Sunderland 1973: The Stokoe factor

IT will soon be 50 years since Sunderland pulled off one of the great FA Cup final shocks of all time, beating the pre-eminent team of the time, Leeds United, 1-0 at Wembley. Sunderland, universally considered to be a big, underperforming club, had not won anything since 1937 when they lifted the old trophy and they have not won anything significant since. Outside their Stadium of Light, a very eccentric statue of their manager in 1973, the much-loved Bob Stokoe, is a constant reminder of that glorious day: May 5, 1973.

Sunderland had been relegated from the first division in 1970 and had finished 13th and 5th in their first two second division campaigns. Stokoe took over in November 1972 after Alan Brown was sacked and his arrival seemed to rejuvenate the players at Roker Park. He was 42 years old, although he resembled an elder statesman of the game. He had won the FA Cup as a player with Newcastle United in 1955 and was very much a son of the North-East. His enthusiasm and spirit was quite infectious, something Sunderland needed as their crowds had dropped to around 15,000 in 1971-72 – the lowest since 1915. Alan Brown’s last game, a 0-0 draw at home to Fulham was watched by less than 12,000 people.

Sunderland were in 19th place when Stokoe became manager and his first game was a 1-0 home defeat at the hands of Burnley, but the team then went on an eight-match unbeaten run. Among the eight were the first two stages of their FA Cup run, the third and fourth rounds, in which Sunderland beat Notts County and Reading, both after replays. At the start of February 1973, Stokoe signed journeyman forward Vic Halom from Luton Town and he made an immediate impact, scoring on his home debut in a 4-0 victory against Middlesbrough. Sunderland had moved up the table but they were still too close to the bottom for comfort.

The FA Cup run didn’t really come alive until the fifth round when Sunderland were drawn away to Manchester City, a team that included star names like Colin Bell, Mike Summerbee, Francis Lee and Rodney Marsh. Sunderland were the underdogs, but were far from overawed at Maine Road. It was an excellent game, as acknowledged by The Times: “Nobody could have asked for more from a cup tie: sweat, subtlety, tension on the field and four walls of roaring, involved spectators”. City took the lead after 16 minutes through Tony Towers. Mick Horswill levelled in the 36th minute and then Billy Hughes put them ahead on 68. It was only an unfortunate own goal, four minutes later, that earned City a replay, Jim Montgomery punching a corner from Summerbee into his own net. In a game of 40 fouls, City had Towers sent off seven minutes from time.

The replay was a stirring evening of high drama and passion. Almost 52,000 people, the biggest home crowd for three years, packed into Roker Park and witnessed a Sunderland performance of “vigour, enthusiasm and shooting power”. Halom and Hughes scored excellent goals to give Sunderland a 2-0 lead inside 25 minutes and although Lee pulled one back in the second half, another Hughes goal, turned in at the far post after Dennis Tueart shot across the area, gave Stokoe’s side a 3-1 victory.

Luton Town were beaten 2-0 in the sixth round, a week after the Hatters had beaten Sunderland in the league. The goals came from the impressive Dave Watson and Ron Guthrie. Sunderland were in the semi-finals and were paired with Arsenal, who had been in the past two FA Cup finals and a final of some sort in every year since 1967-68. 

The Gunners played dreadfully at Hillsborough, but Sunderland were outstanding, constantly bothering their first division opponents, notably through Horswill, who was very abrasive in midfield and really stymied England World Cup winner Alan Ball.  Arsenal centre half Jeff Blockley, in particular, had a torrid afternoon and was eventually taken off and replaced by John Radford. Sunderland had given an early warning to Arsenal when Horswill’s was turned over by Bob Wilson. In the 19th minute, Halom took advantage of a bad back pass by Blockley, pushed the ball past Wilson and then rolled it into the net. In the 63rd minute, Hughes made it 2-0, back heading past the Arsenal keeper who could only help the ball into the net. Arsenal were stunned but launched a series of attacks which inevitably came to nothing, mainly due to the efforts of Montgomery and Watson. Five minutes from the end, Charlie George scored for Arsenal, but it was not enough. 

Sunderland were through to the final. Stokoe was delighted and promised his side would not be visiting Wembley just for a day out:  “We are not world beaters, but we won’t be lacking in effort. We are a team of fighters.”

It was very clear the nation was on the side of Sunderland and that Leeds seemed to be painted as the bad boys who had a mean streak of professionalism about them. It was a little unfair as Leeds were also capable of stunning football. “They represent then good, the bad and the ugly in football… and know all the tricks of the trade and how to use them,” said one journalist on the eve of the final. The Timesexplained that Leeds’ success over the past decade has “left them on an island surrounded by reefs of jealousy, as were Arsenal in the 1930s.” At the same time, the newspaper admitted: “The fact that the world wants them to lose will have little influence on them.”

And lose they did, for Sunderland fought, attacked and thwarted the all-star Leeds side, a team full of internationals that had kept their season alive in the league, FA Cup and European Cup-Winners’ Cup. The only goal of the game came in the 30th minute, following a corner by Hughes. Watson went up for the kick, the ball fell to Ian Porterfield, who killed the bounce and swivelled to shoot into the net. 

Leeds had many chances, as they always did, but they found Montgomery in their way almost every time. The most talked-about opportunity came when Paul Reaney’s cross was met by a Trevor Cherry diving header that was saved by Montgomery, but the ball ran out to Peter Lorimer who opted to burst the ne in his own way. Montgomery tipped his shot onto the bar and the moment was gone for Leeds. Montgomery’s double stop was every bit as spectacular as Gordon Banks’ save from Pelé in 1970.

Sunderland had become the first second division side since West Bromwich Albion in 1931 to win the cup. Not for the first time had Leeds fallen at the final hurdle and this time, they must have been equally upset by the reaction of the rest of the world, who seemed to take pleasure from the discomfort of Don Revie’s men. Stokoe, with his trilby perched on his head and red track suit under his raincoat, ran onto the field like an eccentric dad-dancer, embracing Montgomery, the best uncapped keeper in British football. Leeds would be back in 1973-74, winning their second league title in style, while Sunderland took another three seasons to gain promotion back to the first division. They are still waiting to add to their honours list.

The men that won the FA Cup: Jim Montgomery, Dick Malone, Ron Guthrie, Micky Horswill, Dave Watson, Richie Pitt, Bobby Kerr, Billy Hughes, Vic Halom, Ian Porterfield, Dennis Tueart and David Young.

Footnote: Sunderland entered Europe for the first time in 1973-74 having qualified for the European Cup-Winners’ Cup. They reached the second round, losing to Sporting Lisbon after beating Vasas Budapest.

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