What a humdinger of a game this was, on this day in 1967. The Busby Babes were in town, Best, Charlton, Kidd, and Stiles et al easily one of the most talked about teams of the era and champions of Europe by the end of the season - could we get anything out of this contest?
As I took my place in the “Boys Enclosure” I could hardly contain myself, I was so excited to see this Manchester United team that everybody was raving about and to see my idols pit their wits and skills against them. The crowd was a whopping 51,537 for a midweek fixture under the lights and apart from the Newcastle games the previous season, I had not stood in a 50,000 plus crowd, it was making my hair stand on end as I watched the crowd surge and the noise cascade around the ground.
As if the excitement levels weren’t ramped up enough, there were two goals within the first five minutes. The Red Devils had gone on the attack right from the kick-off with clever work from Bobby Charlton and Pat Crerand setting up a great chance for the best thing ever to happen to eggs, Georgie Best. His shot produced the first of a string of brilliant saves from Jimmy Montgomery, in a stunning performance in the Sunderland goal.
Crerand (probably Man Utd’s best player on the night) was involved again a minute or two later, receiving a clever pass from Charlton and drilling a cracking cross that just went over George Kinnell and Charlton’s head, only for Brian Kidd to ghost in at the far post and power the ball into the back of net in front of the Fulwell End.
The massive crowd was momentarily stunned, but galvanised itself and the team as the Roker Roar cascaded down from all four corners of the ground in defiance of these young aristocrats from the North West.
Big games and big crowds demand big game players. Step forward ‘Slim’ Jim Baxter. He just loved the big stage and along with Monty’ produced a world class performance of guile, skill, and almost balletic motion as he glided through the game with time and space to spare.
Receiving the ball on the left (attacking the Roker End goal) ‘Slim’ beat two defenders and slid a short perfectly weighted pass to Colin Suggett. The youngster cleverly beat a lunging Nobby Stiles, and in a flash had hammered his shot past Alex Stepney from twelve yards out. It was a peach of a goal and maintained Suggett’s goal a game ratio in a five-match streak (he scored seventeen goals in all competitions that season).
The equaliser, apart from triggering absolute joyous mayhem in the stands, also triggered a masterpiece of a game as both teams went at it hammer and tongs with skill and pace a-plenty.
In a see-sawing game, Stepney made a great save from “Bullet” George Mulhall. Kidd sent a screamer just over the bar. Len Ashurst then burst through after exchanging neat cleverly weighted passes with Baxter, before Stepney just managed to turn the shot around the post as the Boys Enclosure tried to suck the ball into the back of the net.
Then it was Ralph Brand’s turn to exchange passes with Baxter, just as they had done in their glory days with Rangers. The United defence was sliced open as Brand advanced on goal. I thought this was a goal all the way like many in the Roker End and my hands were aloft in salute as the shot left Brand’s boot, only for it to cannon off Stepney who knew little about it.
Stiles then went off injured to be replaced by Fitzpatrick as Kinnell headed a pinpoint cross from his cousin “Slim Jim” but it flew just past the post. Georgie Best then lit up the paddock, he was so quick and dynamic, I heard a dad of one of the lads in the enclosure describe Best as “like a snake, you know it's going to bite you, but you just cannot stop watching”.
Best easily beat two Sunderland defenders and clipped a great cross to Kidd right in front of goal. It was a heart in the mouth moment and as real time slowed down, the ball sailed harmlessly by him as he seemed to mistime his jump in front of an almost empty goal.
Best kept cutting in with the ball, I pretended this was to get away from Ashurst who did seem to have his measure, but more than likely it was to front up Kinnell whom he terrorised all night. Having turned Kinnell inside out, Best fired in a great shot, only for Monty’ to turn it just round the post, what a save!
Then it was the turn of George Herd to play “tikka takka” with Baxter. Two quick-fire passes saw Herd dance his way into the heart of the defence and let fly, but Stepney produced a cracking save to keep the scores level. Suggett a minute or two later found a little space and slid a lovely pass to Brand at the far post. Once again time seemed to slow down as my arms were in the air a little too soon.
The Scottish forward hacked wildly at the pass with his right foot missing the ball completely, but in desperation jabbed his left foot out and redirected the ball goalward. Unfortunately for us Stepney had rolled anticipating the right foot shot, his momentum saw the ball cannon off him to safety when a goal looked odds-on and once again, Stepney knew little about the save.
Monty then saved brilliantly from another of United’s best players on the night full-back Francis Burns and a moment later saw a Burns effort go just by his post as the game swung again.
In a beautiful bit of play, Crerand slid a great pass into the path of the on-rushing Best right in front of goal, but Monty once again was there to get to the ball just in front of Best and avert the danger. Best then brilliantly beat his Northern Ireland colleague full back John Parke and looked to be in on goal.
From nowhere (and perhaps driven by the roasting he had been given up to this point in the game) Kinnell slid in and tackled the ball to safety. Monty had time to make one more good save from David Sadler as the half-time whistle blew.
I could not imagine how the players felt trooping off for their cup of tea and a slice of orange, I was exhausted and needed some of my “midget gems” to revive me, especially if the second half was to be as good as the first!
The second half started where the first half had finished. Colin Todd, a classy performer on the night, made a crucial interception on Charlton and seeing the space open up in front of him, he seared forward with his uncanny pace.
He must have carried the ball forty-five yards to the edge of the United box and was about to let fly when Charlton, who had been just about trailing in his wake since being dispossessed just got a challenge in to knock “Toddo” off his shot. It was another hands-on head moment.
Shortly after this, Ashurst produced another lung bursting run and cross, which Suggett cleverly dummied right in front of goal, sitting Stepney down on his toosh! The ball landed at Herd’s feet and he lashed a shot goalward, only to see it cannon off Stepney’s foot and rebound to safety, the third time on the night he had known little or nothing about the save.
Sunderland’s defence and Monty had to withstand some punishing pressure with Crerand, Best and Charlton to the fore. Monty made at least three really good saves as defenders threw themselves in front of shots and crosses.
The game then swung again, with Baxter the gallous conductor cajoling and creating. Charlton was beaten in the United third by Baxter, who then swivelled one way to drag United defenders lunging to block, but he lobbed a pass the other way to Brand who had read Baxter’s intent perfectly. What a ball!
Unfortunately whether a cruel bounce or poor control the ball appeared to spin up and hit the poised Scot on the hand for the award of a free kick to United, when a goal had looked odds-on again.
Sunderland might have won the game at the death, Baxter involved in both, but this would have been a tad harsh on the Red Devils who had more than played their part in one of the most exciting games I had seen at Roker Park up to that point in my Sunderland supporting “career”.
We were up to 4th in the top division after this result with six games played and thoroughly deserved this. The huge crowd enthusiastically clapped both teams off the pitch and Matt Busby heaped praise on Jimmy Monty’ and his own youngsters after the game.
As for me, “Slim Jim” was my idol and this game had provided the perfect platform for the left footed wizard to cast his spell upon me, as well as many of my fellow fans young and old.
Wednesday 6th September, 1967
Sunderland 1-1 Manchester United
[Suggett 5’ - Kidd 4’]
Sunderland: Montgomery, Parke, Ashurst, Kinnell, Todd, Heslop, Baxter, Herd, Brand, Suggett, Mulhall Substitute not used: Gauden
Manchester United: Stepney, Dunne, Burns, Crerand, Foulkes, Stiles (Fitzpatrick), Ryan, Sadler, Charlton, Kidd, Best