Friday, 4 November 2011

Sunderland - Manchester United memories from 1968 to 2007

Written four years ago and recently reproduced on Roker Report - my thanks to them.

If you’re like me then when the fixtures are announced I always look to see who we play first, and then as long as we’re in the same league Newcastle and Manchester United.  

Whilst the games against ‘the Magpie’s’ have provided me with equal amounts of pleasure and pain over the last 40 years they have also, in my view, rarely touched the footballing heights of some of the games I’ve seen between ‘the lads’ and ‘the Red Devils’ during the same period.  And I suspect those lucky enough to have watched Sunderland during this period would have to agree even if our record especially away from home hasn’t exactly been a complete triumph, to put it mildly.

The first time I saw a game with Man Utd was in September 1967, a 1-1 draw at Roker Park.  Not yet eight I vaguely recall that there were two goals at the start.  [Brian Kidd scored in the 4th and Colin Suggett in the 5th according to the record books] Manchester United I know were the reigning league champions and had a star studded line-up featuring Bobby Charlton, Denis Law and, of course, George Best. What I do remember was the noise and being stuck in the boys’ pen at the front of the absolutely immense Roker End packed with over 20,000 standing spectators.

The 51,257 that turned out at Roker Park was 11,000 less than the numbers, of which I was one, at Old Trafford, for the return fixture where home fans knew that they had to win and hope Newcastle United beat Manchester City at St James’s Park for them to retain the title. Sunderland were expected to be like lambs to the slaughter, it didn’t turn out like that; they took Manchester United apart with Suggett and George Mulhall scoring in a 2-1 victory. 

Mulhall I know from speaking to him last year rates that one of his best goals of his career stating:-  “We played exceptionally well; it was one of the finest Sunderland games that I played in during my time there. We had played some good games in the 2nd division and also in the FA Cup but the quality of opposition on that day – Best, Charlton, Crerand, marvellous players. I scored the winner with a header; I got up and headed it back across the goal right into the corner. The players used to call me Chandelier for my heading abilities, or at least some of them, as well as because they used to say I would jump to get out of the way for high tackles, but that was a really good header that one”.

Unlike in 1967-68 I vividly recall the following season’s match at Roker Park, mainly because my dad bought seat tickets in the Main Stand close to the Roker End where I watched mesmerised as the crowd surged first one way and then the next. It looked, and was, slightly dangerous as my dad was to find out many years later during another Man Utd match of which more later, but most people seemed to find it fairly exciting and the mood was light hearted fuelled no doubt by a few pints beforehand. 

I can also recall walking to the ground behind a bunch of away fans, one of whom was wearing a denim Wrangler Jacket that had on the back a picture of George Best with ‘Bestie’ spelt out in metal studs.

What I remember about that game was one player, my dad’s favourite, Charlie Hurley and in particular the way he hung back in his own half and waited for Alex Stepney to kick the ball before he advanced forward to head the ball back like a rocket towards the United goal with the Sunderland forwards haring towards it. Now we are not talking the soft ball of today, so to meet the ball and head it so far was I felt remarkable, I still do.  Good player Hurley. He actually scored that day, an 88th minute equaliser; sadly it was for Manchester United after he couldn’t get out of the way of a Nobby Stiles shot which rocketed off his head and past Jimmy Montgomery.  In some ways this just made me like him even more.

Hurley wasn’t around when we next played Manchester United the following year, relegation bound Sunderland grabbed another 1-1 draw at Roker Park at Xmas, Joe Baker scoring but I can’t even remember if I was at the match or not.

However with Manchester United suffering the indignity of dropping down into what was then Division 2 at the end of the 1973-74 season, and Bob Stokoe’s side unable to build on their FA Cup success, the scene was set for a renewal of hostilities in 1974-75. When the fixtures were announced the trip to Old Trafford was set for November 30th. This was one game that I didn’t want to miss, at any cost, and although my dad had largely stopped doing away games, mainly as a result of working all over the country as a plumber during a period when jobs were once again tight in the north east this was also one he’d circled in his calendar. 

One slight concern for any Sunderland fan wanting to join the thousands certain to travel was the then fearsome reputation of ‘the Red Army’ hordes of United fans who had started the season by invading small towns and home ends up and down the country as Tommy Docherty’s side rushed to the top of the table. Wisely as it turned out my dad and his mates decided on getting tickets in the Main Stand, although not even that prevented some unpleasant incidents, especially for the foolish young United fans who tried to collar ‘Big Bernie’ from Peterlee and suffered the consequences.

So it was that I sat watching as groups of Sunderland fans in the Scoreboard End found themselves having to take defensive action, called ‘legging it’ to avoid getting a kicking, Patrick Garraghan who even today is a decent runner and another of my mates Iain Lambert both showing an ability to get out of the way of some of United’s finest. It took some time for Sunderland fans to gather in large enough numbers to resist getting attacked.

Our seats were close to the then world famous ‘Stretford End’ and it was absolutely packed around 45 minutes before the teams came out. The colour as the United fans swirled their scarves above their heads and particularly the noise was astonishing with the chanting hurting my eardrums.  

Backed by such fervour it didn’t come as any surprise when United took an early lead through Stuart Pearson, but Sunderland buoyed by what I recall was an excellent performance the previous weekend and with the FA Cup performances still relatively fresh had one or two decent players in those days. These included Billy Hughes eventually capped for Scotland, and a man who should have joined him my favourite player of the time Bobby Kerr, a marvellous captain. 

And it was Hughes who gleefully converted Kerr’s drilled cross at the Stretford End to bring pandemonium amongst I’d guess approximately 10,000 Sunderland fans in a crowd of plus 60,000. If that was good things got even better when Hughes snatched a second after a superb 1-2 with Pop Robson.

The roar of ‘Haway the Lads’ could not be drowned even by the Stretford and Scoreboard Ends. Half-time 2-1 and I was sure we were going to win. The reason we didn’t is pretty straight forward, a bloody awful linesman!

Sitting where we were I had a brilliant view of events on pitch and can still see the ball being played over the outrushing Sunderland back four arms aloft appealing for what was an obvious offside as Sammy McIlroy was yards behind them. The expected flag of the linesman never materialised and when Pearson crossed the ball Willie Morgan was on hand to score the equaliser and produce a deafening noise. Even now more than 30 years later I am still annoyed, daylight robbery made worse by the fact that the previous week Sunderland had had a similar goal disallowed for offside against Notts County. Of course who then scored the winning goal, McIlroy and I’ve hated him since.

A 3-2 defeat in a cracking game was no mean feat, and with Match of the Day camera’s in attendance, this was a time when they also showed games from outside the top flight, then it was still a pleasure to return on the bus and watch the highlights of a match that the BBC watching public later voted the game of the 1970’s.

The return match that season in January wasn’t a bad affair; plenty of Man Utd fans I recall made the trip and were housed in the Clock Stand Paddocks with Sunderland fans seated above. There were regular kamikaze attacks whereby Sunderland nutters dived round the metal fence separating the Fulwell End from the Paddocks to launch futile raids. On the pitch the United rearguard also proved similarly impossible to penetrate and it was no surprise that the match, which was again on Match of the Day, ended 0-0.

With Sunderland failing to gain promotion alongside Man Utd at end of the season it was not until September 1976 that rivalries were resumed, with 4 games in less than 2 months, three of them at Old Trafford.  Again there was trouble at all of them, but at least the introduction of ‘the cage’ at Old Trafford whereby away fans were kept divided from the home supporters meant it was a bit safer inside the ground. But of course it made it a lot easier for home fans to identify you when you came out as I discovered by getting a smack after the first league cup game that was a smashing affair on the pitch which ended disappointingly when Jeff Clarke deflected guess who – yes McIlroy’s shot to present the home side with an equaliser at 2-2 in the last 20 seconds of the match.

2-2 was also the result in the replay at Roker Park where Sunderland played ever so well and looked to be heading for victory but guess what; yes Manchester United grabbed a last minute equaliser, when Alan Foggon punched the ball over the bar in the 92nd minute. Daly scored the penalty. The 2nd replay was again another a decent match which Sunderland really should have won as we had loads of chances but a single Brian Greenhoff goal meant the home side moved on to play Newcastle in the next round. 

Less than a month had gone by when Sunderland went back to Old Trafford in the league. During that time Bob Stokoe had resigned after a poor start and Ian Macfarlane had been appointed as the caretaker manager.

The match was a very good game especially as Sunderland were 2-0 and also 3-1 down, before Kerr again laid on another for Hughes and then Bob Lee, signed from Leicester City after the Foxes had turned down Sunderland’s approach to buy Frank Worthington and persuaded us that Lee was a better player [he wasn’t] grabbed his second to send the 5,000 travelling fans in a crowd of over 40,000 wild with delight.  

Sunderland that season looked doomed after losing eight games and failing to score a goal in any of the matches in January and February before they grabbed a rich vein of form that as a young man I recall with pleasure as they thrashed Boro 4-0, West Ham 6-0 and West Brom 6-1.  At Easter they’d grabbed a point away to Leeds in a 1-1 draw, only a day after a 2-2 draw with the Mags at Roker.

Manchester United arrived on Easter Monday looking for a win that would go a big way to helping them win their first title in ten years. However in the lead up to the game it wasn’t the football that dominated the conversations of many young Sunderland fans but United’s fearsome hooligan reputation. This was so bad, or so good depending upon your attitude, that the Football League under considerable pressure from the Labour Government to act had decided to ban United’s supporters from attending away games – this was due to kick-in following the game at Roker Park.

There was huge press coverage given as to what might happen on the day with some papers predicting that as many as 20,000 away fans might turn out for one last scrap.  Naturally not wanting to be outdone some of Sunderland’s own bunch of daft lads decided to mark the occasion by turning out in force. In fact only around 4,000 made the trip to support Manchester United and found themselves massively outnumbered in a 39,000 crowd that roared its approval at what I feel was one of the best performance’s I have ever seen from a Sunderland side as the relegation threatened side won 2-1 with goals from Kevin Arnott and Tony Towers. 

After the match there was trouble outside the Roker End. Some United fans were brutally attacked and some fought fairly defiantly, especially one black guy who I can still recall mainly because I’d guess he was 6” 5’. He took some right blows but never actually went down, which is just as well. With the police in disarray I’m not even sure anyone was arrested.

Sunderland, naturally, still managed, with some help from Jimmy Hill, to get themselves relegated at the end of the season and it was therefore another 4 seasons before hostilities were resumed.

The match at Old Trafford was one of our first away games on our return and Sunderland showed that their victory by four goals to nil at nearby Manchester City ten days earlier was no feat, grabbing a 1-1 draw with Alan ‘Bomber’ Brown from Easington Colliery scoring before a crowd of 51,498 including a healthy 5 – 6 thousand from Wearside and County Durham. In the return Sunderland tore a very poor United side apart to win 2-0 with Gordon Chisholm and Gary Rowell doing the damage.

Not so the following season, crushed at home 5-1 but not before Stan Cummins had grabbed an equalising goal just before half time. However in the crowd surge that followed in the Roker End my by now slightly elderly dad was knocked off his feet and tumbled down the terraces. He was pulled back up by a celebrating crowd most of whom had long gone by the time the referee blew his whistle for the end of the game.

In the return game in March Sunderland shut up shot. Chris Turner played ever so well, as he often did against Manchester United before departing at the end of the 1984-85 season to play regularly there. 

I was more concerned about events off the pitch however as this was the year I’d started to be influenced by the emerging fashion trend that had wormed its way up to the North-East. This was primarily the result of Liverpool ‘scallies’ robbing the living daylights out of any shops when they visited Europe, bringing back with them a range of expensive gear.  Of which Sergio Tacchini track suit tops were one! And so with a take out pay of not much more than £65 a week I believe from my job as a semi-skilled machine operator at Tudor Crisps I’d invested and again this is a guess £45 on one. Little bloody good it did me, some bugger taking their revenge at my showing off by putting a cigarette burn mark on the back – in hindsight he probably saved me a fortune as it turned out, so thanks.

When we next visited Old Trafford it was Xmas, it was 0-0, and  some of my mates went in Father Christmas outfits and with little to film on the pitch the Match of the Day camera’s scanned the crowd to pick them out. No doubt determined to have my own moment of fame I recall, vaguely, managing to drink 9 pints during a 90 minute stop over on the way back and being violently sick.  Both games ended 0—0 that season.

In March 1984 Sunderland lost 2-1 in a drab match at Old Trafford that marked the end of Alan Durban’s reign at the club, Lee Chapman had raised our hopes with one of his few goals to give us an early lead but by the end Sunderland were a well beaten side. Durban when he was Stoke manager had scoffed at the suggestion his job involved providing entertainment suggesting that if that was so then he’d send in the clowns, when he got to Sunderland he signed a few of which Chapman was just one and no-one was laughing.

It is of course the November 1984 game at Roker Park that is rightly remembered by so many Sunderland fans from that period, a classic game that had literally everything – goals, sending offs, a hat-trick hero and a fantastic come-back by Sunderland to win the match 3-2.  It remains one of the best games I’ve ever seen, certainly in the top 25 out of around 3,000 or so I’d guess I’ve seen so far, not all of course involving Sunderland.

Utd arrived in fine form but at home so were Sunderland and had won 5 and draw 2 from their first seven home games. Off the pitch of course the area was in uproar as the miners’ and their wives battled against an intransigent Thatcher led Government and the police determined to destroy the NUM for what they’d done to the Tories during the 1970s.  Sadly by the time the Miners went back to work defeated in March the following year Len Ashurst’s side had slumped down the table to eventually be relegated.

I digress, anyway a confident Manchester side soon swept into a 2-0 lead courtesy of Bryan Robson and Mark Hughes. United’s fans had been given two sections in the by now much reduced Roker End and those Sunderland fans who like myself had now gravitated from the Fulwell to the Roker End had been squeezed next to the Main Stand. The away fans were in fine voice.  Sunderland did manage to get themselves back into the game when Clive Walker got on the end of a Colin West flick to reduce arrears to 1-2.

Then David Hodgson did the best thing he ever did in a Sunderland shirt by getting himself sent off! However in the process he took the best player on the field down the tunnel with him, Hughes reacting to an elbow in his direction. Ten men each and then just before half time two-each when Gary Bailey bundled Gary Bennett over, Clive Walker hammering in the penalty at the Roker End.

Then amazingly Gordon McQueen did exactly the same thing on ‘Little Stan’ Cummins with the same result, a penalty from Walker to make it 3-2 with the Sunderland man this time running over to celebrate in front of our section in the Roker End, queue delirium and some serious noise from all parts of the Sunderland sections.  Total silence from United.

I can recall that Sunderland played some exceptional one touch stuff in the first 20 minutes of the second half. United’s fans headed for the exit long before the whistle and at the end the biggest roar of the season could probably be heard from miles away. A great day.

Another was at the start of the 1990-91 season, when recently promoted Sunderland played a fine game that was capped by one of Gary Bennett’s finest moments for the club, a lovely flick over the Geordie puddin Steve Bruce before curling the ball round Les Sealey in the 90th minute to win the match. Sweet revenge for the amount of late goals they’d grabbed on so many previous occasions. 

In 1995-96 when the draw for the FA Cup third round was made in Peter Reid’s first full season there were some Sunderland fans who thought that the match at Old Trafford might prove a distraction when the side were just starting to mount a promotion challenge. Mind you it didn’t stop them travelling there, because at a time when our average gate wasn’t even touching 20,000 just under half that number made the journey. 

There are times when you travel to watch Sunderland that you have to marvel at the sheer passion of many supporters, and this was one of those days. Given the two  upper tiers at the Scoreboard End we literally scared the living daylights out of their support and just as importantly some of their players. At the start I can remember Eric Cantona taking the time to stare up at the Sunderland fans many of whom like me were standing on their seats. Perhaps themselves frightened by the sheer enthusiasm of those supporting them the X1 on the pitch managed to mess it up by promptly gifting the home side the lead and at half-time it was 1-0 to Fergie’s side.

No doubt buoyed by a talking to from Peter Reid the lads soon showed their mettle in the second half, as Steve Agnew smashed home the equaliser before local boy Craig Russell beat the hapless Neville Pilkington to make it 2-1 and send Sunderland fans mental. I’d like to say we made even more noise, but it wasn’t possible and neither did Sunderland manage to hold on as the said Cantona headed home a free kick that never should have been awarded in the home sides favour.

After the match I moaned all the way to the station, Jim Minton and Steve Trow, who weeks later ended up when pissed composing the original words to the all time Sunderland classic ‘Cheer up Peter Reid’ and sung loudly at Portsmouth for the first time in February 1996, both giving me some stick for being so miserable. They may have been right, but we did lose the replay when the returning Peter Schmeichel showed why he’s been voted the best Premiership goalkeeper ever by producing a magnificent performance as Man Utd came from a goal down to win 2-1.

If there was any doubt who was the better side in 1995-96 there was none when Sunderland returned the following year. We were totally destroyed, it was five and it could have been ten. Now housed in the corner of the Scoreboard End we could only sit, watch and admire especially at the class of one Eric Cantona who capped a marvellous performance by a simply superb goal turning away from his marker and chipping Lionel Perez from twenty yards out. Brilliant and he was!

Having seen his side win so easily Alex Ferguson then committed a major error in the return. Sunderland again rushing headlong back into the 2nd flight stopped temporarily to beat a distinctly 2nd string United side just back from Europe by two goals to one with a Mullin goal setting the crowd alight with his winner in front of the Fulwell End crowd of which I was one.

After another 2 seasons out of the top flight Sunderland under Peter Reid returned in fine form to the top flight and settled down to have decent season. At Xmas despite a 5-0 thrashing at Everton on Boxing Day they lined up against Man Utd for the first time at the Stadium of Light two days later in the giddy heights of 2nd place in the top flight. United, of course, were top.

The match was a marvellous advertisement for top flight football; Sunderland even without the injured and our best player Kevin Phillips was out of the blocks like a whippet and inspired by the simply magnificent Niall Quinn up front raced into a two goal lead. The noise was absolutely deafening.

I was convinced that, AT LAST, we had arrived but that Roy ‘fucking’ Keane had to go and ruin it by inspiring a comeback. However with the lads still 2-1 up with ten minutes to go came one of those ridiculous decisions, which only the top teams get, when Solskaer managed to fall over. There was no-one near him said my mate Jim Fox next to me. Reid after the game said the cheating bastard must have fallen over the sprinklers which were 5’ under the ground. Anyway they equalised from the resulting free kick, I can’t remember who scored and I don’t care, it was complete injustice and still is.

Having a laugh at the match is one of life’s joys, and two incidents in particular remain fresh in my memory from games against Man Utd. The first took place at Old Trafford on April 15th 2000 where before the match I’d once again enjoyed the company of some of my best friends, Stuart, George, Dick, Eric, Rob, John and Catherine, Malcolm and Alan by drinking in the Hare and Hounds in central Manchester. Good beer and cheap too. Cracking place for a drink Manchester at any time.

Ignore the result, a 4-0 hammering but during the match close to the corner flag in the corner where the Sunderland fans were situated the home side were awarded a free-kick. The always helpful Alex Rae picked up the ball and chucked it towards the Utd players, one of whom was Roy Keane and it bounced off the back of his head and back towards Alex. Keane turned round and screamed at Rae who was say 8 yards away before turning back to his team-mate. Anyway you know what’s coming Alex picks up the ball and throws it and it floats through the air to land smack on the back of the sad Keane’s head again. Queue mayhem, Keane’s over to see Rae whose all smiles of course, referee in to speak to the widely grinning Rae, Sunderland fans in stitches.

Now surprise, surprise the other laugh has to be Keane getting sent off at the Stadium of Light on August 31st 2002 in a 1-1 draw. It would take a book, hopefully one a lot better written than Niall Quinn’s autobiography where Sunderland hardly get a mention [now I love Niall Quinn, but what a bloody terrible book and I got 4 for Xmas one year!] to explain the background to the whole affair.

Let’s just say it had something to do with Ireland’s World Cup trip in the summer of 2002 to South Korea and Japan and leave it at that. Keane, as they say, didn’t want to ‘leave it at that’ and managed to get himself sent off after Jason McAteer, in his finest of very few decent moments in a Sunderland shirt, taunted him about his new book on what had and hadn’t happened. Then when Niall ran over to try and shake Keane’s hands in a pre-arranged gesture of friendship, and Alex Ferguson got involved, better than any pantomime I’ve seen!

Just as in 1999-2000 Manchester United arrived at the Stadium of Light the following season in top spot, they were well ahead of the rest and almost certain to win the League. Sunderland in 3rd was 12 points behind. I believe that the match at the time was the most watched football game due to SKY TV having just broken into the extremely lucrative far-east market.

Sunderland played ever so well, the atmosphere was top notch, United again sold their full allocation and made a lot of noise although nothing like the amount made by the home fans especially at the referee – the hapless Mr Graham Poll who ruined a great game by sending off three players, two from Sunderland, missing a clear pull in the box on Quinn by Jaap Stam when it was 0-0 and followed that up by missing an obvious hand-ball by Andy Cole in the run-up to the winner.  Poll’s performance that night was the worst I have ever seen from a referee and I’ve seen a few bad ones over the years.

The 1-0 defeat didn’t seen too crucial at the time but it seemed to knock the stuffing out of Peter Reid’s team over the next few weeks. I realise we wouldn’t have caught United at the top but I think if we’d won that night then we might have qualified for the European Champions League or at worst the EUFA Cup.

That match was the second we played at home to Ferguson’s side that season as in late November 2000 a full strength Sunderland side only just overcame a very young Man Utd side that was magnificently backed by its travelling army of fans, who totally embarrassed the home fans in a near-capacity crowd. Which brings me on nicely to one of the other reasons the games with Man Utd have always excited me and that’s the United fans.

In 1974 after the Old Trafford match we lost 3-2 Argus wrote that ‘there is no more partisan crowd in Britain than the Old Trafford fans’. Sadly today its no longer the case, a combination of the local council and United ‘high-minding officials’, not to mention the massive hike in prices have reduced the home supporters to a whimper – but away from home they remain absolutely superb, just like in the main their team. 

No side in my time watching Sunderland, except obviously Newcastle, has brought more fans to Roker Park or the Stadium of Light and generally Manchester United fans have got behind their side when they’ve got here. The ground is always packed when we play Manchester United and when they last came and their allocation was cut because ‘they’d stood up at away games’ it cut the atmosphere in half. 

In 1965 the great United manager Matt Busby, later knighted after winning the European Cup in 1968, said after a thrilling match at Roker Park that his side won by 3 goals to two that he couldn’t remember a bad game “between two great sides”. Now who am I to disagree which such a well respected footballing authority!

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