Sunderland’s Wembley stadium wins have all been whilst wearing their traditional red and white stripes, but next door at the Arena there was an altogether different look for the Lads as they took glory 44 years ago today.
Clad in an all white change kit for the final of Daily Express National Five-a-side Football Championship, the less familiar format saw them overcome Brighton & Hove Albion and win the competition in style following a near flawless set of performances.
With a league fixture at Orient scheduled for the weekend an initial 15 man playing squad travelled down to the capital earlier in the day, with those selected for the additional event seemingly going into it with a relaxed attitude – the overriding feeling being that if they suffered an early exit, it would at least mean they could head off and enjoy a few drinks in London the same night.
The tournament didn’t feel like an immediate priority for Ken Knighton either, who was due to meet up with transfer target Claudio Marangoni whilst in the big smoke and therefore asked his coach Peter Eustace to oversee things courtside.
The day before travelling south, a huge breakthrough in the potential move for the San Lorenzo midfielder had been made with Marangoni resolving queries over his Italian citizenship and work permit eligibility, and with two of the biggest hurdles now cleared the boss was keen to push the deal through.
This casual approach to the championships perhaps helped Sunderland come their first game, a 2-0 win over a strong Ipswich Town. Keeping the ball moving and using the boards as much as possible, the outfield picks of Shaun Elliott, Kevin Arnott, Mick Buckley, Stan Cummins and John Cooke gave the perfect blend of solidity and skill needed in tight areas, and gave the impression of being utterly relaxed as they did so.
Both the goals in the opening victory came from Arnott, whose passing and guile were ideal for this style of football, and as things went on his influence continued.
Arnott was to be the evening’s outright top scorer, but at the other end goalkeeper Chris Turner’s contribution was just as important. His reflexes and agility ensured that he finished unbeaten – no mean feat considering the end to end nature of the matches and the fact that three of the four teams the Lads faced were in the top division.
Top tier West Bromwich Albion were seen off in round two as Arnott and then Elliott notched for another 2-0 scoreline and then it was onto a semi-final against the only other Division Two club Sunderland would face.
There was to be no drop in tempo though given that it was Newcastle United, with the old adage that Wearside and Tyneside would want to get one over the other no matter what the level proving as true as ever. Future Roker loanee Steve Hardwick was beaten four times as his side was shown no mercy by Sunderland, Cummins this time joining Arnott in the scoring with a brace each.
The run then culminated with the Lads going up against the Seagulls. Albion were expected to be tough opponents having beaten Scottish invitees Rangers plus reigning champions Crystal Palace en route to the final, but Sunderland’s ability to beat a man and show a touch of class in possession gave them the edge. The tie ended in another 2-0 win, with Arnott and captain Buckley getting the goals in front of an appreciative packed house.
It was an enjoyable and hard earned triumph yet the following day some of the local press still led with the developments in the Marangoni story – an indication possibly that being Five-a-side winners was a bonus more than anything else. It certainly helped the increasing feel good factor around the place however, with what would prove to be an ultimately successful promotion push starting to take shape; Knighton had already spent big in recent weeks, and his latest target was about to see him break the club’s transfer record again.
The October arrival of John Hawley had seen the old figure of £200,000 being matched, whilst Wembley participant Cummins had only just come on board a fortnight before his arena show. A nightmare to defend against on any sized pitch, the £300,000 fee paid for him was quickly eclipsed by the amount originally agreed for Marangoni when he eventually signed the following Monday, although in the end only £230,000 of the £380,000 figure was ever paid as after the protracted chase he was unable to settle.
Transfer news has always been used to sell papers but there were other forms of media to fall back on and TV viewing Sunderland fans of the time will no doubt remember the occasion fondly, whether it received top billing elsewhere or not.
This was despite them having to make do footage later on in the night as opposed to live coverage, but in the pre-internet days not knowing the outcome when you sat down on the couch somehow added to the experience.
Highlights were shown on BBC One’s iconic Sportsnight programme, presented by Harry Carpenter and with commentary by John Motson. The Radio Times had actually advertised clips from a European title bout in Wembley too, but the boxing match in question didn’t take place in the end. There was no guarantee it would have still featured anyway, given this was during a period of increasing industrial action at the Beeb, and having seen the sporting schedules decimated following the walk out of hundreds of production technicians earlier in the week neutral viewers were probably happy to just take any action they could get.
Somewhat bizarrely, a Floodlit Trophy (Rugby League) match was replaced with a repeat of the British Open golf from two years earlier, whilst some snooker programming was ditched altogether. Other areas were impacted too, and instead of a new episode of Parkinson being broadcast after SAFC’s trophy lift a hastily arranged rerun from the previous series was shown instead. Strikes were nothing new and there was to be further disruption towards the end of the season – Sunderland’s promotion may not have even been covered in the town’s own newspaper had the presses not started rolling again at the Echo in the hours before they beat West Ham United and confirmed going up.
As for the earlier Daily Express triumph, proceedings commenced with the Lads in their first choice colours against Ipswich, who included George Burley in their starting five and would later see him leave Portman Road for Roker Park. Turner understandably wore padded joggers throughout, whilst come the Brighton & Hove showdown his teammates had switched to all white. Both outfield shirts seen at the venue, which was still being referred to as the Empire Pool in some quarters even tough it had been renamed the year before, have recently been rereleased by Sunderland in the form of reproductions.
Complete with large ship crest and authentic Umbro detailing, the tops include the famous ‘double diamond’ logo of the manufacturer – ironic perhaps as if the players did manage to get out for that drink it may well have been the beer of the same name. Older supporters tuning in to Sportsnight may have toasted victory with a can or two as well, whilst younger fans that stayed up late and celebrated seeing Sunderland winning a national title all those years ago could now be considering purchasing said shirts for their own Five-a-side exploits.
Wednesday 28 November 1979
Daily Express National Five-a-side Football Championship
Squad: Chris Turner, Shaun Elliott, Kevin Arnott, Mick Buckley, Stan Cummins, John Cooke.
First Round: 2-0 v Ipswich Town (Arnott 2)
Second Round: 2-0 v West Bromwich Albion (Arnott, Elliott)
Semi-final: 4-0 v Newcastle United (Arnott 2, Cummins 2)
Final: 2-0 v Brighton & Hove Albion (Arnott, Buckley)
Wembley Arena, attendance c. 8,000