We are 50 years on from Sunderland’s last great triumph and silverware in the FA Cup Final win over Leeds United.
As we’ve heard over the past couple of weeks, many die-hards remember that day like it was yesterday. Much like last season’s play-off win will stay with most Sunderland fans for a lifetime. Obviously, there is a huge difference, in meaning, achievement and prestige. Of course, we are still to see the conclusion of this current breath-taking season…
It’s hard for a younger generation to conceive, but many fans watching in 1973, would have witnessed the club’s only previous cup triumph and our last league title. So, those around the club will have expected further success after Bob Stokoe miraculously turned Sunderland’s fortunes within six, whirlwind months. But why didn’t Sunderland follow on from the Cup Final success and what were the drawbacks?
Before the advent of the Premier League, domestically, the FA Cup was the big prize. It was highly sought-after, hence why Sunderland had to beat some of the finest Division One teams en route to playing Leeds in the final. It’s argued to this day, that Leeds United was the best side in the whole of Europe back in 1973. Though Sunderland was only a Second Division side, the first issue lay here.
Stokoe had reinvigorated the Sunderland squad and added some key additions including Ron Guthrie and Vic Halom. They were perfect fodder for that cup run, creating a perfect balance, and adding strength and physicality. It also meant Stokoe was no longer reliant on big Dave Watson to plug the gap at centre forward but could move to his rightful place at centre half.
The powerful Vic Halom appeared an unknown quantity for Division One defenders which gave him the advantage during the cup run as shown by his all-important goals against Manchester City and Arsenal.
Halom shone following his move from Luton, but he wasn’t considered a prolific centre forward up to that point. Something our club has all too often struggled with throughout the decades. Notably, Sunderland remained reliant upon Billy Hughes and Dennis Tueart for goals throughout the cup run. Tueart’s mesmeric performances against highflying Man City did not go unnoticed by the Manchester club and in March 1974 City came calling. But Stokoe also ensured any deal included Micky Horswill heading to Maine Road.
Sunderland’s Second Division status meant prize assets like Tueart or a later Man City acquisition, Dave Watson, were hard to hold on to with the club on course for another 6th place finish, matching their final league position in 1973 (but before the days of play-off places). Despite the giddy highs from winning the FA Cup, Sunderland didn’t convert that momentum into consistency during the 1973/74 season league-wise. There was a definite sign of improvement, as Stokoe had quickly taken the club from relegation-threatened to climbing the league. But they were still a way short of mounting a sustained promotion push that year.
In his first few months, Stokoe had worked a miracle, perhaps those behind the scenes expected similar results with little or no effort (nor further investment). There will always be enthusiasm from the Sunderland faithful, though with few guarantees of the financial backing required. Bob Stokoe had his ways of doing things and maybe was trying a methodical building process. There are reasons some teams are good in cup competitions but can’t translate that to league form. The team of 1973 were a great cup side, that raised their level against top-flight opponents, but few sides can sustain that over the course of 40-plus matches.
It is understandable, from Sunderland’s many promotions in recent years, we know that mounting a promotion push is difficult to achieve, especially after several wilderness years. It must also be recognised how English football in the 1970s was a very different landscape, managers were given time, often years to build a side.
The expectation wasn’t for instant success and there wasn’t necessarily the seismic gulf between Divisions One and Two as now exists between the Premier League and Championship clubs. Teams throughout the 1960s and 1970s built periods of success on the back of promotions from Division Two like Liverpool, Leeds United and Derby County. Sunderland had tried and failed to do that once already under Alan Brown.
Still, few clubs have ever had such a swift upturn in fortunes as Sunderland in Stokoe’s first year. Perhaps Stokoe was a victim of his own unexpected early success which showcased his best players to bigger suitors.
There are of course many factors that can count for or against a club when striving for promotion, as we know all too well. Certainly, the promotion perspective altered for the 1974/75 season with the addition of a big fish in Sunderland’s pond. Manchester United had been relegated the previous season and brought with them a huge backing of 40,000 fans throughout the season. We know now that Sunderland failed to repeat what other clubs had done. Manchester Utd followed their sole season in Division Two by building a side to establish them in Division One and to compete for honours like Derby County before them.
It is easy for us to be a little critical looking back in hindsight on what could have been. But to illustrate a point, Nottingham Forest a much smaller club than Sunderland historically, won promotion from Division Two the season after us, but in their first year back in the top flight, they won the Division One Championship. That was followed by winning and retaining the Champions League (then called the European Championship, pictured below). That team was not filled with household names, blessed with a player the quality of someone like Dennis Tueart or a massive fan base.
When Stokoe and Sunderland did get it right and finally celebrated promotion after a very consistent season in 1975/76 winning promotion as Champions, it should have been the start of something special, not the end as it proved to be. Unfortunately, fate would count against the club and manager, not for the last time. Sunderland failed to hit the ground running and soon Stokoe would be forced to step away from the club for personal reasons.
Sunderland was a work in progress with some exciting young players but no Stokoe to guild them. It seems there was no long-term plan, that was only as far or short-sighted as the manager in charge at the time. Stability rested with him too and the lack thereof has been clear from the moment Stokoe left the club – barring a couple of notable exceptions. Sunderland and Stokeo together were certainly capable of far more. Perhaps the team suffered a hangover from the cup success that scuppered their best chance of promotion and keeping hold of their finest talent in the 1973/74 season. Had we been able to add to that side, our history would have been so different.
But maybe as nostalgic as we can be, it’s time to look for new glories and memories to talk about for the next 50 years. Ha’ Way you bright young things!