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 (Jimmy 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…
Spirits are high, Stokoe’s young side has captured the fans’ imagination and they have the full town’s backing ahead of the club’s trip to Hillsborough. Stokoe has kept the mood as relaxed as possible leading up to the match. But with only a few hours to kick off and something appears to be getting to him.
He takes Sharp, his temperamental star player, to one side. He has a national newspaper in hand. The Northeast press has been singing the team’s praises, especially, Sharp, giving him the nickname ‘Supernova’.
‘There, take a look at that,’ Stokoe said, thrusting the newspaper into Sharp’s hand.
The caption read, ‘Supernova Can’t Hold A Light To George’
‘What do you think?’ Stokoe asked.
‘They’re taking the piss about how I’m being compared to Georgie Best.’
‘I know, they must have seen you at the bar…’ Stokoe muttered. ‘But according to this bit, they say you’re nowhere near as good as bloody Charlie George…’
Sharp saw the look on his boss’s face. What he thought meant the world to Sharp. Was there a degree of doubt in his tone?
‘What do they know? They haven’t seen me play; have they, boss…’ Sharp uttered.
‘Well, they’ll be at the game today, Jimmy.’
A steely determined Sharp thought for a moment before taking a deep breath.
‘Alright, time to blow them away then!’ Sharp said with a determined twinkle in his eye.
Stokoe looked at Sharp one more time and suddenly ripped up the paper.
‘Most of the bleeding press wrote us off months ago. So, ha’ way then, let’s go prove they’re talking bollocks once again!’
‘Aye, of course!’
Stokoe strolled into the dressing room, looking confident… he was followed by Sharp, ready for action.
‘Right lads, this is the game of your lives. As most of you know, I’ve been here in the FA Cup when I was a player. Go out there and enjoy every minute of the match. If you follow the game plan we’ve spoken about all week and play to your best, you can win this.’
He looked over to a focused Sharp and smiled.
‘Come on lads!’
‘Let’s show them what we’re made of boys!’ Kerr demanded, clapping his hands repeatedly.
The rest of the lads stamped the studs on the floor to make as much noise as possible.
‘Ha’ way, ha’ way, ha’ way!’
April 17th 1973 - Arsenal v Sunderland
FA Cup Semi-Final – at Hillsborough
Sunderland’s playing the first half with the wind blowing to their advantage. Sharp looks as determined as he ever has. The Sunderland crowd are in full voice - the atmosphere is electric.
Arsenal are bidding to make it to Wembley at this stage for the third year running. But clearly haven’t expected such difficult opposition from Division Two. Sunderland are out of the traps the quicker side. Halom and Sharp are swapping positions to keep the Arsenal defence at odds on who to mark. Kerr takes a long throw, Sharp leaps to win the header and somehow finds Micky Horswill at the edge of the area. Horswill chests it down and takes everyone by surprise to unleash a drive from the edge of the box. The Gunner’s keeper, Bob Wilson, is at full stretch to keep the effort out.
‘Christ, that was close…’ Horswill sighed.
Sharp continues to pull the Arsenal defence out of position leaving gaps for Halom to move into. With strong hold-up play from Halom, he plays Sharp through to glide past his marker and into a one-on-one position with Wilson to beat. Sharp curls a left-foot effort round him and against the foot of the post.
It is Sunderland with all the dangerous forward play. But they need that breakthrough. There is no dampening Sharp’s desire or spirit today. Then when Horswill produces a long forward pass for Sharp to chase, his presence is enough to worry Blockley who fails to put enough on his header back to Wilson and leaves Sharp in on goal, this time he confidently rounds Wilson and strokes home to put Sunderland into a well-deserved lead.
‘Yes!’ Stokoe yells as he punches the air.
Sunderland and Sharp are not finished yet. There is no let up from the Division Two side as they press the nervy Arsenal defence. Another long ball forward up to Halom, who holds onto the ball neatly at his feet before forcing a Wilson save. As the half goes on, Arsenal are starting to come back into the game, and Montgomery has to be at his best, to keep a low, defected effort out at his near post. As the pressure grows on his teammates, Sharp motions to have more of the ball. He’ll keep the ball, find gaps, and draw fouls to ease the pressure. Just before half-time and Halom finds himself with another chance to double Sunderland’s lead, but Arsenal clear their lines once more.
Stokoe wants more of the same in the second half, there are more goals for Sunderland if they stick to the plan. Halom comes off at half-time with an injury, Hughes will take his place and Sharp will lead the line. Whenever the pressure is on, ‘find Sharp’ becomes the message. When he is running, even on the heavy pitch the Arsenal defenders are struggling to get near him. The second half is a masterclass from Sharp. He has his markers on edge. So, when Tueart pops up to nod on, the defenders are paying Sharp more attention, it leaves Hughes some freedom to flick on a header just out of Wilson’s reach, and it drops into the net. Sunderland are finally two goals up.
Clearly, Sunderland have brought the Roker roar with them; the fans are going wild! The Gunner’s are not completely out of it, as Charlie George takes a close range to chance with 5 minutes left to play to make it 2-1. Stokoe looks across at Kerr and Sharp. They know what is expected. From the next long Sunderland clearance as per orders, Kerr finds Sharp who drifts through the middle, the ball at his feet, and the Arsenal defence are in retreat. He is speeding up now arching across the pitch and sees Horswill to his right in a bit of space. He slides it across before Horswill returns the ball back to him. To confuse his marker, he leaves the ball to go one side of the defender, and Sharp darts the other. Wilson is off his line, but Sharp spins around the on-rushing keeper and calmly walks it into the net to make it 3-1.
‘Smart arse!’ Kerr laughs.
There isn’t even time for Arsenal to kick off again. There is the final whistle. A proud Stokoe hugs his players, one by one. The jubilant Sunderland crowd are chanting for their miracle worker manager.
‘We want Stokoe, we want Stokoe, we want Stokoe!’
Followed by that old chant from before he was a regular.
‘We want Sharp, we want Sharp, we want Sharp!’
Both men a little embarrassed, take a bow in the centre circle. Sharp turns to his teammates and ushers them forward. This was a team effort; this was the club’s greatest achievement in decades. They’ll take their praise equally and take it as a team.
‘I can’t believe it; I’ve dreamed of this... unbelievable! Listen to that,’ Sharp says to an overjoyed Dick Malone.
They’re on their way to ‘Wembley, Wembley, Wembley…’
Arsenal 1 v 3 Sunderland *
Score line reflects artistic license...