It's 1973, and the country is in the grip of the winter of discontent.
The region is badly affected by industrial action and strikes; the streetlights are being switched off to save power, and the phrase “it’s grim up North” never seemed so apt.
Recovery, however, was on the mind of new Sunderland manager Bob Stokoe – and he was beginning to have an impact on Wearside.
Undefeated since his first match in charge and playing some attractive attacking football, fans were starting to buy in to Stokoe and his recovery plan. “Maybe he could give Ted Heath a bit of advice,” my Newcastle-supporting Dad had mused as he gently teased me about the ex-Newcastle player being in charge at Roker Park!
The Lads had managed to negotiate a difficult third-round tie against Notts County in the FA Cup. It had taken a magnificent save by Monty and a replay at a floodlit and noisy Roker Park, but the reward was a fourth round tie at home to Fourth Division Reading – and their manager Charlie Hurley.
I was very excited at the return of the Sunderland legend.
He was my very first Sunderland hero, and at my first game in 1966 I swear he smiled right at me as I watched him career into the Roker End goal attempting to score from a corner.
If the net had not been there, he would have wiped me out from my perch at the front of the boys’ enclosure. From that moment, the Irish Giant had me hook, line and sinker!
As part of his recovery plan, Stokoe had signed three players (and transfer listed Forster, Chambers, Lathan, Tones, Coleman and Pitt!). I was not pleased about Pitt and Coleman being listed. I thought both had done little wrong and were good defenders.
I was suspicious about Stokoe’s return to Newcastle for squad players David Young (a versatile central defender) and Ron Guthrie (a robust left-back).
I had watched all these young players currently around the Sunderland first team make their debuts, as well as starring in the very good youth teams we had from 1966 and felt a strong affinity with them.
When you consider we also had “homegrown” Mick McGiven, Jackie Ashurst and one of my all-time favourites, Joe Bolton, also vying for defensive positions, the last thing I thought we needed was more defenders… especially from Newcastle!
The third player Stokoe had purchased was centre forward John “Yogi” Hughes, Billy Hughes older brother and an ex-Scottish international.
The former Celtic forward had first come on my radar in the fantastic Celtic run to the European Cup in 1966/67, though he was injured for the final. I had very fond memories of listening to the European ties on the radio with my Dad.
A montage of that team adorned my bedroom wall for longer than I care to remember, and “Yogi” featured heavily in the action shots. Bob Stokoe would have been pleased to know that I could see why this kind of player was just what we needed, and in “Yogi”, I was convinced we had bought a goodun’ who was going to help us out of the second division and into Europe!
The week before the Reading tie, we had played Millwall at Roker in a league game and all three players played – Hughes making his debut. Just short of 23,000 fans saw Guthrie and Young turn in good performances and, although I had done my best to get the “feed the bear” chant going in the Fulwell End to welcome “Yogi” to Roker, Hughes had a quiet game.
I thought it was an underwhelming debut, but had not realised that he had sustained an injury in the first ten minutes of the game. Sadly, we never saw “Yogi” play for us again as that injury finished his career. What might have been.
For Stokoe, it was back to the drawing board for a centre forward. The two-nil victory did, however, keep our unbeaten run going and saw us play very well in spells as we headed toward the fourth-round tie and Charlie.
On the way to Roker Park for the game on this day 50 years ago, I was excited to see so many cars and buses with red and white adorning the windows.
The walk to the ground made it clear we were going to see another big crowd, and there was a buzz of anticipation coming from the queues around the stadium.
I had agreed to keep an eye on some younger lads in return for a free ride to the match and had decided the Roker End was probably the safest place to watch both the game and the scallywags I had responsibility for.
Depositing the lads in the Boys' Enclosure, I went to the railing immediately behind (as I had seen parents doing for the previous seven years of attending games). Just as I settled at my berth, out onto the pitch came Charlie Hurley.
It caught me off guard as the big man walked toward the Roker End with the biggest smile and wave as the applause and Roker Roar called out to “one of their own”.
I had a lump in my throat and a stifled tear as I realised that I was just about in the same position in the ground that I had been when I first encountered Charlie. I recalled my first game and that smile from my hero, the very smile he was now aiming in my direction!
In a flash, the teams were out, and the Roker Roar was echoing for their Lads. Charlie would have to take a back seat for 90 minutes.
With John Hughes injured, John Lathan was given the striker's role. David Young would partner Watson in the centre of defence, and Guthrie retained the left-back position.
What a start to this game!
I have heard in recent years an argument from some fans that if the team gives them something to cheer, then they will oblige.
I do not subscribe to this theory of support. My noise for my team is an obligation and is not conditional on being entertained.
So it was this day for the majority of the crowd of just under 34,000. The noise and baying support was there long before kick-off, and in some ways, Hurley’s cameo seemed to have triggered this.
With the crowd pulsing their support, we could have scored three goals in the first five minutes. It was a blistering start with Tueart, Hughes and Kerr all forcing good saves from Reading keeper Steve Death.
With fans and team in symbiotic rhythm, it seemed only a matter of minutes, nay seconds, before we would score.
With Sunderland threatening to run riot, Reading got out of their half for the first time in the game around 12 minutes, forcing two good saves from Monty and a corner kick at the Roker End.
I watched that corner just about make it to the front post expecting one of our Lads to easily head clear, except not one of our Lads were anywhere near it – and Chappell stepped into the space and stuck it in the back of our goal.
If the net had not have been there, it would have hit me in the face. I could hardly believe it, especially after the start we had made. It was a bad goal to concede, marking non-existent and defensive organisation lacking! How would we respond?
The Roker crowd appeared stunned – this was the first goal conceded at Roker in four games, and this was definitely not in the script.
Bobby Kerr and Ian Porterfield quickly got on the front foot with a lovely bit of play leading to a rasping attempt by Billy Hughes, once again producing a great save from Death.
The crowd got going again as attack after attack ensued, and we did everything but score.
Both Kerr and Guthrie had a pop, and Tueart almost got through with a clever give-and-go with Porterfield. All that was preventing an absolute pasting for Reading was their keeper.
With Kerr in particular prompting and probing, and Hughes and Tueart looking dangerous every time they got the ball, the game was starting to resemble the Alamo. But, alarmingly, no equaliser came.
Given his otherwise brilliant display, it was a horrible flap from Death at a Hughes cross on 37 minutes that saw us draw level.
Hughes had chased a ball over the top of the Reading defence, into the corner of the box at the Fulwell End. His first cross was headed strongly out at the near post, but he managed to control the clearance and sent a looping cross to the far post, where Death appeared distracted by Lathan and Porterfield running in and flapped the ball to Tueart – who wasted no time and lashed the ball left-footed back across goal and in at the opposite corner.
Roker Park erupted – probably more in relief than anything else. Given the number of chances saved and missed, it was just beginning to feel like it might not be our day.
The second half followed the same pattern as the first, with Death making great saves from Porterfield, Tueart and Hughes in particular. Dick Malone crashed a cracking shot off the underside of the bar. I really cannot recall Reading threatening our goal at all. Ashurst came on for Kerr 15 minutes from the end, and Watson was pushed up front alongside Lathan, who had been very quiet given our dominance.
It was absolutely frantic action; nonetheless, the Reading rear-guard with Death at the heart of it stood firm.
Then, deep into injury time, one of those moments where time seems to slow down.
The ball arrived at Lathan’s feet just inside the box, he pivoted and struck a shot past Death to send the net bulging.
Cue absolute mayhem. The kids in the Boys’ Enclosure were going bananas, and I found myself about ten metres left of the enclosure along with three or four other parents, as unbridled bouncing ensued (they really should have known better).
I can remember clear as day the face of the grandad I was hugging, and as we came to our senses, it dawned on me the Fulwell End and paddocks seemed mighty quiet given the goal. It is one of the worst feelings thinking you have won a game in injury time only to see the goal chalked off.
Offside was the referee’s verdict, and unlike today’s game, where we are looking at replays from every angle minutes after the incident on our mobiles, I have never seen a replay of that goal.
The game finished seconds later.
It was disappointing not to win, but what a performance from the Lads! All that was missing was a second goal.
I remember Reading goalkeeper Steve Death was warmly applauded by most in the ground as he left the field. Colin Diball in the Mirror wrote “Death made enough saves to merit a place in the Guinness book of Records”. He was not wrong!
I was in a different fettle on the walk back to the car compared to the last tie against Notts County. My head was whirling with the dilemma of the replay. Reading was a bit of a journey, the cost and the no small matter of school would need to be negotiated. The one thing I was sure about was, come hell or high water, I was going!
Our journey home was brightened by the news that Luton had knocked Newcastle out of the cup at St James Park. SuperMac (Malcolm Macdonald) had threatened publicly to run riot against his former club, but this had backfired, and it was John Aston who grabbed the headlines with two good goals and a man-of-the-match performance.
That game was played at the same time as ours, and it was good fun watching the scallywags I had taken to the game, waving at returning Newcastle fans as we made our way back to Morpeth. At least we had another shot at progressing.
The news that we had drawn Man City, the aristocrats of the First Division at Maine Road in Round Five just served to steel my determination to get to Elm Park.
This would require careful planning and maybe even a bit of subterfuge if I was to get my wish...
3 February 1973
FA Cup 4th Round
Roker Park – Attendance 33,913
Sunderland 1 Reading 1 ( Chappell 13’ – Tueart 37’).
Sunderland: Montgomery, Malone, Guthrie, Watson, Young, Horswill, Kerr (Ashurst), Porterfield, Tueart, Lathan, Hughes.
Reading: Death, Dixon, Youlden, Wagstaffe T, Hulme, Wagstaffe B (Butler), Cumming, Chappell, Bell, Hunt, Habbitt.