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Sunderland’s 1973 FA Cup Fairytale: Will Kelvin get a ticket to ride?

Kelvin Beattie’s epic journey back through our 1973 cup run is reaching its thrilling finale... As the game approaches, will he get his hands on a ticket?

Photo by PA Images via Getty Images

Against every bit of football logic and wisdom, Sunderland had overcome formidable Arsenal in an unforgettable semi-final at Hillsborough to land a place in the FA Cup final at Wembley on May 5th against arguably the best team in Europe at that time – Leeds United.

It had been a fantastic journey to get to this point. I was 14 years old and besotted with all things Sunderland AFC. I had managed to get to every round of our cup run, including replays and was ready and twice as willing to immerse myself in my Wembley reward.

I should have been focused on mock ‘O’ levels at school and got plenty of reminders, some gentle and some not so much, to concentrate on my future! When I did manage to do this, there was not an ‘O’ level subject I was studying that I could not bend, shape or mould into a conversation about my team, its fantastic players, and our inspirational manager.

My form teacher, in a less than gentle moment, announced to the whole class, while belting me for the second time in the week before the Easter break, that I was more likely to make it to the workhouse rather than university if I did not knuckle down!

In my head, as he landed the sixth strap, I wondered whether it could be the Sunderland workhouse rather than Newcastle, where my school was, or Morpeth, where I lived.

I did startle myself as this thought manifested in my head, because I was not sure if I had said this aloud (something else that was afflicting me as cup fever took hold) and my form teacher was a not a man to provide any smart Alec retorts to!

Amid this FA Cup fairytale, Sunderland had fought a gruelling relegation battle. Manager Stokoe repeatedly reminded us this was the overriding priority. The cup run was creating problems though as league fixtures piled up. Following the semi-final, we were scheduled to play a brutal eight games in 20 days in the build-up to Wembley.

Stokoe was a man of his word if the run-up to the semi-final was anything to go by, he would play his strongest 11 always in every game!

I was really concerned that, by the time we got to Wembley, we would not have an 11 to take the field. My fertile imagination had me dreaming of players in all sorts of bandages, plaster casts, wheelchairs, and crutches (even players being carried onto the field on a stretcher) to fulfil the Wembley fixture.

I was so worried about this I resolved to write to Stokoe and hand deliver the letter to him, he would see the error of his ways (as we have already established in these articles, I was a 14-year-old footballing tactical genius with a bright future in the game, why would “Uncle Bob” not heed my wisdom)?

We played Huddersfield at Roker Park on the 10th of April, three days after the semi-final. I was so excited to get into the ground and salute the team again. A Billy Hughes hat-trick, (the first of his career) won the game in front of 32,251 raucous fans. The team that night was the team that played in the semi-final and that would be selected for the Wembley final.

Soccer - Football League Division One - West Ham United v Sunderland Photo by PA Images via Getty Images

Four days later with the same 11, I saw us beat Portsmouth 2-0 at Roker Park with goals from Tueart and Kerr in front of 31,430 fans. Two days after this, we played at Burnley, who were top of the league. Injuries to Halom and Hughes meant a run out for Brian Chambers and David Young, with Joe Bolton coming onto the bench. We lost a competitive game 2-0, only the third defeat since Stokoe had arrived in December 1972.

Our next game was Easter Saturday (five days after the Burnley defeat). I had been invited to go to this game with my schoolmate Sean and his older brother Patrick and crew, who I had travelled to Maine Road with for that epic fifth-round tie. I was well up for this. Despite the “issues” at Man City I had really enjoyed the trip and the banter. I was also going to be visiting another new ground in Boothferry Park, home of Hull City.

This was my first trip to an away game in the back of what most of us today would call a “White Van.” This would become the “go to” mode of transport to away games for many of us for the next decade or so, and I was a willing participant.

There was a small collection of cushions and crates in the back of the van as Sean and I jumped aboard, and we picked the best of these for our journey. Unfortunately, we were “hoyed” off these as Patrick’s older mates were picked up, and they took their seats. None the less and despite my numb bum, I really enjoyed this trip and the banter. I was also able to sew a seed or two regarding tickets for Wembley.

I was not that impressed with Boothferry Park, but extremely impressed with our performance on the day in a 2-0 win with goals from fit again Hughes and Halom. Alarmingly though there were more injuries to our strongest 11, with Watson, Pitt, and Horswill all injured, Chambers, Ashurst and Young deputized.

Despite the enforced changes we were well worth the win. This game was finely poised at 1-0 in the second half when Montgomery pulled off as good a save as I have ever seen (and I include the Wembley double save in that reckoning).

Soccer - Hull City - Boothferry Park
Boothferry Park didn’t leave much of an impression!
Photo by Peter Robinson - PA Images via Getty Images

A Hull free kick was fired into our penalty box and Monty was moving toward his far post following the trajectory of the kick to gather. Roy Greenwood, a ginger-haired/bearded Hull forward who had played well that day (and would be signed by Stokoe the following season) moved sharply toward the ball and redirected it at pace in the opposite direction. It looked a certain goal, but for the cat-like reflexes of our goalkeeper, who twisted in mid-air and scrambled the ball away from the goal line to safety. I kid you not, opposition supporters and players, as well as his own teammates and us, were applauding the save.

It was ridiculously brilliant and for me the best in a lengthy list of great saves I saw him make over my journey with him from March 1966 to October 1976.

We followed this victory up with a win at Roker Park on Easter Monday against Cardiff. A Billy Hughes goal and Tueart penalty in front of 27,551 fans. This was a hard-fought game. Cardiff were in the relegation zone and came ready for the battle. I was delighted to witness our ability to play exciting football and go toe to toe; we would need this against “dirty Leeds” at Wembley.

In the middle of this run of games, something else was occupying the minds of supporters. Ballot cards had been issued to fans at the Carlisle and Bristol City games prior to the semi-final, which were to be used to redeem semi-final and final tickets if we were successful in the semis.

I had accrued 21 ballot cards and had obtained a semi-final ticket through the draw. With my haul of cards to fall back on I was confident of being successful again. I remember with absolute clarity the day the draw was made for Wembley tickets and was announced in the local press.

I had ran over to our local shop to buy the Journal and rushed up the stairs to my bedroom for peace and quiet to check off the colours and codes drawn with my haul.

I laid them all out on the bed and I could feel my heart beating in my chest. All I needed was one of my cards to match Pink X, C or U, or Green A. Within a couple of minutes, I knew I did not have any of the drawn cards! It did not stop me checking the paper and my cards repeatedly.

I could not believe it. How could I have so many cards and not be successful? I could not think straight and could feel my throat constricting as tears welled. I locked myself in the toilet as my mother and siblings were curious as to what was going on. I had to gather myself and formulate a plan, NO WAY was I not going to Wembley!

My plan was not subtle. Identify anyone who might have contacts/influence and beg them to help me acquire a ticket. I was generally not a pushy personality, but I developed some new skills in my pursuit of a ticket over that period!

I spoke to two of the Morpeth Branch organisers. One of these was a Roker Bingo Agent and I used to sell tickets for him. He said that commercial manager Corny O’Donnell had been given a small allocation of tickets for his agents and he would speak to Corny and plead my case.

The other was a local businessman and President of the branch. He had lots of contacts at the club and advised me to scour the local newspapers for tickets advertised for sale and in the meantime, he would keep an eye out for me.

My schoolmate Sean said his elder brother was “on the case” for me, as they both had been successful in the draw. I was genuinely pleased for Sean and Patrick but could not feel as generous with some of the other people who had acquired tickets. As more examples of people who had hardly been to a game but knew somebody who knew somebody emerged, I became more enraged with the unfairness of it all. I watched a news article on Tyne Tees that focussed on the model Miss Sunderland, who was telling all and sundry she was going to her first ever Sunderland game and she was looking forward to it ……. I nearly threw an ornament at the tv and had to leave the house I was so mad!

Sunderland FC Photo by Michael Fresco/Evening Standard/Getty Images

I tried to focus on the fact I had a lot of people on the lookout for a ticket for me. My Dad, sympathetic to my dilemma had whispered that if I found a ticket for a fiver, he would sort me out, but I was to keep that to myself for now. I was chuffed at this offer as we really did not have two beans to rub together, and with four other siblings and the state of the nation at the time, I was not expecting that kind of financial backing from home.

I did have some money saved myself and reckoned I could just about double that fiver. Sadly, any tickets I saw advertised were way beyond a fiver and whatever I could bring to the table. £1 terrace tickets were being advertised at £35 plus and £6 seats at £65 to £100 plus! I still believed they would not play the game without me. How could they? I would get a ticket to ride…...down Wembley Way!

Unexpectedly I got a message from one of my “contacts” to say Sunderland had acquired around 1000 more tickets and these were being put to the ballot card draw. Sure enough, the local papers carried the message that if you had Ballot Card Green K, these would go on sale at 11am April 26th at the club on a first come first served basis.

I ran all the way home with a high sense of anticipation, I was confident I had Green K and was already formulating my argument/plan to go and camp out at the stadium to ensure I got my deserved ticket, after all it was the school Easter holidays, what objection could my parents have?

I raced upstairs to my bedroom once again and laid all the cards out. A number of Green cards were indeed present, but none of them had the magic K on.

This was the first moment I started to realise I might not be there, and I locked myself in the toilet and cried. After sorting myself out, I shed more reserved tears on a long walk with a friend, who just happened to be an armchair Leeds fan, he said nowt about my tears at the time and never mentioned this incident again in our long friendship, he did though change his allegiance and for many years we journeyed together to see the Lads home and away.

Maybe my emotion helped bring him over from the dark side?

Next up for Sunderland following the Cardiff victory was an away trip to Nottingham Forrest the very next day. I decided against trying to get to this game, I might need my cash to buy that as-yet-unidentified ticket.

Hughes and Pitt were deemed not fit to play in this game as well as the unfortunate Jackie Ashurst who had come into the team against Cardiff for a Dave Watson injury, but picked up an injury himself and could not play.

Soccer - Football League Division Two - Sunderland Photocall - Roker Park
Jackie Ashurst
Photo by S&G/PA Images via Getty Images

John Tones was drafted in and would play his last game for Sunderland at the City Ground. I was delighted to hear that Mick McGiven and Brian Chambers were also playing. I had seen both play for the youth team and they both had attended my Newcastle school and in an indirect way were inspirations to this young Sunderland fan.

Though we did not know it at the time, this was also Brian Chambers' last game before being transferred to Arsenal in May 1973.

He holds a unique record as being on the team sheet in the FA Cup for two different teams in one season. He was an unused sub for Sunderland in the two Man City ties and the semi-final and then having signed for Arsenal, played in the 1973 third/fourth place game between Arsenal and Wolves which took place later in the year following the cup final.

The Forest game saw the most changes to the starting 11 that season prior to the FA Cup final and I was “twitched” about the injuries to key players. Despite all the changes, we put in another satisfactory performance but got beat 1-0 on a chilly night at the City Ground.

The players and staff returned from Nottingham to Roker Park in the Baltic early hours of Wednesday 25th of April to find fans sleeping once again out in the cold to try and snag a ticket for Wembley, they were dancing at the last chance saloon and some would queue for 48 hours.

Soccer - Sunderland Photo by Peter Robinson/EMPICS via Getty Images

Bob Stokoe was in awe of these fans and the length they would go to ensure they got to see their heroes. He blasted the touts and people selling their tickets for way above the marketed price in the local press, urging people to identify the sellers so that they could be dealt with! I continued to scour the adverts in the media and locally for “my” ticket.

We had two more games to play before the final in the numbing schedule of eight games in 20 days. (You can only imagine what Pep, Roy Keane and Alex Ferguson would have had to say).

Blackpool at Roker were next up on Saturday 28th April. A 27,000 crowd rolled in to roar the team to victory. Another Billy Hughes goal would settle this game 1-0. I used this game to get around as many folks as I knew to beg for any leads on a ticket. A number of folks said to me “everyone is in the same boat.” But in reality, we were not all in the same boat. Where had some of these “fans” been hiding these last few years? Why were loyal supporters (like me) not being prioritised over these “Johnny come lately types”?

The irony of my situation hit me on the bus journey home from the Blackpool game. I loved the atmosphere and noise of the big crowds and loved belonging to the “Roker Horde,” but the vast number of “returnees” was scuppering my chances of a ticket!

As we broke into cup final week, Ian Porterfield was named as doubtful with a hamstring injury. He was, for me, an integral part of this team, we had no other player quite like him and I thought it crucial to our chances that he was on the pitch at Wembley. To add to our concerns, Monty was injured and would miss his first game of the season. Trevor Swinbourne came in along with Mick McGiven for Porterfield and David Young for Dennis Tueart whose absence was described as “precautionary.”

Orient had been dragged into the relegation battle and were fighting for every point. The replacements performed well in another tough game. David Young scored to earn us a point in a 1-1 draw.

Our form in the league was promotion form. We had gone from joint 19th when Stokoe came in, to 13 wins and four draws out of 22 games later and we were seventh. Alongside this, average gates had gone up from 13,789 under Alan Brown to 31,384 under Stokoe, it was chalk and cheese with the same group of players!

It was now time to concentrate on Wembley as Bob Stokoe took his team to Selsdon Park Hotel near Croydon to prepare for the Cup Final.

I continued to scour the adverts in the media and locally for “my” ticket...


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