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FA Cup Fairytale: A Blue Moon in the winter of discontent

Sunderland’s 1972/1973 cup journey took them to Maine Road after seeing off Reading. Kelvin Beattie recalls a memorable day in Moss Side… and an eventful journey there and back!

Photo by Peter Robinson/EMPICS via Getty Images

Our victory over Reading saw us draw Manchester City in the fifth round of the FA Cup, with the game to be played at Maine Road on February 24th 1973.

City had beaten Liverpool in a replay and their manager Malcolm Allison was hyping them up as being ‘Wembley-bound’ and ‘favourites for the trophy’.

Malcolm Allison Photo by Evening Standard/Getty Images

However, Bob Stokoe was quietly beginning to work his magic at Sunderland. The fans were starting to take notice and some were voting with their feet, and returning to watch the phoenix rise from its slumber.

We had a group of young and extremely talented players augmented by a bit of experience, and Stokoe, with the aid of Arthur Cox and Billy Elliott, created a ‘shackles off’, no fear environment that was a privilege to witness- something not too dissimilar to our current team!

From being decidedly underwhelmed at his appointment, I was gradually being won over by Stokoe.

I’d witnessed eight of his ten games in charge up to the Reading victory at Elm Park and I liked what I was seeing. If I had any concerns, they were based around the transfer listing of players such as Keith Coleman and Richie Pitt, and a return to the reserves for one of my favourite players, Joe Bolton.

After all, I was a fourteen-year-old footballing tactician of genius proportions and I felt that Stokoe should’ve taken advantage of my undoubted knowledge and experience in these matters!

Following the Reading victory, Sunderland played Sheffield Wednesday in a league game at Hillsborough. We were beaten 1-0, marking Stokoe’s second defeat since arriving the previous November.

However, we would enjoy better fortune on our next visit.

Soccer - Football League Division Two - Fulham v Sunderland Photo by S&G/PA Images via Getty Images

This game marked Vic Halom’s debut for the club, but the burgeoning central defensive partnership of Dave Watson and David Young was about to be disrupted. Young was injured during the match and it was estimated that he would be out for a month, if not longer.

Following an injury to John Hughes, this was a blow to say the least, as we hadn’t bought a player for two seasons prior to Stokoe’s arrival. Now, three players had been purchased and within three weeks, two of them were injured!

This left Stokoe with a real dilemma.

He’d just let Pitt go on loan to Arsenal and having only selected him once as a substitute, it was fair to assume that Stokoe didn’t fancy Pitt as a player.

Nonetheless, having only been at Arsenal for a few days, Pitt was recalled and paired with Watson at the centre of our defence for our next game, the Wear/Tees derby at Roker Park.

The eleven players that took the field on February 17th would be the same eleven that would trot out at Wembley on May 5th.

The 26,039 fans who joined me on that cold Saturday in February could only have dreamed of a trip to Wembley, but what was apparent was that this team could play and that something exciting was definitely stirring!

We witnessed a rip-roaring performance against a team that had designs on promotion and we destroyed them by four goals to nil in a perfect warm-up for our visit to Maine Road.

Soccer - FA Cup Final - Sunderland v Leeds United Photo by Peter Robinson/EMPICS via Getty Images

All over the pitch, we were alive and energised.

Billy Hughes was almost unplayable, Halom was a real handful, Ian Porterfield stroked the ball all over the park and the partnership between Dick Malone and Bobby Kerr continued to flourish- as if Torvill and Dean had taken up football!

I was particularly drawn to the Watson/Pitt partnership, and freely admit that I wanted to see Pitt stay and cement his place in the team, not least because I’d witnessed his Sunderland debut in 1968/1969 and had also seen him play for our youth team.

He was quick, strong in the air and had a good left foot. He was also brave in the challenge with stamina to burn, and I felt he would be a good foil for Watson, who was an exceptional player and athlete, but primarily right-footed.

Sunderland v Leeds United - FA Cup 2015 Photo by Mark Fletcher/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The partnership wasn’t tested to any great extent against Middlesbrough, but it was a confidence-building performance and I couldn’t wait for Manchester City on their patch.

Stokoe took the team away to Blackpool for three days before the game, to relax and prepare, and I would’ve happily gone with them given the chance as the week passed slowly in the build up to the match.

My finances were always at the back of my mind as I wheeled and dealed to ensure I could fund my flourishing obsession, and in the middle of the week I had good news from my schoolfriend and fellow Sunderland fan Sean.

He and his older brother Patrick had failed to show for the Reading away game. Patrick had sent a message through Sean in deference to their no-show and my subsequent sole walkabout in the beautiful south. I could join them on the train for the City game and the train fare would be taken care of if I kept Sean out of trouble.

I was chuffed to be asked and accepted in a flash, despite the Reading debacle.

Patrick and his mates were all around twenty and were a right laugh. The core of them were railway workers and despite being a rough bunch, I never saw them start any trouble. In fact, they loved banter and a beer with opposition fans, given half a chance.

Despite the offer of a free train ride to Manchester, I could’ve been forgiven a degree of trepidation as I walked into the Central Station and our agreed meeting point on the day of the game.

- Photo by NCJ/Mirrorpix/Mirrorpix via Getty Images

Thankfully Sean, Patrick and about ten of his mates were all gathered as I arrived, to a chorus of ‘waheys’, back-slaps and sarcastic comments about catching the right train, not getting lost and where was my sleeping bag!

Boy, was I looking forward to this trip!

The journey was good fun and there was much hilarity with the guard who turned out to be a City fan. There were also some cracking stories of games and away trips which I loved to listen to. The singing got going after the older lads had drunk a can or two, and it seemed to ricochet from our carriage through the entire length of the train.

Patrick also told a humorous story of his and Sean’s no-show for the Reading game, which had basically been down to their mam finding out and going bananas about them playing hooky and going to the game.

Sean’s Dad worked on the railway and wasn’t happy about the plan and had insisted both lads attend work and school, even though he was a Sunderland fan too. We were in the pre-mobile phone era and not every household had a landline, so there was no way to contact me, though neither of them thought I would still board the train and go myself!

On arrival, it was clear that a sizeable number of Sunderland fans had travelled for this game.

We hopped on a bus and jumped off a mile or so from Maine Road, according to the bus driver. A pub stop and some great banter with City fans saw the older lads promising to return after the game, whatever the result.

I did wonder about this, given our train was due to depart at 7:00pm and the ground was a fair journey from the station. I was also a tad keen to follow Patrick’s instructions to Sean and I to stick close.

I hadn’t been charged for my train journey but I didn’t have a ticket and although my Reading trip had been an adventure to say the least, I wasn’t looking to repeat another lone foray in Manchester.

Soccer - Manchester City Photo by Peter Robinson/EMPICS via Getty Images

If you ever visited Maine Road, you’ll probably know that it was located within the Moss Side area of Manchester. In those days, it was rundown; a rabbit warren of intimidating streets and alleys that a stranger could easily get lost in.

As we got closer to the ground, there was sporadic fighting as gangs of City hooligans were on the lookout for easy targets.

Also, Manchester United’s league game against Crystal Palace had been cancelled due to a frozen pitch and a sizeable group of United fans had marched to Maine Road and were of a mind to join the Sunderland fans, as well as engage in the hooliganism they were particularly noted for at that time.

I was intrigued at a conversation with some of these lads as we were queuing to get in. Of the five we chatted to, four were from London and proudly proclaimed themselves to be the ‘Cockney Reds’. They were skinheads, as were Sean and I, but that was about all we had in common.

The game wasn’t ticketed and the queues were snaking up and down the streets outside of the ground.

The Sunderland fans were making a right noise and by and large, the City fans were friendly enough as we slowly made our way to the gate.

Maine Road had a stand called the Kippax that ran the length of the ground. One half was given over to City fans only, and the other half to Sunderland fans and City fans, so there was no real segregation as 54,478 squeezed in to create a white-hot atmosphere.

English Premiership - Manchester City v Liverpool Photo by Matthew Ashton/EMPICS via Getty Images

Our team selection was the same eleven that started against Middlesbrough, and this would become Stokoe’s go-to eleven, in a 4-3-3 formation for the rest of the cup run.

On three minutes, just as we were getting into full voice, Francis Lee cracked a wicked shot that looked goalbound.

Jimmy Montgomery dived to cover it and as he did so, Rodney Marsh stuck his foot out and deflected the ball towards the opposite corner.

It looked like a goal all the way but City hadn’t banked on Monty, who twisted in mid-air to deflect the ball away to safety.

City dominated the early period of the first half and Hesleden-born Colin Bell was proving that his nickname, the ‘King of the Kippax’, was no fluke as he ruled the midfield, ably assisted by the aggressive and hard-running Tony Towers.

Consequently, Ron Guthrie was struggling to manage Mike Summerbee, who was being fed quality balls that he was making dangerous use of.

Soccer - FA Charity Shield - Manchester City v West Bromwich Albion Photo by Peter Robinson/EMPICS via Getty Images

The ascendency of the Sky Blues at this point was worrying, and I thought we were going to be overwhelmed.

However, as so often used to happen back then, a cracking tackle by Watson sparked the Sunderland fans into raucous support.

The Lads seemed to respond, with Micky Horswill winning a tackle and feeding Porterfield, who slid a lovely ball into space for the onrushing Hughes. The move came to nothing, but it had turned City for the first time in the match.

On sixteen minutes, however, we fell behind.

Bell fed Summerbee, who skipped past Guthrie and shot. Pitt blocked it and the rebound came to Mick Doyle who seemed to miscontrol the ball, but in doing so it evaded Pitt on the follow-up and was nicely positioned for Towers to arrow a shot in off the post to put City one up.

This setback seemed to trigger Sunderland, as Malone and Kerr exchanged passes to set Dennis Tueart away, and then Porterfield found Hughes who turned the City defence with another rumbustious run. Horswill was getting a foot in on Bell and Porterfield began to see a bit more of the ball as the half wore on.

On thirty six minutes, Joe Corrigan in the City goal was awarded a free kick after some Sunderland pressure, with Horswill the transgressor.

The keeper played a short pass to Willie Donnachie, but with Horswill bearing down on him, he stepped into the box and passed it back to Corrigan, necessitating a retake.

With the sun in his eyes, Corrigan looked up to survey his options and Horswill, sensing another opportunity, ducked behind Tommy Booth. The keeper attempted the same short ball to Donnachie but misplaced his pass.

What happened next, I seemed to see in slow motion as the ‘Ginger Ninja’ gathered the ball, and in one beautiful movement. flicked it over Donnachie’s head and volleyed it past the advancing Corrigan.

Soccer - Football League Division Two - Fulham v Sunderland Photo by S&G/PA Images via Getty Images

It was an audacious piece of skill, and every bit as good as Paul Gascoigne’s goal against Scotland.

Whilst the goal triggered bedlam amongst Sunderland fans, it also incited an idiot to throw a dart into our section of the terrace, which hit the chap right in front of me in the neck.

He was a City fan who’d already had some friendly enough chat with us, and I realised how lucky he’d been that it had pierced soft tissue and not a major blood vessel or his eye!

He was led away by first aiders with the dart still protruding and it was only much later in the evening when I realised that it could very easily have hit me.

As the half drew to a close, Hughes and Tueart made good runs at the City defence and Sunderland left the field to loud applause and chants echoing around Maine Road.

The second half saw us pick up where we’d left off. Guthrie in particular had gotten to grips with Summerbee, and Horswill with Bell.

Consequently, when City had the ball, they were either playing it long or up the centre of the pitch, which was delighting Watson and Pitt who seemed to head, hit, and tackle anything that came their way.

Watson’s move to centre back, having been bought as a centre forward by previous manager Alan Brown, was an inspired piece of judgement that I believe Billy Elliott takes a bit of credit for.

Dave Watson Photo by Evening Standard/Getty Images

Not only was he a formidable defender but like Hurley before him, he could see a pass and loved to run the ball out of defence. Pitt, whilst less inclined to run the ball, had a good left foot on him.

Both were able to use these skills in this game as we began to stamp some authority on proceedings!

Midway through the half, we broke away and scored. Malone played the ball to Kerr in the middle of our half, and he controlled it, drew his man and dinked the ball to Tueart who was on it in a flash.

He took it a couple of steps and arrowed a lovely pass to the galloping Hughes, who still had plenty to do.

Hughes careered forward at pace with the City defence chasing him. As he broke into the box it looked like Jeffries was going to catch him, but the Scot coolly shifted the ball from left to right before sidestepping the now prone defender and hammering a shot past the hapless Corrigan.

The goal was no more than we deserved and it lit up the away support, though I remember jumping up and down with my hands on my head just in case the dart thrower decided to have another go!

We were still celebrating when four minutes later, a Summerbee corner was palmed into his own net by Montgomery.

In real-time, it looked like a foul as Marsh appeared to jump into Monty whilst clearly not challenging for the ball. I really felt sorry for our goalkeeper, who’d been magnificent in the first half when we were under pressure.

Once again the fans responded by urging the Lads on, and they didn’t disappoint.

Soccer - Football League Division Two - Sunderland Photo by Peter Robinson/EMPICS via Getty Images

Our defence held firm as City tried to exert some pressure in the closing stages, but they were nervous of our counterattack. Halom was holding the ball up well and playing in the ever-willing Hughes and Tueart on the break.

I came to love Halom’s callous disregard for reputation. He was frightened of nobody and if anything, the bigger your reputation, the more likely it was that he’d be right at you.

For all the City pressure in the closing stages, we actually had the best chances.

Halom almost scored from a great Tueart run and cross, and Hughes forced a good save from Corrigan. Meanwhile, sandwiched in between all this was a sending off.

Towers and Horswill had clashed on more than one occasion in the second half. I think Towers could see that Horswill was nullifying Bell and tried to counter this by goading and hassling the youngster.

Horswill responded well, not reacting but continuing to get stuck in with intelligence and in the end, it was Towers who reacted and was sent for an early bath. I was relieved that he wouldn’t be available for the replay, because I felt he’d been City’s best player.

Soccer - Manchester City Photo by Peter Robinson/EMPICS via Getty Images

The game finished and I wasn’t sure who was most relieved- us or the City fans, but what a cup tie we’d witnessed.

It had everything, our players had given their all, and I felt a genuine sense of pride. We’d played on the home turf of one of the best teams in the country and more than matched them. Sunderland were definitely on the up!

In the mid-eighties, I lived and worked in Doncaster for a year and worked with a City fan who was at this game. He said he’d never stood in such a crowd or experienced such a noise.

Having roared our approval to the Lads for ten minutes or so after the final whistle, it was time to think about heading for the train. After the melee outside the ground, it was a wonder we all made it back to the station and it was no easy journey, with fisticuffs and handbags on a couple of occasions.

Discretion was the better part of valour, and the older lads decided not to return to the pub we’d visited on the way to Maine Road.

By the time we arrived at the station, we’d picked up a few stragglers and our number had just about doubled. In an unfortunate bit of timing, we entered the station just as a sizeable number of police and three police dogs were sweeping the interior.

At first, I think they thought we were troublemakers, and there’s nothing that knocks the swagger out of a cocky lad than a police dog straining at its leash to get at you!

Patrick was quick to ease the stand-off, explaining that the train on the platform was ours and we really wanted to get on it. The police duly obliged, escorting us through and right onto the train, which wasn’t our scheduled train but was going to Newcastle.

Once settled, it was quickly apparent that there had been serious trouble at the station. A large number of fans had missed the earlier trains and some had been set upon by City hooligans, to which some Sunderland supporters had reacted.

The train was absolutely packed and the conversation quickly moved on to the game and the replay, specifically the all-ticket arrangements. According to one fan, tickets would be on sale on Monday with the game scheduled for Tuesday night, which we took as gospel!

A few cans were opened, the singing started again, and the Charlie Hurley song got an airing. I joined in despite my raspy throat- I’d sung myself hoarse at the game and I wasn’t the only one. Vic Halom’s song was then reverberating up and down the carriages. It was a cracker but I always struggled to remember the words!

What should’ve been a three-hour journey turned into a five-hour-plus marathon as we were shunted into sidings on a number of occasions. It was after midnight when we pulled into Newcastle, and bitterly cold when we alighted the train.

My Dad had insisted on picking me up but probably would’ve been waiting two hours or more. He was waiting at the platform gate as I strolled through.

He offered Sean and Patrick a lift over to Denton Burn rather than them getting a taxi, because he was canny like that!

It started snowing as we hit the A1 and headed north, and Dad reminded me that I had to be up for my paper round the next morning- he must’ve been reading my tired mind.

As the snow gently fell, little did I realise that, on what was the coldest night of the year so far, fans were already starting to queue at Roker Park. The information on the train was wrong and I was blissfully unaware that tickets were scheduled to go on sale at 10.30am on Sunday morning.

I went to my bed with my brain replaying moments of the game. I dreamt of a Ginger Ninja in a martial arts suit flicking balls over Rodney Marsh’s head as animated policemen and smiling alsatians cheered from behind the goal!

The next morning, Dad woke me at 5.45am with a cup of tea and some toast to pack me off to my paper round. It was Baltic outside but I had a lovely warm glow inside to keep me going!

The team had arrived back at Roker Park at 12.30am, having stopped off for a meal on the way, and they were astounded to find some fans already at the ground.

By 3:00am, an estimated three thousand fans were huddled in cars and under blankets outside the ground and some local shops had opened up, selling warming essentials including Bovril to the shivering masses.

Soccer - Sunderland Photo by Peter Robinson/EMPICS via Getty Images

By 8:00am on Sunday morning, extra police had been drafted in to manage the crowd and the traffic in and around Roker Park.

With an estimated 20,000 wrapped around the ground, the club began the ticket sales at 9:00am and within three hours, a remarkable 49,000 tickets were sold for the replay. The phoenix had risen!

I can express my thoughts on this reasonably well now, but when I heard on the local news about ticket sales and the crowds that had responded later that Sunday afternoon, I can tell you there was nothing reasonable in my thoughts or words.

How the hell was I going to get a ticket now?!?

FA Cup fifth round

February 24th, 1973.

Maine Road, Manchester

Attendance: 54,478

Manchester City 2 (Towers, Montgomery OG)

Sunderland 2 (Horswill, Hughes)

Manchester City: Corrigan, Book, Donnachie; Doyle (Mellor), Booth, Jefferies, Summerbee; Bell, Lee, Marsh; Towers.

Sunderland: Montgomery, Malone, Guthrie; Watson, Pitt, Porterfield; Horswill, Kerr, Hughes, Halom; Tueart (Chambers).


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