Man United, 1964 - an epic trilogy - Part 1

Written by Brian Leng

Whilst stats show that our record attendance was 31 years earlier, there seems little doubt that it was the epic 6th round FA Cup clash with Manchester United in March 1964 which attracted the greatest crowd to Roker.

On one of the most incredible nights in the history of the club, some say 80,000 fans were packed into the ground with a further 40,000 locked outside amid scenes of chaos and hysteria.

This article realises the full and genuine drama that unfolded in this epic cup-tie. Rarely-seen pictures furnish the story.

At the time, Sunderland were top of the old Second Division and with promotion back to the top flight virtually assured, Alan Brown’s young team now had Wembley’s twin towers firmly in their sights.

King Charlie & Law shake hands (see right).

Built around centre-half and captain Charlie Hurley, Brown had developed a superb attacking side which brought the crowds flooding back to Roker as average attendances topped 40,000.

Leading the Roker attack throughout the promotion season was Nicky Sharkey, a 20 year old Scot who, only a year earlier had been given the mammoth task of replacing goalscoring legend Brian Clough.

Nevertheless, he was soon demonstrating his prowess in front of goal and in March 1963 he equalled an all-time club record scoring five goals in the 7-1 drubbing of Norwich City. However, the season was to end in bitter disappointment when Sunderland, needing only a draw in their final game against Chelsea, lost 1-0 and missed out on promotion.

'We were all absolutely gutted after that match, recalls Nicky, and I didn’t actually go out of the house for almost two months. When I did eventually venture out, I was soon reminded how much we’d let everyone down. We were staying at my mother-in-law’s in Whitburn at the time and had decided to take a bus into town. However, when the conductress came to collect our fares she recognised me immediately and proceeded to give me a right rollicking. ‘You have a nerve getting on my bus,’ she shouted, ‘you and your mates at Roker Park are a bloody disgrace.’ And she wasn’t joking either. I’ve never been so embarrassed in all my life’. So, as you can imagine, when the following season got under way, everyone at the club was determined we wouldn’t miss out again. Our priority was clear - to win promotion at all costs’.

In actual fact, Sunderland were rarely out of the top two throughout the season and clinched promotion in style finishing runners-up to Leeds United.

In the F.A. Cup there had been little more than a passing interest until an emphatic 5th round victory over reigning League Champions, Everton, suddenly had Wearside gripped in cup fever. The following round however, would provide an even stiffer challenge - away to cup holders Manchester United at Old Trafford.

United, who were within reach of the First Division Championship and half-way into the semi-final of the European Cup-Winners Cup, were red hot favourites to retain the trophy and few pundits outside of Wearside gave Sunderland a chance.

However, on the day the Rokermen were more than a match for their illustrious hosts and with less than five minutes remaining they were leading 3-1 and appeared to have booked their place in the semi-final.

‘We thought we were home and dry,’ recalls Nicky, ‘until an unfortunate injury to our keeper, Jimmy Montgomery, allowed United back into the game. He was knocked unconscious whilst diverting a Denis Law shot for a corner and instead of taking a few minutes to recover, he was up almost immediately. When the corner was floated in, Monty was clearly still in trouble as Bobby Charlton scored with a simple header and then, in the last minute, George Best nipped in to grab the equaliser.’

Despite the huge disappointment of United's late recovery, the replay at Roker Park the following Wednesday created massive interest on Wearside. Sunderland decided not to make the game all-ticket and on the morning of the match, almost ten hours before the kick-off, queues were forming outside of the ground.

Click here to go to Part 2.