Not for the first time, and probably not for the last, Pete Sixsmith harks back to schooldays (those spent as a pupil, not teaching at Ferryhill) and shares for the young’uns his priceless memories of a winning visit to Old Trafford. There’s even a spot of advice for Steve Bruce on how he might pull off our second surprise win there in a mere 43 years …
May 11 1968 was the last time we won at Old Trafford. I was 17 years old, idling my time away in the Lower Sixth at Bishop Auckland Grammar School, dozing through Miss Wilson’s English History lessons and desperately trying to impress Mr McConnell with my European history essays. What I didn’t know about the Diet of Worms wasn’t worth knowing, believe me.
I must have gone on John Tennick’s bus to Manchester, paid my five bob to get into the Main Stand Paddock, where I bumped into Mike Clarke, a former BAGS pupil who was at University in Manchester. He ate an apple and winged the core at a passing rozzer, catching him on the back of the helmet. He’s probably a High Court Judge now.
We went into that game as a team on the up. Ian McColl had been sacked in February after a poor run of results and Alan Brown had been re-employed, poached from Sheffield Wednesday.
Ironically, McColl’s final game had been a win at Hillsborough where Ralph Brand, a man who could outdo the Brucester for broken noses, had notched the winner.
Brown concentrated on tightening the defence up, recalling Charlie Hurley to the team and slipping Martin Harvey in at right back. He also signed Calvin Palmer from Stoke City and promptly dropped him from a vital game at Sheffield United because Palmer refused to go to the pictures, claiming that he had seen the film. I wonder how the Bomber would have related to Carlos Tevez or Asamoah Gyan.
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By the time we rolled into Old Trafford, we were sat in the lower third of the table, clear of relegation (Fulham and Sheffield United went down that year, Coventry escaping by a point), so there was no pressure on our mix of bright young things (the Colins Todd and Suggett) and wily old campaigners (George Herd and Gordon Harris fitting this description to a tee).
On the other hand, United had a very intense period. They knew that they had to win this game and hope that Joe Mercer’s City team failed to win at Newcastle in order to take the title for the second successive season – some feat in those dim and distant days.
In addition to that, they had a European Cup semi-final second leg in the Bernabeu on the Wednesday night. They led Real Madrid by a single goal and although Puskas and di Stefano were no more, Real were still a very formidable side.
This was the closest Matt Busby had come to a European Cup Final since 1958 so it must have been difficult for the likes of Bobby Charlton and Bill Foulkes to concentrate on the Sunderland game, knowing that they were two games away from fulfilling the destiny of that magnificent 1958 team, so cruelly ripped apart on the runway at Munich airport.
So we played with no pressure. Good goals from Suggett at the near post from a Bruce Stuckey cross (remember him and you are showing your age and your anorak) and a rare header from another wily old campaigner in George Mulhall were met by roars from the thousands of Sunderland fans scattered all over Old Trafford. No executive seating, segregated areas and heavy handed stewarding in those days. We just got beaten up in the stadiums instead.
Georgie Best pulled one back just before half time, but my very selective memory suggests that we were never under any real pressure as United huffed and puffed and Todd, Hurley and their fellow defenders saw us home comfortably.
Meanwhile, “110 miles away to the North East” (Kenneth Wolstenholme’s words on Match Of The Day) City were winning the title with a 4-3 win over the Mags. No multiple radio broadcasts in those days, so the scores kept filtering through as men stood on the terraces with Ferguson transistor radios glued to their ears.
There is a lesson for Saturday. Like Gordon Harris, Ian Porterfield and co. we have no real pressure on us. We are expected to lose and probably will if we stick five in midfield and leave Bendtner on his own up front.
It is highly probable that Cattermole, if recalled, will receive at least one yellow card (three if Graham Poll were still available) so why not have a go at them? Some changes are unavoidable: Westwood in goal for the unfortunate Mignolet and Bardsley for the unlucky O’Shea are certainties.
So, let’s keep Wickham in the team alongside Bendtner, with Larsson and Sessegnon giving us some width. United struggled to beat Otelul Galatai on Wednesday, prompting the headline “United show little adventure in routine win” in The Guardian.
But should we revert to type and cram the midfield on Saturday, they will probably be able to dust down that headline for Monday.