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- Aug 1, 2010
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Sunderland's FA Cup final victory over Leeds 40 years ago was a poignant one for my father. There is nothing better than underdog stories and this was the greatest one of all
At a little before quarter to five on 5 May 1973, Ken Burns raised his left hand into the air, lifted his whistle to his lips and blew. Across Wearside, there was a scream of relief. At Wembley, Bob Stokoe got uncertainly to his feet, adjusted his trilby on his head and set off on an uneasy jog towards Jim Montgomery. On the terraces, fans who had been whistling desperately for the end for at least 10 minutes could at last celebrate. And amid it all, my dad always said, he felt a shaft of sadness as the realisation struck that football could never be this good again.
My mam had no interest in football, she said. She went down to London with my dad but made no attempt to get a ticket for Wembley, instead going shopping. A little before half past four, she found herself walking past a crowd on Oxford Street and realised they were watching the game through a TV shop window (the superb Tyne Tees documentary Meanwhile Back in Sunderland shows a similar scene outside Vision Hire in an otherwise deserted Sunderland town centre). She stopped to check the score and, of course, ended up anxiously waiting there in the rain until the end.
My dad had been at every round. He'd had a season ticket since the end of the war. He'd served his time, witnessing Sunderland's descent. And that's one of the problems of having been one of the dominant forces in the game in the 1890s: everything thereafter is almost necessarily descent. He grew up on tales of the Raich Carter-Bobby Gurney side that won the title in 1935-36 and then, the following year, at last lifted the FA Cup, beating Preston in the final. (It's hard now to conceptualise just how overdue that must have felt. I was in the British Newspaper Library in Colindale on Monday and skimming a Sporting Life from April 1899 I happened on a piece that spoke of "Sunderland's eternal wait for Cup glory", of "all the years of failure and near-misses". In 1899.)
But what he saw was a team wasting tens of thousands of pounds in transfer fees, being found guilty of under-the-counter payments to players and then, in 1958, a first relegation. He saw the hope and broken promises of the 60s. By November 1972, there was a serious danger that the decline would take Sunderland into the third tier. When Allan Brown was replaced by Stokoe, Sunderland lay 19th and had won just four games all season.
What followed was one of the greatest stories in the history of football – people can cite Wimbledon in 1988 and of course in terms of the size of the club and where they'd come from there is something in that, but when I once suggested that to my dad, he slowly lowered his paper and muttered, decisively: "Finished seventh in the league that year." Sunderland's league form improved quickly and relegation soon ceased to be a serious threat while the Cup offered an absurd romance. When Sunderland beat Manchester City 3-1 in a fifth-round replay, City were 10th in the First Division. The previous year only a choke on the title run-in had cost them the championship. They were a bona fide giant. So loud was the Roker crowd that night that Malcolm Allison, City's assistant manager, returned to the ground the following morning to see if some sort of artificial amplification had been rigged up.
"If you weren't there, you'll never know an atmosphere," my dad always said. In 1992, when my generation of Sunderland fans had our Cup run, we were left under no illusions that this was a weak simulacrum of '73. My dad refused to go to the quarter-final replay against Chelsea in '92 (our equivalent of the City game; what I remember most about that match is the awesome silences at the pauses in each chant, he said because away fans had been given the Roker End and he didn't want to watch from anywhere else. Perhaps that's true – it was the kind of cussed thing he did – but I now wonder if he feared spoiling the perfection of his memory of the City match.
When Sunderland beat Arsenal in the semi-final, the Gunners were second in the First Division and had won the Double only two seasons before. This wasn't grubbing through as Sunderland did in 2004, getting past nobody better than Sheffield United on their way to the semi-final; these were genuine giants they were beating, and the result, as Brian Moore noted, was that they "had lived of late on the rising passions of north-east football"; the impossible had begun to seem inevitable. Life, for everybody, began to revolve around Wembley. Every shop was bedecked in red and white, every waking moment devoted to finding a ticket – and the queues, of course, were better in '73 than in '92, when my dad and I and some mates did overnight shifts in the streets round Roker Park, waiting 18 hours for our semi-final tickets.
And so to Wembley and Leeds, managed by Don Revie, who had been part of Sunderland's relegation side in 1958. Leeds, it goes without saying, were giants, one of the two most successful sides in the country over the previous decade. They were the Cup holders, were in the Cup-Winners' Cup final and would go on to win the league the following season. And yet, in a sense, they were probably the ideal side for Sunderland to play. Their unpopularity guaranteed Sunderland the support of pretty much the rest of the country, while their professionalism came to seem like negativity and paranoia alongside Sunderland's relaxed approach, exemplified by Billy Hughes and the laughing box he kept setting off in interviews.
There was a mass exodus from the north-east to London. Meanwhile Back in Sunderland shows the scene at the station that morning, the sense of carnival clear in the damp dawn light. Among the vox pops, they interview a woman of about 50, a scarf wrapped around her neck, a huge rosette pinned to the lapel of her jacket. It is, apparently, an unstaged moment.
"Oh yes," she says. "I'm off to see Jimmy, my son-in-law. He's Sunderland goalkeeper."
"Do you think he's going to keep them out?"
"Oh yes. He'll keep them out. He'll do that."
"Are you thinking of a score?"
"Well, I said 1-0. That's my idea. We're going to win, of course."
I don't think my dad ever watched the match again, wanting to preserve his memories of the day as he experienced them (a terrible gamble, given the way Alzheimer's consumed him) but, having been born three years after the final, my knowledge of the game is only from video. I can't think of it without hearing Brian Moore's commentary, can't see the corner that led to the goal without reflecting on little Billy Hughes, moving more freely again: "Deep one again. Watson is right in there, so too is Halom … Porterfield! … Oohhh, Porterfield has scored! … The underdogs are in the lead."
Or Montgomery's double save: "Reaney, the high one in and Cherry going in and a great save and a goal … No! … My goodness I thought Lorimer had got that one." And, of course, the sense of disbelief only enhances what an extraordinary block it was. Up piped Jimmy Hill: "Well, we'd better look at it now because this is very vital," he said as the first replay was shown. "I must say it looked as though the ball had hit the staunchion [sic] at the back, let's look closely … underneath the bar and out! … We can look at it now from behind the goal as it turns out to be an incredible miss. There it is, Lorimer coming in … Oh, in fact it wasn't, what a save! That was a fantastic save!" So fantastic it took three viewings to realise what had happened – even if Monty was just fulfilling his mother-in-law's prediction.
And then, those epic final seconds, Stokoe pulling a blanket over his knees and pushing it off again, tension oozing through the screen (the greatest final seconds, obviously, the greatest ever whistling for time: "If you weren't there, you don't know what tension is."). Moore loses it completely, his syntax all over the place as he is caught up in the emotion of it all. "We have got one of the biggest upheavals of all time at Wembley … It seemed and the experts said that there was no way that Sunderland could win except that it looks as though they're going to … They came from the north-east with hope, and they're going to go back with the Cup … A great result for Sunderland and, with all due deference to Leeds, a great result for football."
And it was. Too great, perhaps, for where do you go from there? Sunderland fans had taken out a vast emotional mortgage that, 40 years later, they are still paying back. There is nothing better in football, in sport, in life, than underdog stories and this was the greatest of them all. Nothing since has ever matched that, nothing possibly could. If Sunderland do stay up this season, it will ensure their longest spell in the top flight since that first relegation in 1958. In a sense, this is the golden age – although it really doesn't feel like it. Even if some benefactor arrived and funded a charge to the Premier League title, could that ever have the same impact? I look on fans of clubs who have seen sustained success and it appears a tremendously wearying thing, a process less of glorious yearning for the golden prize than of grimly staving off decline.
I used to regret that I hadn't been alive for 1973 but as the years go by – and it's with some horror I realise that longer has now gone by since Sunderland won the Cup than between their two Cup victories, that Stokoe was only six years older then than I am now – I become increasing grateful. Imagine I'd been six or seven when it had happened: without a history of failure, how could I ever fully have appreciated it? How could I ever have enjoyed football again? My dad at least had 28 years of frustration to provide context, but afterwards, he, and most fans there, must have been left like Lazarus in the Browning poem, struggling to live on earth having witnessed heaven. That sadness he felt at the final whistle was the recognition that the moment of the greatest fulfilment is also the beginning of decline.
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