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  • lancejohnhardy


Sunderland's incredible 1973 FA Cup triumph was the story that I always wanted to research and write.

As a boy, I had been fascinated by this team in red and white stripes and how, after being placed fourth-bottom of the Second Division in January 1973, they somehow managed to get to Wembley Stadium four months later and gloriously defeat the mighty Leeds United.

As David and Goliath contests go, it is right up there. Above them all, in my opinion. Regardless of honours and silverware, Leeds had 11 full internationals on show that day, while Sunderland had none.

The 1973 FA Cup final had everything. It remains, for me, the most important and wonderful football match of all-time.

For a start, it was the football match of the year, all over the world. At home, television coverage from Wembley started at 10.30am and 11.15am on ITV and BBC One respectively. Those on air times are even more startling when you consider the UK only had three television channels at this time! Nearly 30 million people watched the match in England alone.

Live football was a rarity for us with the FA Cup final, England v Scotland British Home Championship international and the European Cup final shared between the two main channels. And that was it. League football was shown only in highlights form until the 1980s.

Secondly, the FA Cup final usually featured the top sides in the First Division. For instance: in 1970, Chelsea (third in the table) beat Leeds United (runners-up); in 1971, Arsenal (champions) beat Liverpool (fifth); in 1972, Leeds (runners-up) beat Arsenal (fifth) and so on.

It was not unknown for a Second Division side to feature in the final, but it was rare: Preston North End had been the last to do it in 1964. It was even rarer to find a winner from outside the top flight: West Bromwich Albion in 1931.

Add to that the sleeping giant that was Sunderland; a club that had won six Football League titles by the mid-1930s, and had remained a First Division side until 1958, but languished near to the bottom of the Second Division at the start of the year.

Add to that Bob Stokoe; a journeyman manager who had served at places such as Bury, Blackpool, Carlisle United, Charlton Athletic and Rochdale with little success, but wore his heart on his sleeve and possessed passion and belief.

Add to that Don Revie and Leeds; the most successful club in the country yet reviled, nicknamed ‘Dirty Leeds’ and disliked by feature writers and football fans alike. And at that time, we were unaware of Stokoe’s allegations of attempted match-fixing by Revie before a match in Bury in 1962. That only makes the whole scenario even more remarkable.

The transformation Stokoe made at Roker Park was unbelievable - from the very moment he arrived at the club in late November, 1972. He fixed the clock that had stopped working on the roof of the Clock Stand, switched the night of midweek matches so that shipyard workers could watch their team play and – perhaps most important of all – reintroduced black shorts to the team strip.

Then he set about changing things on the pitch. The players had felt restricted under the highly disciplined rule of previous manager Alan Brown. They soon felt able to express themselves under the relaxed leadership of Stokoe in a more attacking 4-3-3 formation.

Brown remains a complex character to understand. He spent 11 full seasons in two separate spells managing Sunderland, and he is best known for suffering two relegations, but, many –Brian Clough included – considered him to be a genius. He was definitely before his time, introducing training sessions such as shadow play to the English game 30 years before Arsene Wenger was widely praised for it at Arsenal.

In my view, Sunderland would not have won the FA Cup in 1973 with Brown, but they would not have won it without him either. And therein lies the complexity. My belief comes from talking to the Sunderland players from ‘73. All but one of those I interviewed for my book, Stokoe, Sunderland and '73, gave me a strong sense of that. And I interviewed ten of them!

Talent undoubtedly oozed throughout that Sunderland squad, but it had been largely untapped until Stokoe arrived. Six of the FA Cup-winning team – Jim Montgomery, Micky Horswill, Ritchie Pitt, Bobby Kerr, Billy Hughes and Dennis Tueart - came through the club’s youth system, which was created and developed by Brown. Two others, Dick Malone and Dave Watson, were also signed by him.

(Left to right: Jim Montgomery, Dennis Tueart, Lance Hardy, Dave Watson in 2010)

Watson had played at centre-forward for Sunderland under Brown. Billy Elliott, brought in as caretaker manager before Stokoe arrived, moved him back to centre-half. He went on to play in that position 65 times for England. And he remains Sunderland’s most capped England international. The last time Watson played centre-forward for Sunderland was in the FA Cup fourth round replay win at Reading in 1973. And that was the first time Stokoe’s new coach, Arthur Cox, saw his new team play.

Later that same evening, Vic Halom signed for Sunderland. Following Ron Guthrie and Dave Young, who both joined from Newcastle United in the previous month, he was the third player Stokoe added to the squad. The manager called him: “The final piece of the jigsaw”.

He was proved right. Almost immediately, things began to click. The first time Sunderland’s Cup-winning XI played together (at Roker Park on 17 February 1973), Middlesbrough were thrashed 4-0.

The following week, Malcolm Allison’s Manchester City were held 2-2 at Maine Road – Sunderland should have won – in the FA Cup fifth round, and a few days later they were outclassed and overwhelmed by a stunning performance in front of amazing support in the replay.

This match was later voted ‘The Greatest Game ever seen at Roker Park’. The goals were out of this world. Hughes got two of them, and he proclaimed in the bath that night that Sunderland could go on and win the Cup.

Stokoe was awestruck by the Sunderland supporters for the rest of his life: “You tell me any other club in the world – never mind anything else – that can go from 12,000 to 53,000 in the space of five or six weeks?” he asked passionately in my company just a few years before he sadly passed away.

Eric Morecambe’s Luton Town were swept away at Roker Park in the quarter-finals. The crowd of 53,151 was the largest recorded at the old stadium throughout the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.

And Arsenal – winners of the League and Cup double just two years before - were well-beaten at Hillsborough in the semi-finals. “We could have been 4-0 up by half-time,” Hughes told me with a smile on his face.

Stokoe saluted the Sunderland supporters at the end of the match in tears. From this day on, he became known as ‘The Messiah’.

Sunderland’s win over The Gunners prevented a repeat of the 1972 FA Cup final. It also brought together Stokoe with his old foe, Revie. You couldn’t have made it up…

The two managers were simply poles apart, and not just when it came to their managerial achievements in the game over the previous decade or so.

Their personalties were summed up in their attire: the superstitious Revie, who would become England manager the following year, wearing his lucky blue suit; the fervid Stokoe dressed from head to toe in a bright red tracksuit, partially hidden by a cream-coloured mackintosh, and topped off, most famously, with a trilby to cover his balding head.

Sunderland were undoubtedly the biggest underdogs in FA Cup final history. Yet all of the country – Leeds fans aside – were behind them. So, they also remain the most popular underdogs of all time.

This was due to three factors in my view: the romanticism of Stokoe and Sunderland; the stylish way a Second Division side had knocked out such fancied giants as Arsenal and Manchester City on their way to Wembley; and the severe unpopularity of Revie’s Leeds.

Stokoe and his players now indulged themselves. The players spoke live on television from the team hotel. This was a first. It was also a first for someone like Hughes to let off a laughing box live on BBC One, much to the embarrassment of Barry Davies and his crew.

It is a moment fondly remembered by many of those Sunderland fans lucky enough to see it, including Sir Tim Rice. "That was the moment I felt we were going to win the FA Cup," he recollected.

Sadly, those pictures no longer exist, which is a great shame. Interestingly, it was not until I attended Billy's funeral in 2020 that I learned that none of the other players were aware of his plan to disrupt a live television interview in this way. So, maybe it was just spontaneous? After all, that is how the dashing forward played.

It was certainly this carefree nature and attitude that endeared this Sunderland side to the nation. The fact they could play a bit as well obviously helped too…

The match had everything: Ian Porterfield scoring a rare goal with his right foot; Montgomery making the best save ever seen under Wembley’s twin towers; and, of course, Stokoe setting off on the most emotional full-time celebration run the country has ever seen, encapsulated in Sean Hedges-Quinn’s magnificent bronze statue that now stands outside the Stadium of Light.

Kerr, who became the smallest captain ever to lift the FA Cup, told me as we concluded our interview for my book, back in the summer of 2008: "It was something that you cannot put into words. I don't know how you are going to do it. If you can do it, it could be a bestseller."

At the end of the match, David Coleman was in raptures on BBC One as he described the joyous scenes of the first FA Cup winners from outside the First Division in 42 years.

A few days later, 750,000 fans – seven hundred and fifty thousand - lined the streets to welcome the team home to Sunderland with the Cup.

Nearly 50 years on, it still matters so much. And it always will.

The announcement in October 2020, from Sunderland City Council, that Stokoe's Stars will soon receive the Honorary Freedom of the City of Sunderland is long overdue. It will be celebrated far and wide in due course.

It will be a fitting tribute to the team that achieved the greatest FA Cup final shock of all time in 1973.

Stokoe, Sunderland and '73 was shortlisted for Football Book of the Year at the 2010 British Sports Book Awards and also nominated for the Lord Aberdare British Society of Sports History Literary Prize. It is still in print.

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