For those of you who remember the heady days of Sunderland’s remarkable cup journey, have you ever wondered what it would’ve been like to be one of those players, particularly one of the lads on the fringes before Bob Stokoe arrived?
Well, here’s a player who lived that dream.
This isn’t an opinion piece or a true story. If anything, it’s simply a short series written in tribute to the feats of Sunderland’s heroes of 1973, as witnessed from the pitch itself.
Tweaks have been made in order to reimagine and incorporate our own young ‘Roy of the Rovers’ player, Jim Sharp.
He’s loosely based on someone I knew of the right age, and who had the right doors opened- the powerful young forward could also have joined that magical journey towards lifting the FA Cup under Bob Stokoe…
Stokoe, only appointed in November, was still trying to find the right mix within the squad of players he’d inherited, but there was still some work to be done.
Following more than a decade (during two separate stints as boss) under the watchful eye of Alan Brown, Stokoe needed to change the mood at Roker Park but Sunderland’s cup run had started a bit shakily in the third round.
His charges were fortunate to scrape a replay against Notts County before beating them in a replay at Roker Park just three days later. Goals from Dave Watson and Dennis Tueart set the scene for a home tie with Reading in the fourth round.
We were an improving side under Stokoe, but he was looking for an added spark and the burning question was, did he already have that in a player previously frozen out by Brown, much to the annoyance of the Roker Park crowd and the papers?
To them, youngster Jim Sharp can do no wrong.
He shows the strength to hold up play when required, with the balance and vision to match anyone in Division One, let alone Division Two, and his finishing with that sweet left foot is sublime.
He doesn’t lack fight and has every attribute needed to be a top-class forward, but as his captain Bobby Kerr, once remarked, ‘You don’t have to work or live with him!’
February 3rd 1973,
Sunderland v Reading,
FA Cup fourth round, Roker Park.
On the morning of the game, Stokoe- still struggling for forwards- had made his decision on Sharp after a fitness test.
“Right, lad. I’m giving you the number nine shirt today. Go out there and show us what you’re capable of,” he told a quiet Sharp.
“Fair enough. I’ll not let you down, boss!”
It was anticipated to be the biggest gate of the season for the return of former hero, Charlie Hurley as Reading manager.
“This is your chance, Jimmy boy,” he sighed to himself in the corner.
Later, as he pulled on the shirt, he was approached by Kerr.
“Made the team, eh? Just you show Charlie some respect this time, right?”
“How do you mean?”, replied Sharp.
“Come on, you know what I’m referring to. Your first time training with the first team when Charlie was still here, and by that time somewhat lacking in pace. What did you do?”
“What?”, Sharp asked, knowing full well what Kerr was talking about.
“You rang rings round him. It’s a good job he’s a nice fellow, because if that had been me, I would’ve kicked you up a height,” Kerr sniggered.
“Oh, I do know that,” Sharp muttered, rubbing his calf and remembering his last painful run-in with Kerr’s studs. After all, they didn’t call him ‘The Little General’ for nothing.
“I do know how to act and turn on the charm. I’ll be perfectly respectful, shake his hand, and greet him as the Sunderland great he is,” said Sharp.
“Good, because I was gonna say if you don’t, I’ll shake you by the neck!”
Sharp winked at him, taking it as Kerr’s fabulous sense of no-nonsense Scottish humour.
There was a strange feeling before the match, as the terraces rang out with chants of ‘Charlie, Charlie, Charlie, Charlie!’
There was also a feeling of apprehension about a potential slip up against Hurley’s lower-league charges, but Sunderland had been improving in recent weeks and this was Jim’s big chance following the injury to John Hughes.
However, everyone’s nerves were well-founded and the giant-killing looked to be on as Reading took the lead in the thirteenth minute.
Sunderland were up against it now, and so was Sharp against a towering five-man backline, but it would take something to out-jump him on his day.
It was hard to get the ball down and for him play his normal game but it didn’t stop him hounding defenders, forcing mistakes and creating breaks for others. It was from one of these moments that Sharp stole the ball back and sent Tueart through on goal for the equaliser in the thirty eighth minute.
Sunderland should’ve won the game, had it not been for the inspired form of Reading goalkeeper Steve Death.
As the game wore on, Sharp’s quick feet turned weary legs one way and then another. His mesmerising display had his own fan club chanting his name in the stands, but not everyone was positive.
“Sharp! Stop p***ing about with the b****y ball and finish them off!”, yelled Stokoe.
Despite his effort, fancy footwork, and hitting the target time and again, the match ended level, and Sunderland had a second chance to see off their Division Four opponents.