5.5.73 – perhaps the most iconic and important date for Sunderland fans born in the second half of the 20th century.
For me, it came second only to my marriage eleven years later.
For the sake of full disclosure, I was born on 19 January 1955 in Sunderland General Hospital, and The Lads were top of Football League Division One that day. Sunderland was a very different place then, being the biggest shipbuilding town in the world. My dad moved north to work in a firm closely associated with the marine industry.
This book tries to put into words the story of Sunderland in the decades up to the 1972-3 season, the FA Cup run itself, and the truly amazing final versus Leeds United - which still stirs up great emotions and pride among our fans - but the rather sad sequel is featured as the supremely talented team that had won our last major honour started breaking up.
In fact, we weren’t promoted back to Division One until 1976.
A lot of this book puts the mid-20th century history of Sunderland Association Football Club into context. We were a top league, First Division side from our founding in 1879 until 1958. The mid-1950s scandal that rocked our football club to its core and resulted in fines and bans from football involvement for the chairman and three directors of the former “Bank of England” club is very well described. “Mr. Smith” - the whistleblower - has never been identified. The club was found guilty of payments in excess of the minimum wage.
I came from a non-football family; my dad took me to rugby internationals at Murrayfield when I was a kid, but I guess going to school in Newcastle had several formative effects on me. First, I was surrounded by fans of The Scum and secondly, RGS was a rugby school, to the extent that our maths teacher, Johnny Elders left suddenly in Autumn 1971 to become England Rugby coach… not the most successful, but the first to engineer a win in New Zealand.
The early 70s were times when industrial decline was reaching Wearside - a place formerly blessed by a coming together of coal, iron ore, steel, a river estuary and great industrial engineering minds. The FA Cup win was a welcome distraction from the backdrop of the battle between the Heath government and Arthur Scargill, President of the National Union of Mineworkers.
Stokoe Joins Sunderland
There is astonishing detail in the book about Bob Stokoe’s early footballing career and his transition to management, mainly with lower league teams trying to re-establish themselves, such as Bury, Charlton, Carlisle and Blackpool.
To be honest that is what Sunderland were trying to do when Stokoe joined as manager. He took over on 29 November 1972 when we were fourth from bottom of the Second Division table after a run of just four wins in eighteen games. Although his first game in charge was a 1–0 loss to Burnley at Roker Park, the following week seemingly liberated players won 3–2 away at Portsmouth, starting a run of thirty-two games, with just five defeats.
Long-serving manager Alan Brown was sacked to make way for the former Newcastle man, and the styles could not be any different. Brown had built a promising side, as he had an emphasis on youth, but they performed in a straitjacket mode that forbade much creative play. The book points out how Brown’s disciplined approach inspired Brian Clough’s management style, with players being told exactly what to do, and carrying out strict instructions.
Stokoe changed all that as he encouraged the FA Cup-winning team to just play, express themselves and use their amazing talent, as well as their chemistry as a team.
The signings he made, striker Vic Halom as well as defenders Ron Guthrie and 1973 substitute David Young, all excelled, and with the new style completed the team built by Brown. There was a lot of stability in terms of the player roster in those days, so this squad of players knew each other very well.
Leeds’ Style of Football
It was when he was manager of Bury that former Sunderland player Don Revie tried to bribe Stokoe with cash to toss a game. The eventual Leeds manager, appointed in 1961, had a great footballing brain - but a reputation for being money-obsessed followed him, and unproved allegations of bribery and financial misconduct also tarnished his reputation, even when he later became England manager in 1974.
Football fans who were not around in the 1970s do not understand how cynical and unpleasant this Leeds side was. They were nasty, intimidated referees and committed atrocious fouls, and this is thoroughly documented in the book. The point was made that Revie insisted that the team closed down games after scoring the first goal.
They were a very physical side in times when many fouls went unpunished.
I saw a 1-0 Leeds victory at Roker on a midweek Wednesday in October 1968 which showed how nasty, niggling and downright unpleasant Leeds could be. They were ruthlessly efficient, intimidated referees but also had great footballing talent. They repeated the spectacle and won 1-0 at St. James’ Park the following Saturday.
Bob Stokoe was outstanding in the way he handled and motivated players but had an ability to bear a grudge. He had good reason to dislike Revie and he constantly wound him up in the media ahead of the 1973 FA Cup Final, playing the talented underdog card very well.
He made sure that the Sunderland team were relaxed, while the Leeds team appeared tense and concerned, in the context of our already having beaten Manchester City and Arsenal with displays of great, flowing football.
Stokoe’s mind games up to the final, which made Alex Ferguson look like an amateur, continued as the teams walked out at Wembley. He was smiling and in a red tracksuit, and kept his distance, never making eye contact with Revie, who was smartly dressed but edgy.
The unforgettable final is described in great detail, with player interviews interspersed throughout the book. I have previously summarised the stunning FA Cup run on these pages - click here to read it, if you’d like.
Sadly, Bob Stokoe eventually resigned in October 1976 with the team bottom of the top league after a home defeat by Aston Villa, citing health problems. Only Bobby Kerr and Billy Hughes remained in his last selected team, with Jimmy Montgomery injured.
The story is so Sunderland, failing to plan and build a squad after a successful period; then letting talented, valuable players such as Dave Watson, Dennis Tueart as well as Micky Horswill leave the club.
It’s a great tome, which I was unaware of until I saw it in a charity shop.
I choose to remember May 5th 1973 as one of the best days of my young life, which sealed my future as a Sunderland fan, through good and bad days.
This book brings it all back to life in a remarkable way.