My FA Cup of woe
My Dad took me to Sunderland’s first home game of the 1947 - 48 season. I was just seven years old then but 61 years later I still remember entering Roker Park that first time, seeing the pitch and experiencing the excitement of being among a great crowd of supporters all wanting ‘their’ team to win. It was only later that I felt the bitter disappointment when we didn’t! But by then I was hooked - I became and still am a Sunderland supporter!
I’m 68 now and, unfortunately, still waiting for the Club to be consistently successful. Yes - we’ve had some great players and good teams but have only managed to win one major trophy - the 1973 FA Cup when, against all the odds, Bob Stokoe took his Second Division side to Wembley and beat Leeds 1 - 0. Even today, 33 years later, the team are still considered heroes by the Club’s supporters.
Once the game finished I could relax and enjoy the excitement of winning. But that feeling was only possible because we won. What does it feel like to lose a game everyone expects us to win? Believe me there have been plenty of those down the years but probably the most upsetting was our defeat away to Yeovil Town in the 4th round of the Cup in 1949. To understand why it was such a shock we need to start by looking at Sunderland’s stature when football restarted after the end of the War.
Fred Hall, Sunderland’s captain shaking hands with the Yeovil mascot (image right) - how much does he remember of that day?
At the beginning of the 1948 - 49 season Sunderland were the First Division’s big spenders (indeed they became known as the ‘Bank of England Club’ because of the huge transfer fees they were prepared to pay ) and were expected to do well. They had won the FA Cup in 1937, beating Preston North End 3 - 1 but had lost by the same score in the 1938 Semi Final. The club’s most recent signing was Len Shackleton who joined Sunderland from their arch rivals, Newcastle for a British record fee of over £20000. The season started well, only one defeat in the first nine games and, in October, we comfortably beat the FA Cup holders - Manchester United.
Unfortunately this form wasn’t maintained but our League results improved during January and, in the third round of the Cup, we won easily at Crewe. In the Fourth Round we were drawn away to Yeovil Town. I remember my Dad and his brothers having to look at a map to find where Yeovil was. We learned that special trains were being laid on to take supporters to the game but because these would leave on the Friday and not get back until the day after the match none of our family could go. However quite a few friends and neighbours (we lived in a pit village just outside Sunderland) were going and, on that Friday, I watched them set off, all sporting the club’s colours of red and white. Everyone was quite confidant the team would win easily and leave us just three games away from appearing in the Final yet again.
For Yeovil the match was a great opportunity and, as it turned out, they took it with both hands!!
Now I don’t know about the Yeovil mascot but I can’t remember exactly what I did that Saturday. I was quite sure we’d win and the only question would be, by how many? Imagine, then, my shock when I arrived home to hear the result and found everyone looking stunned and my Dad saying ‘ 2 -1’, I don’t believe it, ‘2 -1’. I quickly realised things hadn’t gone well and decided to keep out of the way until the mood in the house improved. Believe me it took some time. I think it was only when we saw the headline in the local Sports paper that we finally accepted the result. . Everyone was absolutely devastated, as, deep down, we knew this result could haunt us for a very long time.
Next day the supporters who had left in such a cheerful mood began to arrive back, tired, dishevelled and disheartened, many without the scarves and rosettes they had worn when setting off. What had they to look forward to - just a few hours sleep and then back to work down the pit!
60 years have now passed but the result is still remembered, not only in our family, but throughout football in general. There had been about 16000 spectators including 3000 from Sunderland crammed into Yeovil’s ground. Much has been made since then of how close they were to the pitch, how the ground sloped steeply and how effective were Yeovil’s long ball tactics.
Man of the match - keeper Dickie Dikes gets the ball away again (image right).
I couldn’t believe any of these should have made a difference. All our supporters I’ve ever spoken to still believe we should have won - after all, we were the First Division side. Nothing else should have had any bearing on the result. Even today talking about the Yeovil result makes Sunderland supporters feel uncomfortable. Fortunately it has now passed (almost) into history and we no longer get routinely embarrassed by it. However we’re still not allowed to forget it completely - commentators and reporters often use it as the yardstick for surprise results. Perhaps we will never be allowed to forget and it will always hang around our necks like the Ancient Mariner’s albatross!
Finally, in 1958 I became a professional with Sunderland and had the good fortune to meet one of my boyhood heroes, Arthur Wright, who was generally considered to be the best left half never to be capped by England. After retiring from playing he became a coach with Sunderland. On one away trip I found myself sat beside him in the team bus and, knowing he had played in the Yeovil match, summoned up the courage to ask him why he thought they had won. He was quiet for a few seconds and then said - ‘They played as a team and they wanted to win. It’s as simple as that!’ I never managed to get him to say anything else about the game.
This was my (FA) cup of woe!
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