Man United, 1964 - an epic trilogy - Part 2

Written by Brian Leng

By six-o-clock the orderly queues had disappeared in the sea of people now engulfing the streets around Roker Park and there were traffic jams for miles, including one stretching almost to Newcastle.

The Sunderland team had spent the afternoon at the Roker Hotel and, as Nicky Sharkey explains, were totally oblivious to the chaotic scenes outside until they set off on their short walk to the ground just after six-o-clock.

As soon as we came out of the hotel it was apparent that there were problems and when we reached the New Derby pub on Roker Park Road all we could see in front of us was people.

‘We were trying to tell the fans who we were so we could get through, but their initial reaction was ‘get lost - wait in the queue like everybody else’. Then they suddenly realised we actually were the Sunderland team and it was like the parting of the waters, although it still took us ages to force our way through to the players entrance.

With half an hour to go to kick-off the situation got even worse when the sheer weight of numbers outside of the Roker End brought one of the main exit gates tumbling to the ground. In the stampede that followed, there were numerous injuries as the fans poured unhindered into the ground.

Meanwhile, as ambulances and police reinforcements were rushed to the ground, the rival captains, Charlie Hurley and Denis Law, led out their teams into a cauldron of noise that rolled down from the overflowing Roker Park terraces.

‘The atmosphere was unbelievable,’ recalls Nicky, ‘the crowd were almost sitting on the touchline and the noise was incredible. I remember glancing at the United lads as we rang onto the pitch and you could see they were petrified. In fact, I was talking to Nobby Stiles recently and, although he didn’t actually play that night, he was with the United party and he described the atmosphere in their dressing room before the match as one of absolute fear. He recalls a terrified George Best sitting in the corner with his head under a towel for a full hour before kick-off.’

It was United, starting the game attacking the Roker End, who enjoyed the better of the early exchanges and Law seemed to be in with a chance when he dispossessed Hurley inside the penalty area but the ball broke kindly for the Sunderland skipper and ran behind for a goal kick.

Moments later, however, Sunderland almost took the lead as Crossan, released down the left by Mulhall, cut inside leaving Crerand in his wake before hammering a terrific right foot drive just over the bar.

It was end to end stuff for most of the first half, with both keepers performing heroics to keep the score sheet blank. Then, with only three minutes of the half remaining, Sunderland took the lead with a goal of stunning quality.

There seemed to be little danger as the ball was headed clear towards Sharkey just inside the left corner of the penalty area. But the youngster, taking everyone by surprise, leapt in the air and unleashed a spectacular scissor kick that looped over Gaskell in the United goal and into the far corner of the net.

‘It was just one of those instinctive things,’ says Nicky, ‘as I saw the ball floating towards me I just decided to have a go. Nine times out of ten they end up over the bar but I caught this one perfectly and it gave the keeper no chance. It was far and away the best goal of my entire career.The thing I always remember about that goal is that my dad had travelled down from Scotland to see the game and whenever he'd watched me previously I’d always played badly. At last I’d managed to show him what I was capable of.’

In keeping with the crowd scenes outside the ground, the goal sparked a massive pitch invasion as celebrating fans poured onto the pitch and it was some minutes before the game could be restarted.

Growing in confidence, Sunderland dominated the early stages of the second half and were desperately unlucky not to go further ahead when Crossan broke clear with only Gaskell to beat. Instead of shooting, he tried to dribble round the United keeper but lost his footing at the vital moment and the chance was gone.

On the hour Sunderland had a lucky escape when only brilliant defending by Hurley prevented, first Best and then Law from grabbing the equaliser. But the luck did not last long, for two minutes later Montgomery miss-hit a goal kick straight to Law, unmarked in front of goal, and the United striker promptly drove the ball into the net under the Sunderland keeper’s despairing dive.

A few minutes later United should have been in the lead when, following an incredible scramble in front of the Sunderland goal, the ball broke to Charlton who looked a certain scorer but his drive lifted just over the bar.

Then in the closing stages, Sunderland almost snatched it. Mulhall broke through on the left to beat Gaskell with a left foot shot that flashed across the face of the goal and out for a goal kick. Moments later the final whistle blew to signal a further 30 minutes extra-time.

Incredibly, almost from the kick-off, Sunderland were back in front as Setters, attempting to intercept a through ball from Sharkey, succeeded only in deflecting the ball past his own goalkeeper and into the net.

With time running out, United pressed forward desperately looking for the equaliser and with only minutes remaining Law turned in the box to unleash a tremendous shot which beat Montgomery but struck the underside of the bar and was cleared by Irwin.

That looked to be their last chance but once again Sunderland were to have victory snatched away at the death when, with only seconds remaining, Charlton rose to meet a right wing cross and beat Montgomery with a glancing header.

‘The mood in the dressing room was almost as bad as the Chelsea match the year before,’ recalls Nicky, ‘we just couldn’t believe we’d let them off the hook again when the game was effectively won - we were desperately disappointed.’

Leeds Road, Huddersfield was selected as the venue for the second replay a week later, but days of torrential rain had turned the Yorkshire club’s pitch into a quagmire and the Sunderland players were less than happy when the decision was taken that the game should go ahead.

‘Basically the pitch was a mess and certainly didn’t suit our style of play. As well as that, United had rested a number of players in preparation for the game whereas we’d played an important league game on the previous Saturday. Having said that, we more than held our own for the first 45 minutes then, within a couple of minutes of the restart I slotted one in from close range to give us the lead. Looking back, it was probably the worst thing I could have done because it seemed to spark United into life. Denis Law equalised almost immediately and moments later Phil Chisnall put them in front for the first time in the tie.To be honest, after that we just couldn’t live with them and they ended up putting five past us.

We were all totally gutted after the match, not just because we’d taken a hammering, but because we’d had the tie won on more than one occasion and let it slip.’

At last the epic encounter had produced a winner and in the most emphatic fashion imaginable. As for Sunderland it was very much a case of what might have been but they were able to console themselves with the knowledge that they had made a more than significant contribution to one of the greatest ties in the history of the F.A. Cup.

Perhaps the final word should go to Sir Bobby Charlton who, a few years ago, was asked to select the most memorable match of his career.

In an Old Trafford career spanning almost 20 years, Charlton had won just about every honour in the English game, appeared in World and European Cup finals and won a record-breaking 106 caps for his country. Yet he had no hesitation in selecting the three games against Sunderland, and the one at Roker Park in particular, as the greatest of his entire career.

‘For the game at Roker, even getting to the ground was an unbelievable experience he said, The fans were just going berserk, I’d never known a home crowd get so excited.

There were about twice as many people watching as the official attendance and just as many locked outside - I’ll never forget that night for sheer excitement, drama and emotion, those games had everything. We eventually won through but West Ham beat us comfortably in the semi-final.

Quite simply, the three games against Sunderland had taken too much out of us.’

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