Wearside at Wembley Part One – Jim Fox
You knew the die was cast when we won the league game at Carrow Road 3-1 the week before the final. This being Sunderland, a cloud of pessimism descended on the long road home from Norfolk: we would surely lose at Wembley. The final itself was a familiar tale of “what if?” dilemmas. What if Colin West, the hero of the semi-final, had played?
Crucially, what if Clive Walker’s 48th minute penalty had not hit the post? David Corner could have avoided Jeff Brown writing a play about him by choosing to do what most of us would have done. It would only become apparent later that the goal itself was of dubious legality.
If you weren’t there, I can confirm the stories you will have heard about our fans outnumbering those from Norwich by maybe a 2 to 1 ratio. Tickets were plentiful as I remember: we ended up literally giving one or two away. I recall a midweek Travel Club jaunt to Southampton I was on where, strangely, Len Ashurst travelled down on the bus and decreed that anyone hard-core, or stupid, enough to be present deserved a ticket. The club made good on the promise despite the obvious fact that anyone on board would surely have already had a ticket.
The final, and the win at Norwich, would do us no good, of course. Both finalists were relegated, Sunderland only winning one game between the Wembley date and the end of the season. The end of season and much beyond that would, of course, be somewhat overshadowed by events in Brussels in late May.
This game became known as the “friendly final” but I recall an incident on the tube after the game which belied this impression. The legendary Sammy the Chin from Ryhope ended up in our carriage and became very animated and aggressive with a group of yellow and green bedecked fans in the doorway. The reason? A completely random Norwich fan had snapped the flimsy wooden stick on which his SAFC Wembley flag had fluttered. He was as enraged and inconsolable as a child, as I recall, refusing to accept any rational assessment of the contextual triviality of the incident.
1990 and 1992
Both games were an anti-climax to the campaigns which had gotten us there in the first place.
Liverpool were expected to win comfortably, and did in the end. Again, John Byrne, the hero of the campaign, provided the “if only” moment in the first half but trooping away from Wembley to find a pub, the feeling was we’d had our fun at Hillsborough, West Ham and Stamford Bridge and a repeat of 1973 was never on the cards.
It’s fair to say, however, that Armstrong’s header in the sixth round replay provided one of the best moments of our lives and, after all, you could boast that you’d seen Warren Hawke in a cup final, not something anyone had predicted.
I remember, in 1990, a Swindon fan on the tube laughing when I bitterly cut short his celebrations by informing him that their financial misconduct would see them denied promotion and the prize given to us. He wasn’t laughing on June 13th when the news broke.
I claim no perspicacity in this matter. It was widely rumoured on Wearside, and in Swindon where I had a good source, that the match itself was a meaningless charade such were Swindon’s misdemeanours, extending, it seemed, even to the cooking of books down to sales of programmes revenue level.
To this day, unsubstantiated stories persist on Wearside that Bob Murray was visibly blasé about the game having been tipped-off days before by the League that were we going up anyway.
It’s just as well the game had no bearing. Sunderland, being Sunderland, were simply dreadful and basically didn’t turn up on a hot May day in north London. Swindon were superior all over the pitch and although the winning goal was a fortuitous deflection, the defeat would have been much heavier but for Tony Norman’s heroics in goal.
In some ways, the 1990 play-off was an anti-climax anyway: after all, we’d won our “final” in the epic two-legged battle with the enemy earlier in the month, Marco’s clinching goal at the Temple of Doom being another of those moments in your life that make your whole time on the planet worthwhile.
Twin Towers? More like Twin Peaks, a blend of mystery, tragedy, laughter and pathos, much like the reality of supporting this great club. Let’s hope more memories, and better ones, are made this Sunday.
See the second part in our Wembley instalment from Jim on the ill fated Mercantile Credit Tournament and the final piece from Wear The People’s Mal Robinson later in the week.
Wearside at Wembley - Mercantile Credit Trophy Special
If you thought the Sherpa Van Trophy was bad it was the Champions’ League compared to the living death which was 1988’s Mercantile Credit Trophy.
If you’re a younger reader and therefore thinking “WTF” as I believe you hipsters say, think yourself lucky. If you are old enough to have been actively supporting Sunderland 25 years ago, you are probably experiencing flashbacks which would shame a Summer of Love acid survivor.
I should start by saying that, in theory at least, I have free will, and I had a choice: I had the option of not going for God’s sake. However, this is Sunderland and the prospect of missing any “competitive” game is anathema so duty called and Wembley beckoned. After all, there was a whole week between the tournament and a short trip to Southend: easy.
This abomination of a “tournament” was conceived as the Football League Centenary Tournament and, obviously, brought to you by sponsors Mercantile Credit finance. How productive a sponsorship in terms of business growth this proved to be remains unknown. I’m sure profits slumped in its aftermath.
Qualification was based on clubs’ records over a certain number of games during the season and, unfortunately, our march towards promotion meant we were duly invited to participate. Enthusiasm was not rampant on the streets of Hendon.
The League was hopeful, or naïve, in thinking that holding it at Wembley would create interest and spectators: they were wrong. The Saturday saw around 41,000 attending and the Sunday, Finals Day, about 17,000. It seems not having Chelsea, Spurs, Arsenal and West Ham playing may have been a tactical error.
The teams unlucky enough to qualify were: Aston Villa; Blackburn; Palace; Everton; Luton; Man Utd; the Mags; Forest; Sheff Wed; Sunderland; Tranmere; Wigan; Wimbledon and Wolves.
For the record, if anyone cares, the tournament was won by Nottingham Forest whose iconic leader, Brian Clough, wisely decided to give the whole weekend a miss. Forest won on penalties in the end, massively eclipsing their paltry two European Cup triumphs.
The method of victory was appropriate in as much as the League had failed to consider that the duration of games on Day One, twenty minutes each way, would inevitably lead to goalless draws and hence penalty shoot-outs. Mind you, the League would probably argue that the lottery of a shoot-out only added to the excitement of what was billed as the inevitable “family fun day out”.
The games on the Sunday were of thirty minutes each way duration but it is not insignificant that two of the quarter-finals, one of the semis and the final itself were decided on penalties.
The biggest winners that weekend were Tranmere Rovers, firstly because they beat the Mags 2-0 in the Quarter-Finals but mainly because it was only a year since they had come very close to going out of the League entirely. Tranmere would see more of Wembley in subsequent years, of course.
Never mind all that, I hear you cry: what fate befell our beloved Sunderland in the white-hot cauldron of the national stadium that day? Unsurprisingly, 1973 apart, it was at Wembley so naturally we lost. Following the pattern of the entire pointless spectacle, forty minutes of will-sapping, brain-numbing inertia against glamorous Wigan Athletic produced a goalless draw followed by a defeat on penalties: I can’t remember the score so meaningless was it.
What I do remember, for the only time in my life, was praying that we would lose on penalties so I could have an excuse to leave and either spend the rest of the day more productively drinking in the capital or catch an early train back north: I chose the latter option as I recall.
The League, in its wisdom, had somehow overlooked the logistical challenges posed to travelling fans by a tournament whose duration involving your side was unknown. We had catered for this by the obvious expedient of having open rail tickets and arranging to stay over with London Branch members in the unlikely event of qualifying for the Sunday: no chance. As it turned out, I remember being back in Sunderland in time for the highlights on that night’s Match of the Day. When I say highlights, I am sure it was a short programme.
Looking back, why I bothered at all is hard to fathom. We got to Wembley late due to dallying in a rather hospitable London hostelry near Kings Cross. We did not, however, get there late enough to miss our game with Wigan but had missed the twin treats of Tranmere beating Wimbledon 1-0 and the Mags drawing 0-0 with Liverpool then beating them on penalties.
Leaving Wembley that Saturday, however, I had my revenge, taking it all out on an unfortunate Wolves supporter. Violence I hear you ask? No, worse than that: I gave him my ticket for the Sunday. His team having already been eliminated by Everton (yes, on penalties) he was reluctant but he was staying over anyway and the offer of money and free beer to take it off my hands clinched the deal.
You’re envious now, I can tell. You just wish they would arrange another such tournament soon, don’t you? It was terrible. I must add that those who criticise the new Wembley can have spent little time in the crumbling wreck which the old one was even then and certainly was ten years later for the Charlton play-off game.
Looking back, given the Metropolitan Police’s notoriously cautious approach to games in the capital, it’s a wonder the event took place. The Met could have saved everyone the time and trouble, not to mention cost, by simply banning the whole fiasco on public order grounds.
Given that one of one’s priorities for a long time when in London with Sunderland is checking fixtures and tube routes to estimate the likelihood of running into rival fans en route to or from other grounds, one might imagine that London on Mercantile weekend resembled modern day Syria.
After all, we were there as well as the Mags, their traditional allies in all things anti Sunderland Forest and, of course, Leeds United with whom we share a certain history going back to the sixties, one might say.
I stand to be corrected but this was not the impression I got, at least on the Saturday. It seemed that such was the stupefying dullness of the entire event that even the most dedicated adherent of “bother” was lulled into a soporific state of pacifism, deeming the triviality of the contest and lack of kudos attendant on its whole proceedings unworthy of lifting a hand or launching a boot. There can be no greater shame, surely, than a football tournament even hooligans cannot be bothered to fight at.
The last word on the accursed Mercantile Credit trophy belongs to a certain Sunderland magazine of the era called Wise Men Say which, in one of its not uncommon satirical moments, suggested that the Football League Centenary would have been better served as a commemoration by an It’s a Knock-Out style drinking contest in which diehard drinkers from leading clubs gathered in a suitable London hostelry, the winner being the last man standing.
Knowing our luck, of course, it would still have gone to penalties or, in this case, pints of Whitbread Trophy the pint, as the slogan says “that thinks it’s a quart” but you wish was a half!