitch we had players who were strutting their stuff in a manner hitherto unseen. Stokoe would have appeared to have used the enforced lay-off to his advantage. I was excited by this gallous display, these players were just about the same players who had been struggling under previous manager Brown, what had Stokoe done to bring about this early change.
I later learned that he had indeed made a big early impact with the players. With a more relaxed approach and personal style, I read somewhere that one of the differences between Brown and Stokoe, was players probably respected Brown but liked Stokoe. He made other changes, changing the colour of the shorts back to black, which went down very well with older fans. He also initiated the repair of the Clock stand clock, which had not worked for years, all visible signs to the fans that the club was getting its act together and moving forward.
My attendance at home games was generally accepted as a given by my parents by this stage. Away games were a different matter! I had to have a water-tight description of where, who with and how, as well as expected time of return. This was not always easy to provide, and I would find myself the wrong side of familial discipline on a number of occasions as I worried the living day-lights out of my loving parents in the pre-mobile phone era, with late night/early morning returns well past the eta’s I had given them!
None the less, Stokoe was starting to work his magic on me and I was determined to get to our next game at Meadow Lane in the 3rd round of the FA Cup against Notts County.