Sunderland’s recent performances in the League Cup are hardly a new phenomenon, the competition has been a thorn in the side for the club since its beginnings in the early 1960s as a way to exploit the new attraction of midweek floodlit games. A semi-final was reached in 1963, but this was when several top teams refused to play, seeing the competition as some still do as unwanted fixture congestion. As we begin on another cup run after defeating MK Dons, we revisit the year when alongside failing to hold on to first division status, the club almost put its League Cup hoodoo to bed.
The cup, sponsored that season by the Milk Marketing Board and therefore officially titled the ‘Milk Cup’, began with a somewhat fortunate 2-1 win at home to Crystal Palace, with a brace from new signing Roger Wylde, who despite a promising start to his Sunderland career would surprisingly leave to join Barnsley after only a few months. The Palace goal was scored by former Rokerite Stan Cummins, who would rejoin the club after the tie. Sunderland grafted out a 0-0 draw in the return leg, ensuring an away tie against Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest.
A good performance was had at the City Ground, an early David Hodgson goal being cancelled out just before the break by Forest's Trevor Christie. As all subsequent rounds were single-leg, a replay was needed, and at Roker Park an attendance of 23,184 combined to provide a heated atmosphere, with former Liverpool starlet Howard Gayle eventually seeing off Forest in extra time with a stunning 111st minute breakthrough.
The next round brought the test of Tottenham to Wearside, who were at the time fighting for league title glory alongside the eventual champions Everton. Spurs set up a defensively minded formation which aimed for a pragmatic draw, but in reality they had enough chances to seal a win if it wasn’t for the form of Sunderland goalkeeper Chris Turner. A replay was needed again, and despite expectations being understandably low at White Hart Lane, Chris Turner put in perhaps the performance of his career to secure a 1-2 win, saving a penalty in the process. Sunderland’s goals that day came from winger Clive Walker and long-serving centre half Gordon Chisholm.
The Fifth Round brought a tie away to Watford, the FA Cup runners-up from the previous season, and a club who had an enviable run of midweek cup victories at the time. Struggling with injuries and suspensions, Sunderland could only pull together a makeshift side, but nevertheless a lucky 51st minute goal from Clive Walker, deflecting off one-time England international Nick Pickering’s back, proved to be enough to give Sunderland a semi-final challenge against Chelsea.
Memories of 1973 were in the minds of a packed Roker Park, where a crowd of over 32,000 witnessed a classic first leg performance from Sunderland, with Wallsend-born Colin West providing a brace from two penalties, the first from the spot and the second from a rebound. A 2-0 lead was taken to Stamford Bridge, and despite an early Chelsea goal from David Speedie, Sunderland remained looking strong with Turner again in fine form.
A double from Clive Walker in the 36th and 71st minutes put the tie out of Chelsea’s reach, which brought the ire of Chelsea’s expectant fans, a certain number of whom responded in an aggressive manner, spilling out onto the pitch in an apparent aim to get the match abandoned, much like Newcastle’s fans would a few years later in a Division Two play-off semi-final. Seats were torn away and thrown onto the pitch as missiles. The game was stopped briefly to allow police to react, who arrived on horseback, trampling supporters who had invaded the pitch. As a farcical background, the police were still chasing supporters on the pitch after the restart, as Colin West broke free and scored to make it 1-3. Consistent Chelsea bad-boy David Speedie decided to join in the violence with an x-rated tackle on Shaun Elliott, getting a red card in the process. A late Pat Nevin consolation goal made it 5-2 on aggregate, and Sunderland were through to the final, whose players chose to immediately flee to the changing rooms upon the final whistle to escape Chelsea’s hooligans. Unfortunately, with 40 injuries and 104 arrests, Sunderland’s performance wasn’t to be the main news story of the game.
With great performances and ugly scenes on their way, Sunderland were through to the final at Wembley, where Len Ashurst’s men would take on Norwich City. Wearmouth Bridge was painted red and white for the occasion, and tens of thousands made the trip to the twin towers. In stark contrast to the semi-final second leg, the fans fostered a jovial and friendly atmosphere, mingling freely and exchanging scarves, so much so that it came to be known as the “friendly final” in a media and political atmosphere which was increasingly coming to demonise the average supporter.
Sunderland had to deal with a critical absentee, with a suspension for the captain Shaun Elliott necessitating local teenager David Corner to replace him. Forward Colin West, who looked in superb form in the semi-final, was dropped out of the squad completely. In an era when clubs were only allowed to name one substitute, John Devine was chosen on the Norwich bench ahead of former Sunderland legend Gary Rowell. Future Sunderland manager Steve Bruce also started for the Canaries.
The game started brightly for Sunderland, with Ian Wallace and Clive Walker coming close in first half, but as time passed it was clear that it was Norwich who were taking the initiative. Early after the restart a shot from Asa Hartford from the edge of the area cruelly took a major deflection off Gordon Chisholm, leaving Chris Turner with no chance. Sunderland’s best chance to equalise came with a Clive Walker penalty, who blasted it wide of the post, giving him the unwanted distinction of being the first person to miss a penalty in an English Wembley final. For the game as a whole, Norwich’s sharp passing style outdid Ashurst’s commitment to the counter-attack, and the game was deservedly won by the Canaries. Due to the events at Heysel that season, however, they would be denied a place in Europe.
The disappointment carried on over to the league, with Sunderland managing only one more win out of their remaining twelve games, sealing relegation to Division Two alongside their cup defeaters Norwich. Ashurst was sacked, replaced in the close season with Lawrie McMenemy, whom at that time seemed like a coup after his successes at Southampton. I don’t think I need to tell the majority of readers what happened after that.