It has been brilliant seeing all the celebrations and memories as a result of the 50th anniversary of the 1973 FA Cup win, but the tale did not end at 17:00 on the 5th of May.
After pulling off what many thought was impossible, it probably took a while for the achievement to sink in amongst the Sunderland players who now had a whirlwind heading their way. The parties, events and opportunities must have felt unending, but as they would eventually find out – nothing lasts forever, sadly.
In the immediate aftermath, the club held a post-match ‘Celebration Buffet and Dance’ at the Park Lane Hotel in Piccadilly for which musician and celebrity Sunderland fan Alan Price provided the entertainment alongside singer Suzi Quatro.
The players and their partners moved into a private room so that they could take part in that evening’s episode of Match of the Day before continuing the festivities elsewhere, and whilst some then retired to their rooms at the Grosvenor Hotel several others instead found themselves having an early breakfast at a Wimpy.
Diners may have baulked at seeing the new cup winners in such modest surroundings but by this stage the players were running on fumes. Still on a high and with a couple choosing not to drink alcohol so that they could savour the moment, the banquet had seen them mobbed and, in some cases, unable even to sit down and grab a bite to eat.
Their latest surroundings were a far cry from the previous 24 hours or so, but whilst that unpretentiousness had helped them get there in the first place, they now had to get used to a new level of attention.
To those outside the camp the cup win was scarcely believable, and this group of affable young men were now public property. As second division footballers they would not have experienced the level of exposure coming their way from further afield, but back home they would have been loved no matter what, and Wearside wanted to give them a warm welcome upon their return.
The arrival back in Sunderland would end up being as memorable as the final itself, but before that a detour to Wales had to be made in order to play Cardiff City.
The players enjoyed a champagne reception at Ninian Park after the match courtesy of the hosts – who of course had been the only side the take the cup out of England.
That little stat was maintained as the Sunderland players’ wives and girlfriends had already taken the trophy back north with them separately, ready to be reunited with the squad when they caught back up the next day.
This was now the 8th of May, a date in which everybody could partake. Unlike at Wembley, no tickets were required for the bus parade through County Durham and Sunderland towards Roker Park so everybody was able to get involved - as long as they had a good vantage point.
With the streets packed, various window ledges, roofs and bits of street furniture, no matter how precarious, all became viable options for fans wanting to express their thanks for the joy and pride they had been gifted over the previous few months.
Estimates suggested that anything up to a million people were present, around ten times more than had been fortunate enough to be underneath the ‘twin towers’, and they were taking part in a communal show of happiness on a breathtaking scale.
As the small band of brothers slowly moved through the throng, they worked out a system where those that lived close to the parade got a moment in the spotlight by moving to the front of the bus and holding the cup aloft for their neighbours.
Dave Watson stepped forward at Houghton-le-Spring, Ian Porterfield at East Herrington and Jim Montgomery and Dick Malone took turns through Barnes but they were not the only cup winners to be out however – 1937 legend Bobby Gurney was in the crowd and amazingly, a lot of the footage captured around the Board Inn that is still shown now was filmed by the Sunderland great.
A journey that might ordinarily only take around 30 minutes instead took several hours so densely packed were the streets. Starting at Carville and making its way down Durham Road into the town and then through Fawcett Street, North Bridge Street, Roker Avenue, Gladstone Street and Roker Baths Road before finally arriving at Roker Park, the open top bus was followed by several vehicles bedecked in red and white.
In addition to the players and officials it also carried another passenger that would become a familiar figure at the club – future SAFC vice chairman John Fickling, then an engineer for The Northern Bus Company, hitching a lift having helped prepare the vehicle.
Back on foot and walking around the track at Roker Park, the players soaked up yet more praise from the packed terraces. A coffin mourning the death of ‘Leed’s’ (sic) was placed in the centre of the pitch by jubilant supporters and images of people desperate just to touch Bob Stokoe and his men are reminiscent of Beatlemania – that was the level of fervour on display.
It was in stark contrast to the atmosphere that followed the following evening when Queens Park Rangers arrived to finish the league programme; despite mutual congratulations ahead of kick off the mood turned sour when it became clear that the visitors were determined to put a downer on things.
Skipper Bobby Kerr gave his counterpart Terry Venables a souvenir miner’s lamp in recognition of the Hoops’ promotion, whilst he in turn was handed a Sunday Mirror giantkiller award to go alongside Stokoe’s new Manager of the Month gong.
A totally unnecessary show of petulance and indeed violence from some of Venables’ teammates saw things turn nasty, with the game having to be suspended for a period so that calm could be restored – Stokoe going out and appealing to fans to settle down whilst the referee was inside reading the riot act to both teams.
Although QPR were undoubtedly the instigators, it would be reasonable to suggest that Sunderland’s reaction wasn’t helped by a probable lack of sleep. It had been a hectic week and things were only getting started, with a summer of yet more parades and events pencilled in as the FA Cup party continued.
Next up was a civic reception with the mayor, whilst shortly afterwards the trophy had to be taken into police custody for safekeeping after the players responsible for it were guilty of over doing the hospitality slightly at one do.
Huge Sunderland fan and future world record breaking athlete Steve Cram, whose father was an officer at the station in question, was woken up early the next morning and got to pose with the cup. In time there would be formal recognition by the town and later city of Sunderland; on the 21st of January 1974 Stokoe and the ‘club’ were given freedom of the Borough, whilst in 2022 the players were given a similar honour thanks in part to coordinator and official SAFC historian Rob Mason. The socially distant gala for that was held at the Beacon of Light on the 13th of January, the date of the first game of the run.
Less refined was an all-expenses paid holiday to Majorca back at the time, during which the players were allowed to let their hair down – although they had to also appear in a friendly against Cannes whilst away.
Len Shackleton was invited along having been a close friend of Stokoe’s, but whilst the ‘Crown Prince’ would have been able to recall the good old Bank of England club days the detour to France, arranged in order to fund the break, did prompt one or two grumbles from the current squad who were already beginning to feel overworked and undervalued.
Larger scale protests would come down the line, but in meanwhile there were some commercial opportunities for those that wanted to capitalise on their newfound stardom.
Personal appearances became the norm for some of the more glamorous names, with Porterfield and Vic Halom opening Woolco in Washington alongside Coronation Street icon Pat Phoenix – who really was A list in those days.
The players were not just cutting the ribbons either; Watson was rumoured at one point to be setting up his own sports store in the new town and Billy Hughes did later open his own superbly named footwear business Billy’s Shughes.
Porterfield, who received letters of praise from all over the world, had released a book by the end of the year and Kerr was gifted a new Audi courtesy of Mill Garages on Newcastle Road.
At a different end of the scale, the players were all given a dinner service each by famous local brand Pyrex, a nice topper to go with the £1000 bonus they were handed by the club.
To give an indication of how much that was, Kerr has since stated that he was on £65 a week plus £25 appearance money.
By the time of Sunderland’s next appearance in the final he was working in the pub trade – very few players from the 1970s had earnt enough to retire – but you could argue that the fact he and his colleagues were never too far detached, and have since been only too happy to engage with the community, has only helped their legacy.
Sadly, and this was presumably due to licencing laws, when the Lads played Liverpool in 1992 Kerr remained on the premises of the Hastings Hill and was not at Wembley in person.
It was also regrettable that their success left the lads vulnerable to one or two unsavoury characters. Londoner Barry Gout, who was part of the production team for the club’s FA Cup final song that was performed alongside the legendary Bobby Knoxall, was later jailed for fraud having deceived Dennis Tueart and Hughes regarding some benefits he claimed to have arranged, including Tueart’s honeymoon. It is noticeable that Tueart touches on the incident in his autobiography during a chapter called ‘In and out of love’, as after a breakneck summer everybody involved with the club would start to sense some major rifts.
Once attention started to shift to 1973-74 both Liverpool and Sunderland elected not to take part in the Charity Shield, with the Lads planning to compete in a prestigious tournament in Portugal instead. That fell through however, and just a few weeks after that the painful breakup of the cup winning side began when Richie Pitt was injured in a league match with Luton Town. The 1973 FA Cup run proved to be a thunderbolt during which everything fell the Rokermen’s way – it quickly gathered pace from nowhere but then came crashing down almost as fast, with Pitt’s rise and fall under Stokoe a microcosm of that.
The defender had not originally been part of the manager’s plans and was even due to go out on loan during the early rounds, but as is often the case in football fate played a part and he was brought back at the last minute due to the unavailability of others. He slotted in and became a key component of the Wembley joy but started only five more games after that, and following problems with his knee ligaments was never selected for first team duty again. This was despite Pitt turning out for the reserves multiple times prior to his contract expiring in 1975, and because SAFC claimed on his insurance he was unable to join another team and was forced to retire.
An early season fixture pile up, brought on in part by qualification for the European Cup Winners Cup and a mammoth League Cup tie with Derby County, caused conflict. After a surprising set of team selections for a trip to Hull City, Watson felt hung out to dry and that Stokoe was not giving enough priority to their promotion charge. It caused a row between the pair and Watson later admitted to losing respect for the boss as a result, although Stokoe would have no doubt argued that he was doing what he thought best and had player welfare in mind.
While all that was rumbling away, the economic scene in the country was worsening too. Industrial disputes led to fears over power cuts and coal shortages, meaning games, even in midweek, had to kick-off early to avoid the need for floodlights. The irony for Sunderland was that they had just improved the Roker Park lights so that they were compatible for UEFA TV coverage, with admission prices for their European games increased as a result. Although the average attendance in the league was the highest of the decade so far, pay worries were to have an impact on not only some of the supporters, but some of the players too.
Tueart by now wanted away, fearing the club were not in a position to move on but also aggrieved at a public dressing down by Stokoe following a loss to Bristol City. Hughes also handed in a transfer request, and whilst he later admitted deep down that he’d wanted to stay, rumours of cooling relationships and awkward man management became widespread. These became apparent when the club was invited to the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year awards; the previously relaxed nature of the side had been one of the main factors behind them winning the cup in the first place, but now, after forced smiles from many in front of the camera, Tueart was to be chastised for appearing on screen without a tie.
Stokoe’s informal approach had been a breath of fresh air following the regimented reign of Alan Brown, but with the Messiah now reportedly suffering from regular migraines fears of a return to stricter policies and claims of shifting goalposts were growing. The players felt as if they had done their bit for the club but, disillusioned by their direction and unhappy at the communication from those above, didn’t appreciate how they were being handled in return. Shortly before leaving, Tueart was offered a better deal by SAFC but if anything, it left him feeling more frustrated; he claimed afterwards that had it happened sooner he may have felt inclined to stay, but having earlier been approached by a wealthy supporter who wanted to offer him a house his sense of penny pinching from those who were actually obliged to look after him only grew.
Cracks continued to form, and outside factors were now biting hard. To try and tackle spiralling inflation the Tory government introduced a pay freeze that restricted any attempts Sunderland may have wanted to make with regards improved contracts. First Division clubs were able to pay bigger wages and with morale already low a transfer suddenly became a lot more appealing. Opinion amongst some of the squad was split too about whether this was actually a convenient excuse for the board, but it hadn’t been all that long ago since the 1950s when the club had been embroiled in an illegal payments scandal and they certainly weren’t going to risk going down that route again.
Regardless of whether Sunderland had wanted to improve things and start dishing out further bonuses and the like or not, there had certainly been a sense already that the powers that be had been too cautious in some respects but then misjudged in others. Although few held any personal grudges with new signing Rod Belfitt it was noted that whilst he’d been able to buy a house in Durham outright upon arrival on Wearside those already here still needed mortgages for properties that were a fraction of the price. It was not necessarily felt that Belfitt was of the calibre needed to take things on either, and so the cumulative gripes continued to bubble away amidst fluctuating results.
The Sunderland star that had burned so bright also burnt quickly and it is perhaps inevitable that when there are so many factors at play even the best moments will then go the other way. With a quick return to Division One seeming unlikely personal situations and agendas came to the fore and whilst understandable, these when intertwined with all the issues around finance, ambition and relationships with the management made for one big ball of frustration that was difficult to unpick. Former players and those close to the group have spoken off record of at least one teammate being a somewhat aloof and arrogant character that could be quite dismissive of them, plus there were suggestions of a family member on the scene that could be very disruptive - all of which only served to complicate matters further.
It would be impossible to lay the blame for a failure to build on Sunderland’s greatest post war side solely on one person or thing. We can read between the lines and anybody that has gone through Tueart’s book for example will know he is quite candid about the whole affair, touching at one point on a ‘small-town syndrome’, but if we take the situation of Watson you can appreciate that in some scenarios it would have been impossible to square the circle and keep all parties happy. Watson remained at Roker Park for another two years, but once he had broken into the England set up it was inevitable that he’d want to do what he could to stay there – Sunderland would have no doubt liked the Wembley man of the match to keep playing his club football on Wearside but without being able to deliver top flight competition within a schedule that suited him, the decision to move somewhere that could was reasonable.
As fans, it can sometimes be hard to accept that not everybody pulling on the shirt is as mad keen a supporter of the club as we are. It is clear that whilst some of the 1973 group did (and still do) have a great affection, and would always give their all, they were by no means wedded to SAFC in the same way that those who have followed from the terraces through thick and thin have. Playing the game professionally is a job as much as anything else, and whilst it is not a criticism to acknowledge that individuals put their own careers above other considerations, it does show the different angles that were within the group. It is not always pleasant either for those that idolise these men to learn of some of their recollections from inside the camp, where the realities were often far less romantic than we care to admit; even the greatest characters have their own foibles, flaws, and grudges whether we like it or not.
Sunderland’s FA Cup win has been a major part of the club’s story ever since, but the immediate chapter probably ended in January the following year when the three day week was in operation and the cup defence fell at the first hurdle. Spirit was rock bottom anyway, and any lingering buzz fizzled out following a defeat to Carlisle United that brought the Lads fully back down to earth. The fairy tale was done, but is had been quite the ride and the high points will never be forgotten…
Supporters had witnessed magic before their very eyes, so seeing things dismantle in real time must have been painful. Thankfully that was not something younger fans had to endure – they just get to revel in the memories and are as enamoured by what Stokoe’s Stars did as the generations that went before. The team spirit that brought the glory has seen those that initially went their separate ways returning several times since, and as we witness the reunions and the anniversaries we know that no matter what happened afterwards, pulling off one of the greatest successes in football was a truly special and life defining moment for all of those involved. Nothing that happened afterwards would have taken place had Sunderland not already made the world sit up and take notice.