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Sunderland And Wembley: A Match Made In Heaven And Hell

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After a 14 year hiatus, and 22 long years since a cup was up for grabs, Sunderland are back at Wembley.  Up on Wearside, the talk has been of little else for weeks.  Houses, shops and offices in and around the city and County Durham have dusted off the red and white bunting. 

Forget about the prestige of the League Cup Final, and their Premier League woes.  For this week, at least, Sunderland has gone cup crazy, and at last have more than a stride down Wembley Way again.  It’s good to see them back.  But is it good for Sunderland themselves to see Wembley again?  Down the annals of history, the tale is at best chequered.

Way back in 1937, it was a golden age for the then Roker Park outfit.  League champions the year before, a first ever FA Cup triumph beckoned.  Preston North End, however, had other ideas, taking the lead in the Final just before half time.  Undaunted, the prolific Bob Gurney equalised within 10 minutes of the restart.  History called, and 20 minutes, Roker captain, the legendary Raich Carter, answered it and put his side ahead.  Eddie Burbanks wrapped things up smartly five minutes from time.  The FA Cup was going to the North East, courtesy of a 3-1 win.

If Sunderland had been marginal favourites for that Final, 36 years later, they were the rankest of rank outsiders.  Bob Stokoe had been brought in to ease Sunderland away from Second Division relegation trouble.  Despite being 250-1 outsiders even at the last 16 stage, Sunderland shocked everyone by making the FA Cup Final, despatching favourities Manchester City and Arsenal along the way.

Facing them, however, were the feared Leeds United, revered by their own followers, grudgingly admired but intensely disliked by others.  A curious mixture of fitness, craft, skill, tactical awareness, superstition, gamesmanship  and cynicism had brought them success but at a cost of losing the respect their ability deserved.  Added to that Stokoe’s antipathy of Leeds boss and ex-Sunderland player Don Revie, over an alleged offer from the latter to the former to ‘throw’ a game back in the 1960s, and the 1973 FA Cup Final was of David and Goliath proportions, with almost the entire country willing Sunderland on despite the apparent hopelessness of their situation.

That rainy afternoon in early May, though, Sunderland lit up Wembley, with a display every bit as elegant and determined as their feted opponents had ever accomplished.  The late, great Ian Porterfield pounced in the six yard box after Leeds couldn’t clear a corner with just over half an hour gone.  Deservedly, too.  “Sunderland have done what they’ve threatened to do”, cried out commentator David Colman, echoing how the game had gone.

The best – and most astonishing – was yet to come.  Twenty minutes into the second half, Leeds were pouring forward, clearly rattled as time ticked away.  As the ball came into the Sunderland box, Trevor Cherry bulleted a header on the edge of the six yard box, which Sunderland keeper Jimmy Montgomery dived to parry out at the far post. 

Only to the feet of Peter Lorimer, reputedly the hardest shot in football, who controlled the ball and aimed it hard and true to the other side of the goal, the goalie on the floor.  “It’s a goal!” shouted radio commentator Peter Jones.  Monty, though, had other ideas.  He got to his knees and somehow contorted his body to get a hand to the ball.  It miraculously cannoned off the bar and was booted clear. 

Leeds players and supporters couldn’t believe it.  Kids and adults alike across the nation, as well as in the ground, screamed in delight and amazement.  A right footed shot from a canny left footed Scot, and the greatest save Wembley had ever seen, took the FA Cup back to Sunderland, amid a media frenzy, with even the sun coming out to seemingly pay tribute to a remarkable day in football history.

Twelve years later, and the Rokerites were back, their first League Cup Final at stake.  After a run that included wins at Tottenham and Watford, inflicting their first domestic cup home defeat in eight years, Sunderland made it to Wembley amid chaotic scenes at Stamford Bridge.  Police on the pitch, horses clearing the invading Chelsea fans, but Sunderland back at Wembley to contest the 1985 Milk Cup after a 5-2 aggregate win.

The hero of the semi-final--Colin West, scoring three of the five goals--was amazingly dropped from the squad altogether for the final, prompting him to thump then manager Len Ashurst when told the bizarre news.  Scorer of the other two semi-final goals, and instigator of the riot at Chelsea by scoring twice against his former club, Clive Walker, was to have just as hugely disappointing time, despite playing in the Final itself.

Sunderland had fallen behind early in the second half against Norwich City thanks to a Gordon Chisholm own goal, after David Corner infamously failed to see a ball out.  Within a couple of minutes, however, Dennis Van Wyk had needlessly handballed inside his own penalty area.  History was again to be made.  But for all the wrong reasons.  Clive Walker stepped up and became the first player to miss a penalty in a cup final at Wembley, his weak kick hitting the foot of the post and going out for a goal kick.  Sunderland duly lost 1-0 and had played horrendously.  Within two months, Sunderland’s First Division membership, and manager Len Ashurst, had both gone. 

Three years later was one of the most bizarre appearances at the old Twin Towers ever.  By virtue of going on a 15 game unbeaten run in the Third Division, Sunderland were invited to participate in the Football League’s centenary weekend in April 1988,with a competition involving 16 clubs, and matches 20 minutes each way, going straight to penalties if level at the end.  To match the bizarre weekend, Sunderland, instead of drawing more glamorous opposition, were paired with the only other Third Division side, Wigan Athletic, and went out on penalties after a forgettable 0-0 draw, in a three quarters empty stadium. 

If 1988 was bizarre, 1990 was beyond belief.  After scraping into the playoffs for a place in the First Division, it was déjà vu for Sunderland.  A famous win at bitter rivals Newcastle United in the semi-final initiated a pitch invasion from the home supporters.  This was followed on a roaring hot May Monday afternoon by an abysmal performance against a Swindon Town side guided by Ossie Ardiles.  Sunderland again lost 1-0, and really should have been beaten by a lot more, the woodwork and profligate finishing preventing further embarrassment.  Sunderland again conceded an own goal, too, this time through Gary Bennett. 

On this occasion, though, Lady Luck played its most outrageous card.  Under a previous administration, Swindon Town had clocked up innumerable offences relating to financial irregularities.  The penalty was devastating.  Swindon was demoted from the top tier almost immediately, with Sunderland sensationally given their promotion spot.  Incredibly, the Black Cats became the first, and probably only, team to win after losing a Wembley final. 

Relegation followed the next season, criminally throwing away their good fortune, but Sunderland just couldn’t keep away from Wembley.  Another FA Cup Final came in 1992 as a Second Division team, defeating West Ham United and Chelsea in classic ties along the way.   Yet again, Sunderland performed poorly, with talisman John Byrne, having netted in every round, missing early on when it seemed easier to score.  Their opponents that day, Liverpool, won comfortably, with a stunning Michael Thomas goal and an Ian Rush strike putting the game to bed in the second half with something to spare.

Forward another six years, and once more a playoff final for top flight football.  Their opponents, Charlton Athletic, had secured 14 more points than Sunderland had gained in 1990 in qualifying for the playoffs.  In 1998, though, Sunderland had two more than them, not promoted despite amassing a superb 90 points.  Wembley waited expectantly for a classic between two cracking teams.  What they got went way beyond even those expectations.

It all seemed so straightforward at Wembley that afternoon.  Sunderland were living down to their by now customary Wembley form, Charlton leading 1-0 at the interval through a Clive Mendonca strike, the forward being Sunderland born and bred and supporter to boot.

The pyrotechnics exploded in the second half.  Within a couple of minutes, Niall Quinn bulleted home a Lee Clark corner.  The Sunderland end erupted, celebrating their first Wembley goal in 25 years.  Soon after, Kevin Phillips sprang the offside trap and beautifully lobbed in.  Delirium.  It seemed as if, this time, Sunderland would win gloriously at Wembley again, when after Clive Mendonca equalised, Niall Quinn doubled his tally and restored Sunderland’s lead within a couple of minutes with a superb touch and low shot.

3-2 with just a few minutes left, anyone would shut up shop.  The youthful team, under the inspired motivational skills of manager Peter Reid, had other ideas.  Including their keeper, Lionel Perez, who incredibly came out for a corner at the death he had no chance of claiming.  Richard Rufus, presented with an empty net, headed home his first ever goal in professional football to level it up and 3-3.  The air around the Sunderland dugout became bluer than the shirts Reid used to wear.  Perez never played for the club again.

An air of unreality settled around Wembley.  When Nicky Summerbee made it 4-3 to Sunderland in extra time, the cheers were almost muted, as if the fans knew that wasn’t enough.  True to form, Sunderland lad Clive Mendonca completed his hat-trick.  And so it came to penalties.  Shot after shot.  Goal after goal.  6-6 became 7-6 to Charlton.  Up stepped Mickey Gray.  He, and his side, would go on to have better days after this.  But at the time, his and Sunderland’s world ended when his weak spot kick was easily saved.  Sunderland had become the first, and probably only, team to score 10 goals in a Wembley final and still lose.

So what will happen this weekend?  Your guess is as good as mine.  There are, however, some certainties.  Sunderland’s supporters will bring noise, colour and friendliness to Wembley, matching their Manchester City counterparts in loyalty and replicating the Eastlands supporters’ reputation for warmth, singing and humour.  And however Sunderland play, something out of the ordinary will happen underneath that giant Wembley arch come Sunday afternoon.

One way or another, be it their heaven or hell, Sunderland at Wembley – well, it’s unmissable!