Our replay with Charlie Hurley’s Reading in the Fourth Round of the FA Cup at Elm Park in early February 1973 presented me with a huge dilemma.
Not only was I very short of funds, but I was 100% sure if I were to seek my parents' approval to go to the game, the answer would be “No, not on a school night”!
Bob Stokoe’s revival of my team had completely hoovered me up. I had seen all the games at Roker Park since his arrival as manager in November 1972 and I had gone to the Notts County away tie in the previous round of the cup.
I was absolutely convinced we were on the up, and I was not going to miss one bit of the red and white Phoenix rising from the ashes.
I fairly quickly resolved my cash flow issues by selling a whole load of “Charlie Buchan’s Football Monthly” and five “Charlie Buchan Soccer Gift Book’s” (I wonder what they are worth now?). I also sold an Adidas T-Shirt (it was a recent Christmas present but as long as my Mam did not find out, I would be ok)!
This, with my Sunday paper round money and anything I could raise/win at school on the Monday and Tuesday before the game, would fund my expedition down South.
When I arrived at school (an all-boys catholic grammar school in the leafy South Gosforth area of Newcastle) on the Monday, I still had no idea how I was going to manage this trip.
I sought out my fellow Sunderland fan Sean.
We played on the footy team together and I had already been to a couple of games with him, his older brother and pals.
My luck was in. Sean’s older brother had already agreed that Sean could accompany him and his pal to the game, even though that meant him skiving school. Sean was sure his brother would have no problem with me coming too.
All I needed now was a plausible story that would raise no suspicions at home.
Sean again came to my rescue.
I had stayed over at Sean’s a couple of times when we had been playing midweek matches for the school. I would tell my parents I had football and was staying at Sean’s; they had allowed this in the past because it meant I was not gadding around Newcastle late into the evening by myself!
I convinced myself I had a fool-proof plan, and this was not a lie... I did have footy! What could go wrong?
What went wrong was I arrived at our meeting point in Newcastle’s Central Station a few minutes late, our train was already on the platform and Sean, his brother and pal were nowhere in sight.
With very little pause for thought, I boarded the train, and it left the station. An hour or so later, having walked the train from stem to stern twice, I realised Sean and his brother were not on this train.
The fact I had never travelled any further than Sunderland from my Morpeth home on public transport alone never crossed my mind. I was far too busy grappling with the new dilemma of how I get to Elm Park once I arrive in London, without Sean’s brother to show me the way.
Once again, lady luck, fate, call it what you will, lent a hand.
I had noticed a couple of Sunderland fans getting stuck into some cans when I was searching for Sean, and I decided I would ask them for some directions to Elm Park, in the hope they might let me tag along with them.
Chris and Tom spotted my scarf as I entered their carriage and hailed me to come across. They were both in their 30s and had taken a couple of days off work to go to the game and meet up with old schoolmates who lived in Northwest London. Their plan was to meet them at the game and then return to their mates’ flat to spend a night or two and see the London sights.
Chris and Tom were more than happy for me to tag along – though I was not sure they would be going anywhere if they kept up their beer consumption.
They both had great memories of the 1963/64 promotion team and FA Cup games from that era against Spurs, Everton, Leeds, and Man Utd. Time seemed to stand still as they enthralled me with their memories of these games and the players who graced them.
I have often wondered how Chris and Tom are getting on and if they ever realised what their companionship meant to a 14-year-old Sunderland daft lad, out of his comfort zone in the beautiful South. If you recognise these two, or if you are reading this Tom/Chris do get in touch, I am old enough to buy you a beer now and would love to chew the cud with you again.
We arrived at Elm Park via some pub stops around Kings Cross and Reading itself. The away supporters end (East Stand?) was an open terrace at one end of the ground and already had a good few Sunderland fans on its terraces. The Lads were on the pitch warming-up when we entered. To my surprise Richie Pitt and Keith Coleman were stripped and clearly going to take some part in the game. Had Stokoe reconsidered about selling these two? I hoped so!
I learnt later that Stokoe had not changed his mind; indeed, Coleman and Pitt would sign a loan contract with Arsenal that very night after game. I read somewhere that the wily Stokoe played Pitt and put Coleman on the bench that night to cup tie them, no way was he having them come back to haunt him in the cup!
Pitt was to play alongside David Young at the centre of defence, and Coleman would be sub. Dave Watson would wear the number nine jersey and play up front given Yogi Hughes injury. John Lathan, who’d started the first game, was dropped from the squad altogether. Apart from these changes, it was the same team as the previous Saturday.
Just before the start of the game, word shot round the Sunderland supporters that Vic Halom, Luton centre forward was in the stand watching the game and that he had signed for us! I had read he was all but an Everton player and thought this unlikely. I was of course wrong. Vic Halom signed that very night. Halom’s first manager had been Stokoe at Charlton and Vic was quoted as saying that he and Stokoe had many disagreements, but he would run through brick walls for the enigmatic Northumbrian.
Vic Halom would go on to become something of a barrel-chested cult hero in many Sunderland fans eyes.
His upbringing had been a tad different to say the least – he was the son of a Hungarian father and Russian / Ukrainian mother who had met in a concentration camp. His parents both spoke German as their common language and this was the language spoken in his home. His grandfather on his mother’s side was a Cossack who had been killed by Bolsheviks. Vic was eligible to play for Hungary and the Soviet Union and I had read that one of the ways he used to keep fit in the close season was boxing. When he eventually retired from playing professional football, he managed, amongst others Rochdale, Barrow, Northwich Victoria, Burton Albion and North Shields. He also managed in Norway (Frederikstad), while in 1992 he stood for the Liberal Democrats in the Sunderland North constituency. He scored a total of 40 goals in 130 appearances for the Lads and his all-action wholehearted performances certainly endeared him to the Roker Park faithful.
There was a very healthy crowd of just over 19,000 within Elm Park, with around 2,000 Sunderland fans (a number of whom were exiles living and working in the South) in gregarious and noisy fettle.
Any nervousness the away support might have had about this tie was washed away in a scintillating performance in the first half.
In the first minute, Tueart intercepted and played a rapid one-two with Bobby Kerr before unleashing a cracking shot that looked goal-bound. A Reading defender managed to get a foot to the ball, but the rebound fell to Dave Watson on the edge of the box and he lashed the ball into the back of the net.
What a start! We were passing the ball with accuracy and playing some really attractive football. On 14 minutes Young challenged Chappell in our box, the referee waved play on, but I saw this as a stonewall penalty for Reading.
This was a real let off, and within a minute of this incident we had scored our second goal. Watson won the ball in a tackle, side-stepped a defender and found Tueart with a measured pass. Tueart advanced on goal and played an exquisite chip over keeper Death and into the back of the Reading goal – triggering a right racket in the away enclosure.
On 30 minutes a rehearsed move created a third goal on the night for Sunderland. Porterfield lobbed a throw to Watson, who deftly headed to Tueart. The tricky winger controlled the ball and, in almost one movement, slid an inch-perfect pass to the on-rushing Kerr, who despatched an accurate shot past a forlorn Death in the Reading goal.
Cue more good-natured mayhem in the away end.
A couple of minutes later the same combination Porterfield-Watson-Tueart, set Kerr up again, the move deserved a goal, but the Little General’s shot cannoned off the bar.
Half-time saw the Lads three zero up, dominating the game, playing some lovely football and warmly cheered off the pitch by the Sunderland fans.
I used half-time to have a good look around the away enclosure for Sean and his brother, or anyone from the Morpeth/Ashington branch who might help me get home! I was unsuccessful, though was acknowledged by a couple of older lads I recognised from the Fulwell End. I thought about speaking to them to see if they might help, but decided it was “not cool” and might ruin any kudos gained by being spotted on a school night so far from home by two of the Fulwell End “faces”.
The second half, with the greatest respect to Reading, was a bit of a formality.
With Pitt and Young playing well in defence, there was even time for Ron Guthrie and “Tricky Dicky Malone” to gallop forward. Mind you, Dick Malone needed little invitation to get forward. His mazy runs were the stuff of Roker legend and were a delight to witness. He was given a lot of licence by the “Little General”, who would often be found covering if Dick got caught up field, their on-field relationship really was effective down our right flank.
Given this, I was surprised to read a few years later, that Malone had struggled with the new manager and had even requested a transfer in the early period of Stokoe’s tenure. The Gaffer liked his fullbacks to play their positions and was not a fan of “Tricky Dick’s” mazy dribbles. For his part, Malone seems to have been adamant this was part of his game and he would play his natural game! Whatever “philosophical” differences there were between them, some sought of working compromise seems to have been reached, as the Scot clearly became Stokoe’s first choice full-back for three seasons, and the mazy dribbles never ceased!
There was only one moment of concern for Sunderland fans in the second half. With around ten minutes remaining, Pitt, who up to that point had a very good game, challenged Chappell in the box. The referee gave a penalty (I thought this a much more debateable decision than the spot kick not given in the first half) and Cumming scored. Stokoe promptly moved Watson back in defence and we saw out the game with ease.
I really appreciated the acknowledgement from our players to the away support at the end of the game. This was not a common feature back then and I thought we did the boys proud. In keeping with our “good-natured horde” reputation, the Reading Police commended our behaviour on the night.
Chris and Tom had agreed with their friend that he would drop me at a tube station close to their London destination, and this should get me back to Kings Cross in time for a train back to Newcastle.
I put myself in their hands but was a bit concerned when all four joined a big group of Sunderland fans at the Players' entrance outside the ground. They were gathered to try and see Charlie Hurley and were singing and chanting the Hurley song in an attempt to draw him out. After five minutes or so we left as there was no sign of the big fella’.
I did read in Hurley’s biography a few years later, that he had gone down to speak to the gathered crowd and signed around two hundred autographs and that he also took champagne into the Sunderland dressing room after the game, a legend indeed!
When we got back to Chris and Tom’s mates’ car, the four adults were all a canny size, and as I squeezed into the back seat of the Mini, I allowed myself a wry smile. Given the risks I had taken to get this far, would I be suffocated between these two grizzly bears before I made it back to London?
True to their word Chris and Tom dropped me at a tube station on the outskirts of London. I had enjoyed their company and was grateful for their companionship, but in typical “blokes” fashion we parted with a “cheers”, and I never saw them again.
I passed Wembley and the twin towers on my way back into central London, I was convinced this was a sign, “we are going all the way”.
I made it back to Kings Cross, but too late for the train I had thought to get. A brief chat with a surly platform guard was nothing short of alarming, as he informed me I would not be able to get a train back to Newcastle till the following morning. I remember this moment vividly as my first real shiver of concern. I had been consumed with the game all day, and this had driven me on and pushed any fears to the back of my mind.
Looking around the station, I saw threat behind every corner. I thought I would go in the waiting room and get my head down for the night, the occupants convinced me otherwise. The Police were dealing with an altercation, and I decided I did not want to have to start to explain my presence to them at such a late hour.
The Jam had a great hit a few years later with ‘Down in the Tube Station at Midnight’, this song always takes me back to this night. I wandered outside to try and gather my thoughts. I became aware of a different crowd of people milling about.
Another altercation started, and this time I was swept up a bit in the melee. A young guy in a parka coat like the one I was wearing was arguing and fighting with three others whilst a crowd looked on.
I admired his gallous bravado in the face of such odds but thought he was on a “hiding to nowt” when the Police appeared again and roughly dispersed the crowd. I ended up chatting with the lad in the parka as we scuttled away from the Police.
He thought I was a runaway and advised me to stay away from the front area of Kings Cross Station for my own safety.
I thanked him for the advice and offered him a mint, which triggered a canny crack. “James” was from Edinburgh and what we might now call a “rough sleeper”. He showed me a place to get my head down up an alleyway at the back of Kings Cross. It was a long night and I did not get much sleep. I was really hungry but the only money I had left was my train fare and this was buried in my parka pockets for safekeeping. I was grateful I had not swapped my school parka coat for my usual match coat, a Harrington jacket which would not have kept me very warm up that alleyway.
James proved to be a funny and likeable character, a couple of years older than me, he had left his abusive home and parents some two years previously and had no intentions of returning. On my many journeys to London and Kings Cross since that night, I cannot help myself to think of him and hope that life has treated him as well as he treated me, a stranger with not a lot to offer on a cold night but a shared packet of Trebor mints!
I boarded the Newcastle train the next morning, got into a seat and woke up at Durham. I was starving but otherwise, in fairly good fettle, my team had progressed to the next round of the cup, which we now knew was going to be Man City at Maine Road (they had beaten Liverpool in a replay 2-0).
I had enjoyed/survived a bit of a road trip and felt the experience had been a good one in terms of my “street sense”. I was also right on time to catch my usual bus home from school, so hopefully, no suspicion aroused with my parents. The only slight concern remaining was school! I had taken two days off and would need to offer some sought of explanation, but for now, I could not wait to get home and get some of my Mam’s bait into me.
At school the next day, I was called straight to the headmaster’s office at morning registration.
My mind was whirling with all sorts of elaborate explanations of my two-day absence as I walked the teacher’s corridor to his office. I decided on “flu” as my excuse as there had been a lot of it about.
Jock McMenemy, our headmaster, was a hard man. He was Scots, and the rumour was he had played for Celtic in his youth. The school footy teams all played in Celtic hoops, and my only previous contact with him was at a school footy match the previous year, when he had gruffly said, “well played” after a big school’s cup game.
He motioned me into his office and blew my story straight away by asking me almost politely if I had enjoyed the game! I did not know what to say initially, but decided my cover was blown and to come clean.
‘Yes,’ I replied, sounding a good bit chirpier than I intended.
I was given six of the belt, and he informed me he would be writing to my parents.
I had been spotted in Central station with my red and white scarf on boarding the London train by a member of staff. He left me under no illusions about what would happen if I did anything like this again and included expulsion from school as one of the outcomes.
He also asked me who I had gone with, and when I provided a bit more detail of my escapade, he urged me not to ever repeat such a journey, especially to London and Kings Cross by myself.
He then threw me off guard again by asking about the actual game and the team. He knew about John Hughes’ injury and had been to Roker to watch Herd, McNab, Mulhall, Baxter and Neil Martin. He liked Billy Hughes and Bobby Kerr but was really keen to see how Porterfield would develop.
Don’t get me wrong, my palms were still stinging from the belt, and he was in no way having a friendly chat, it was the oddest thing that ever happened to me at school.
He finished the conversation abruptly, telling me there was no second chance if I came to his attention again in such a way as this. I left school two years later without ever speaking to him again but was aware of him turning up at our footy games from time to time.
I debated on coming clean at home, but could not bring myself to do it!
Dad was not well again, and I just could not find the words to explain. I decided to wait on the letter from school… which never came!
I would love to know if it was administrative oversight or a conscious decision, but I was not disappointed.
Fifty years on, I told my eighty-five-year-old Mam the tale of my road trip for the first time. Her response was typical, she clipped my lug and told me not to be so stupid again!
I should say, looking back, I realise what a risky situation I put myself into. I am certainly not encouraging any youngster to do what I did, and I do not condone skiving school – if my kids had ever done anything like that, woe betide them!
The sobering news a day or two later that two young Sunderland fans had died in a car accident returning home from this game in the early hours of the morning was not lost on me. Sunderland players attended both funerals, but what a tragic loss for those families. I try and give a thought to Kevin Bottom and Keith Bowen every year on this date.
Rest in peace, lads.