Steve Bruce's boys bidding to match heroes of '68

Sunderland haven't won at Old Trafford since day of decisive drama 43 years ago

Click to follow
The Independent Football

As Old Trafford prepares the prawn sandwiches and champagne for Sir Alex Ferguson's 25th anniversary celebration this afternoon, Sunderland are getting ready for the role of afterthought guests. The Black Cats have been this way before.

Some people thought it was all over before they were even on the pitch at the Theatre of Dreams on the afternoon of 11 May, 1968. Kenneth Wolstenholme, for one. "Sunderland, playing in white shirts, realise today they're almost here to make up the numbers," the man behind the Match of the Day microphone said before the two teams emerged.

It was the final day of the 1967-68 season and D-day for the two Manchesters at the top of the First Division. City and United were level on 56 points. City had a better "goal average," as the determining factor was known in those days, but they were away to Newcastle United and under pressure to win. United, as Wolstenholme suggested, were expected to make light work of a Sunderland side that had spent most of the season fighting the threat of relegation.

"Never in League history can a season have moved towards such a breathtaking close, " Ken Jones wrote in that morning's Daily Mirror. "The championship will stay in Manchester. Only the name on the trophy may have to be changed."

United were the reigning champions. They were the kings-elect of Europe: 1-0 up from the home leg of their European Cup semi-final against Real Madrid with the trip to the Bernabeu to come. The previous week they had spanked Newcastle 6-0 at home, George Best scoring a hat-trick to celebrate his naming as Footballer of the Year.

"Georgie! Georgie!" the swaying hordes on the Stretford End chanted as the teams ran out. As it happened, Georgie was not the best man on the day. That turned out to be the boy of 19 highlighted by Wolstenholme before the kick off. "Colin Suggett," he said, as the camera focused on Sunderland's No 10, "a former schoolboy and youth international, an extraordinarily promising young gentleman."

Just how promising became clear after 14 minutes when Bruce Stuckey whipped a low right-wing cross into the six-yard box. Suggett flashed a first-time shot past Alex Stepney into the Stretford End goal.

"Suggett's goal bore the hallmark of Jimmy Greaves in his deadliest mood," Bob Cass wrote in the Newcastle Journal. "One unerring swoop on a cross from Stuckey and the ball was in the net in a flash, drowning the roars of 'We are the champions' into muffled silence."

Suggett was not finished. After 32 minutes he delivered a beautifully measured cross from the right for George Mulhall to head the party-poopers into a 2-0 lead.

Best pulled a goal back in first-half injury time but Sunderland held out for what remains their most recent victory at Old Trafford. City won 4-3 at Newcastle to claim what remains their most recent title success.

Suggett was given a 10 out of 10 for his efforts at Old Trafford in the merit marks in the Newcastle Journal. Now 62, he lives in Sunderland and works as a scout for Glasgow Rangers. "Forty-three years!" he exclaims. "Blinking heck. How can it be that long since Sunderland won there?"

For historical reference, it was the month in between the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. The BBC1 schedule that night included The Dick Van Dyke Show and the Man From U.N.C.L.E.

"It was the only time I think I ever won at Old Trafford," Suggett continues. "Usually United tore us apart. We used to kick off there and watch. And kick off again and watch. And kick off and watch.

"They were very good at the time: Bestie and Denis Law and Bobby Charlton and all the rest. But on that day they were very nervous. I think a little bit of fear was in them about the result. Everything was on the game – the championship – and they froze a bit.

"I think we were so relaxed we got at them – and, to be fair, we were the best team on the day. It all came right for us. We kept counter-attacking them. I had a little bit of pace, and so did George Mulhall and Bruce Stuckey. We turned them around a bit."

Suggett was a supremely talented inside forward with the natural speed of a former Durham county schools 220 yards champion. The first player to be sold by a North-east club for a six-figure fee, when he moved from Sunderland to West Bromwich Albion for £100,000 in 1969, his fleetness of foot famously got him into a glaringly offside position at Elland Road in April, 1971.

In doing so, he inadvertently caused another end of season title upset. The linesman raised his flag and the Leeds players stopped in their tracks but referee Ray Tinkler ruled that Suggett was not interfering with play. Jeff Astle proceeded to score a winner for West Bromwich, and Leeds lost the title to Arsenal by a point.

Suggett went on to play for Norwich and Newcastle before making his name unearthing and developing young talent. At Ipswich he discovered Darren Bent. "I got him out of a Sunday league team in Cambridge," Suggett recalls. "One of my scouts from Newmarket alerted me to him."

The striker was sold by Sunderland for £24m in January. He opened the scoring for Suggett's old club two years ago when, as in May 1968, the Black Cats led 2-1 at Old Trafford with 90 minutes on the clock. The trouble was there were four minutes of injury time to play. In the last of them Anton Ferdinand scored an own goal.

Thus, as well as a 25th anniversary party to poop, there are 43 years of hurt for Steve Bruce and his side to erase when they enter the Theatre of Broken Dreams today.