We have been this way before, those of us of the red and white persuasion: heading down Wembley Way supposedly without a prayer. Emerging from Wembley Park tube station on the morning of 5 May 1973, the first sight was of some great bearded loon standing on a wooded crate, spouting fire and brimstone, clutching a wooded placard that proclaimed: “The end of the world is nigh.”
Much the same message was given to we Sunderland supporters heading to the 1973 FA Cup final by the Daily Telegraph’s football correspondent that morning. He forecast a six-goal win for Leeds and “a masterly display befitting the 50th anniversary of the Wembley Stadium”.
Plus ça change. Forty-one years on, it all feels a little like history repeating. Or so the 31,000 Sunderland fans who will be at the new Wembley today can only hope.
For the benefit of those too young to remember the days of tank tops and flared trousers, the Sunderland side of 1973, rank outsiders from what was then the Second Division (now the Championship) were not hit for six by the mighty Leeds United, the swaggering top-flight, top-class Manchester City of their day. They confounded the odds, the experts and the mongers of doom, causing an FA Cup final shock of Richter Scale dimensions.
So can we dream of more tremors when the Gus Bus pulls up at Wembley and the boys who have been in the nether regions of the Premier League all season get ready to take on Vincent Kompany and Co, the mutli-millionaires of Man City?
The answer is a highly qualified “yes” – or a “yes, possibly.”
For one thing, it will take a liberal drop of the Spirit of ’73. Sunderland might have been a second-class side in terms of League status back then but they were a team on an irresistible, inspirational roll. They were fourth from bottom of the Second Division when Bob Stokoe arrived as manager the previous November but outclassed a Man City mob featuring the talents of Colin Bell, Rodney Marsh, Mike Summerbee and Franny Lee and an Arsenal XI boasting Alan Ball, Charlie George and Ray Kennedy en route to the FA Cup final.
On the big day they did the same to the great Leeds side of Bremner, Giles, Lorimer and Gray. It was a supremely assured all-round team effort – from Jim Montgomery making his celebrated double save, the unheralded Dick Malone shackling Eddie Gray (a winger of sufficient wizardry to have nutmegged George Best in a 5-1 win against Manchester United the previous season), the outstanding Dave Watson and the young Richie Pitt shackling the Leeds forward line, Bobby Kerr, Mickey Horswill and Ian Porterfield holding their own (and, more often than not, sway) in central midfield, right through to Billy Hughes, Dennis Tueart and the bustling Vic Halom stretching the Leeds defence. And to Porterfield’s peach of a winning goal, of course.
Gus Poyet’s players will need something similar today. And they have shown they are capable of it.
It helped that Man City turned up for their annual 1-0 defeat at the Stadium of Light in November in generous pipe-and-slippers mode, allowing Ki Sung-Yeung to get a grip in midfield and Phil Bardsley to steal into the box and score – and that they proceeded to spend virtually the entire second half contriving different ways to fail to beat Vito Mannone. It was like the Alamo with blanks.
Still, a 1-0 win against Manchester City is no mean achievement (even if it was Sunderland’s fourth in four seasons at home). It would have surely been different had Paolo Di Canio still been in charge. Some of we long-in-the-tooth followers of the red and whites always thought the Italian was an act. And not a very good one.
Sitting at home watching Final Score back on 21 September, it was clear that his Kamikaze management had hit the point of no return. “What on earth is he doing out there?” the exasperated Martin Keown demanded as Di Canio stood on the pitch shrugging his shoulders, holding his hands out and pulling faces at the Sunderland supporters staring aghast at him at The Hawthorns. “A manager should be in the dressing room talking to his players after a defeat like that.”
The cut of Poyet’s managerial jib has been a measured joy to behold for those of us who frequent the stands at the Stadium of Light. You might not agree with everything he does, but you can see the method and the organisation. You can see the spirit – it overcame Chelsea in the quarter-final of the League Cup and Manchester United in the two-legged semi-final. And we have seen some of the best football Sunderland have ever played – as in the 3-0 derby win at St James’ and the 4-1 victory at Fulham.
So here’s hoping today... for a crucial wonder save or two from Mannone, for a winning cup final shot to go alongside the faded snap of the Porterfield goal that I have hanging on the wall in front of me as a write.
That would be wonderful for long-suffering Sunderland supporters of all ages. For we veterans of ’73, however, it is enough just to be going back down Wembley Way today – via the joyous detour of Memory Lane.