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Football; Sunderland rue another year of dashed dreams

Wearside's day of tears was the latest in a long line of failures. Simon Turnbull reports
IT WAS in the Roker Review on 2 December 1972 that Bob Stokoe, in his first programme notes as Sunderland's manager, penned the immortal line: "I am no miracle worker."

Six months later the football world declared otherwise. Stokoe was the trilby-topped messiah who had led Sunderland from second bottom of the Second Division to the greatest FA Cup win of them all.

In the 25 years and 22 days since Stokoe's Sunderdogs slayed the mighty Leeds United, it has seemed to the faithful folk of Wearside that a lifetime's worth of football dreams come true were used up on the afternoon of 5 May 1973.

It has seemed much the same to the region that was once dubbed the hotbed of football. Not since Bobby Kerr clutched the FA Cup more than quarter of a century ago now has a club from the North-east of England lifted a major trophy.

Not since then, either, has a North-east club won at Wembley. In four visits each since then, Sunderland, Newcastle and Middlesbrough have all failed to savour victory beneath the twin towers.

"Maybe we used up too many prayers back in 1973," Bob Stokoe mused yesterday, the morning after fate - if not the supreme power above - conspired so cruelly against Sunderland in a fantastic First Division play-off final.

While Peter Reid endured the full range of managerial emotions at pitch- side, Stokoe, now 67, was at home in Hexham, 20 miles west of Newcastle, watching Monday's Wembley drama unfold on television.

"It's very sad," he said. "I really feel for Michael Gray. He must have been devastated walking off there after missing that penalty. I feel for Peter Reid, too. But I have to say that the goalkeeper let Sunderland down so badly yesterday.

"Lionel Perez should never have come out for that corner when Sunderland were 3-2 up with five minutes left. If he'd stayed on his line Richard Rufus would have headed the ball straight into his hands.

"Goalkeepers win you games and lose you games. It was like in 1973. Jimmy Montgomery won us the Cup final. That's why I ran on the pitch to embrace him at the end."

On Monday, in an ironic throwback to 1973, a Sunderland goalkeeper raced on to the hallowed turf to embrace the central figure in the drama, but in consolation rather than celebration. Tony Coton was the first to comfort Michael Gray after the penalty miss that handed game, set and promotion match to Charlton 4-4, 7-6.

He was not the last. Daniele Dichio quite honourably and quite rightly insisted that he, and not his team-mate, had cost Sunderland promotion. The sitter he missed, with Sunderland 3-2 ahead and 15 minutes of regulation time remaining, defied belief.

But, then, Sunderland fans had seen that kind of thing before at Wembley: Clive Walker's penalty miss at the same target, the Tunnel End goal, in 1985. They had seen their team lose that Milk Cup final, the 1990 play- off final and the 1992 FA Cup final - and play appallingly each time too.

On Monday at least the 41,000 Wearsiders in attendance had the satisfaction of seeing their side rise to the big occasion. The previous 11 North-east teams to visit Wembley did nothing more uplifting than turn up.

So heroic was Sunderland's failure the first caller to the morning phone- in show on BBC Radio Newcastle yesterday was a Newcastle United season- ticket holder offering sincere commiserations to listeners on Wearside. "It's a pity Newcastle didn't put up a show like that in the FA Cup final," Harry from Blyth lamented. "It reminded me of Sunderland in 1973."

For Sunderland's supporters, it seems, there is no getting away from the past - and, sadly, no catching up with it either. Not since 1955 have the red and whites finished in the top half of England's top division. No wonder Reid's final words on the steps of Wembley were for those who have supported what has long been a losing cause. "We've got the best supporters in the country," he said. "We've got to get them in the best division."

The North-east's Wembley woes

1974 FA Cup final: Newcastle 0 Liverpool 3. Joe Harvey's Magpies, Malcolm MacDonald et al, are shot down by a ruthless Liverpool. A certain Kevin Keegan scores twice.

1976 League Cup final: Newcastle 1 Manchester City 2. Dennis Tueart, former Newcastle schools star, puts a spoke in the wheels of the club he supported with bicycle-kick winner.

1985 League Cup final: Sunderland 0 Norwich City 1. Clive Walker misses a penalty in what was then the Milk Cup final but the black cats are licked by Gordon Chisholm's own goal.

1990 Zenith Data Systems Cup final: Middlesbrough 0 Chelsea 1. Boro, managed by Colin Todd, finally make it to a Wembley final. They lose to a Tony Dorigo free-kick.

1990 Second Division Play-off final: Sunderland 0 Swindon Town 1. Beaten by a deflected Alan McLoughlin shot, Denis Smith's team win promotion because of Swindon's financial misdemeanours.

1992 FA Cup final: Sunderland 0 Liverpool 2. Swept to Wembley by caretaker manager Malcolm Crosby, Sunderland give Liverpool half a game before two second-half goals.

1996 Charity Shield: Newcastle 0 Manchester United 4. After losing the title to Manchester United, Kevin Keegan's cavaliers - including pounds 15m new recruit Alan Shearer - lose face against Alex Ferguson's team.

1997 Coca-Cola Cup final: Middlesbrough 1 Leicester City 1. Emile Heskey's equaliser two minutes from the end of extra time denies Boro their first major trophy. They lose the replay at Hillsborough.

1997 FA Cup final: Middlesbrough 0 Chelsea 2. Boro are clapped on to the Wembley pitch but - their long- haul season having already led to relegation - they are clapped out after 43 seconds, the time it takes Roberto Di Matteo to score.

1998 Coca-Cola Cup final: Middlesbrough 0 Chelsea 2. Paul Gascoigne is a pounds 5.5m passenger on his debut as Frank Sinclair and Di Matteo score the goals that give Chelsea another comfortable win.

1998 FA Cup final: Newcastle 0 Arsenal 2. The Magpies twice knock on wood, Nikos Dabizas striking the bar and Alan Shearer a post, but they would have been the luckiest-ever Wembley winners to have triumphed with such a negative approach.

1998 First Division Play-off final: Sunderland 4 Charlton Athletic 4. Sunderland lose 7-6 on penalties after losing the lead three times.