When 400 Cornsay Park Albion supporters made their way 20-odd miles, changing onto four busses, from the tiny pit village near Esh Winning in County Durham to Roker Park for a Durham Challenge Cup match on a Saturday afternoon, they did so with hope of pulling off the greatest victory in their club’s history - and with good reason.
Sunderland were not having a good season - indeed, it was the worst in our almost 80 year history. Bill Murray’s side had suffered defeat after defeat, and the big money signings had all departed. As the first team slumped to yet another loss, 3-0 away at Preston North End, leaving them rock bottom of Division 1 for the first time, the Reserves were engaged in a battle of their own just to stay in the local amateur cup competition.
Two weeks beforehand the miners of Cornsay they had entertained Sunderland’s Reserve team at their little ground at Penwire Park, with special busses bringing in the crowds from nearby villages and the teams changing at the Royal Oak pub - whose proprietor Mr Stephenson, was the club chairman. Over 1,000 people saw the underdogs take on a Sunderland side that included Scottish international veterans Joe McDonald and Charlie Fleming and future stars like Jimmy McNab.
They had taken the lead after 18 minutes and their keeper Arkwright had saved a penalty from “Cannonball” Fleming, Alan Spence did eventually equalise and Sunderland’s keeper Bollands earned the Man of the Match award as he too saved a spot-kick and the professional side’s blushes before the end.
The first game ended with McDonald talking to the Sunderland Echo’s reporter from the tin bath in front of the fire at the Royal Oak that “Cornsay can be proud of themselves today, they put on a great show”.
So on it was to Roker Park for an unexpected replay, and the biggest game in this little club’s history. Their strike partnership was a pair of brothers, Eddie Kirby and his brother Mark, and both scored a goal a piece as they bravely lost 4-2 to the red and whites. Joe Dumigham got two of the four for the Lads. The Northern Echo recorded the fight that the little side put up quite the show at Roker Park:
They didn’t go down without a huge struggle, it was one of the best reserve games seen at Roker Park all season.
Back in 2006, former miner Robbie Rayner recounted the story of these two encounters to the Northern Echo. telling them that his local club Cornsay a were:
a good side, lot of players from the Newcastle area mind, I think Matty Stephenson, the pub landlord, was slipping them a few bob... I imagine I wanted Sunderland to win that time an’ all, but only because we thought that Cornsay didn’t stand a chance.
It was the game that made him a Sunderland supporter, he carried the programme from Roker Park in his wallet down the pit - the first of a collection of many match day programmes he kept at his home. He even proposed to his future wife Ellen on the terraces of the Fulwell End. Robbie sadly passed away in 2014.
This is what following our club is all about - the history, the traditions, the links between the town and the villages forged in the unique football culture that makes our region so very special to this day.
These games and more memories of County Durham’s rich footballing history are recorded in the wonderful book Caseys, Cups & Canny Lads by Alan Brett, published by the Black Cat Publications in 2004.