The place: Hillsborough. The time: towards 5pm on April 7 1973. Sunderland, unfancied and in Division Two doldrums, have reached Wembley. John McCormick was there to witness this further step towards glory and now continues our 40th anniversary series …
One of my friends, a passionate Liverpool supporter, went to the 1986 Liverpool-Everton cup final without a ticket and ended up being drafted as a steward. He says the only explanation is that God smiled on him that day.
Well, he’s not the only one to have been so blessed. I didn’t realise it at the time, but God had smiled on me, one day in 1973.
I was a 3rd year student at Hull with my final exams approaching. I hadn’t been back much but I had managed a decent cup run, not only getting up for Reading and Luton but also making the away games at Notts County and Maine Road, although the replays had all been beyond me. Now, though, I had a problem – the semi-final against Arsenal might only be 60 miles away but I didn’t have a ticket, I didn’t have transport, I didn’t have much money and I’d never been to Sheffield so couldn’t expect to find my way around the place. Moreover, I really needed to be in Liverpool that evening.
In truth, all of this was irrelevant; not being there was not an option. So, after a quiet Friday night in my local (the Mainbrace, anyone?) I took an early morning bus to the outskirts of Hull and stuck my thumb out. Within minutes I was on my way, but only to a roundabout outside Doncaster. As roundabouts go this one was unremarkable, apart from the fact that it was deserted. I was there for quite a while – long enough to feel concern – when a van driver came out of a small side road and stopped. As I opened his door he said, with a hint of apology,
“I live round the corner and I know nobody uses this roundabout so I thought I’d better stop for you, but I’m only going to Sheffield”.
A half hour walk, even allowing for stops to ask the way, and I was at the ground with time to spare.
So far, so good. Now, what about a ticket? Although touts were out in force I didn’t want to pay their exorbitant prices, assuming I could afford them, so my first thought was to try the Hillsborough ticket office in the hope of unsold or returned tickets. Of course, this was a forlorn hope even though I received a sympathetic hearing; all of the tickets had been sold and there had been no returns, and I wandered out empty-handed.
As I paused outside the office, pondering my next steps, my thoughts were interrupted by a lady who had followed me out. She told me she worked for the club and had a ticket for her son but he didn’t want it. She had been on her way to return it when she heard my story and, not wanting to speak inside, had followed me out to check I was genuine, which I obviously was. Private sales weren’t allowed but as long as I promised not to tell anyone (she could get into trouble) and, especially, not sell it on at a profit I could have his ticket at cost price, and would I like it? After 40 years this lady, whose name I never learned, should be safe. Madam, you have my eternal gratitude and I hope you don’t get the sack if your bosses read this.
So, what does any self-respecting student with a match ticket do while awaiting his mates? That’s right, he finds a pub. Unfortunately, the one I found was full of Arsenal supporters. Arsenal were a top team then, as now, (they finished 2nd, 3 points behind Liverpool and 4 points ahead of Leeds in 72-73) and these fans, probably expecting to demolish us on their way to the double, kept coming out with
“San’lan’ San’lan’ for the cap. Will they win it, will they fa*k.“
After a while, probably still euphoric after getting a ticket, I felt the need to respond and I let rip in my best Geordie accent (I’m not a Mackem, never will be) with
“Aye, we’ll fu** Arsenal”.
There was stunned silence throughout the pub as I turned back to the bar and continued drinking my pint, outwardly calm and serene but inwardly crapping myself as I realized what I’d done.
Now, maybe these fans had never been past Watford before and thought all Northerners were totally hard and suicidally insane – I don’t know – but I got away with it and, if my memory is correct, the pub stayed quiet and then started to empty. Did I really see off an entire pubfull of Arsenal fans on my own? Of course not, but even now I wonder how I survived.
And we did fu**Arsenal. Billy Hughes was magnificent and Vick Halom never stopped working his ticket, to name two, but it was really a whole team effort. Arsenal just couldn’t match us for skill, guts and sheer determination. Bob Wilson was their star man as we played them off the park, although the last 15 minutes were frantic and the last 5, after Arsenal scored, went on forever. What a game!
Then, when we’d finished celebrating and I was on my way again, I bumped into Dave Watson and Bobby Kerr in the car park and had my one-and-only conversation with Sunderland players.
(On the lines of
“Nice game, Dave” .
“And you, Bobby.”
but it still counts, and, given the circumstances, it’ll do nicely).
On my way again? Well, maybe. I was effectively lost in Sheffield, relying on road signs for direction and my thumb for transport, and time was passing. I was hoping for Manchester and then a train but I waited so long I began to think about heading back towards Hull or even towards the Northeast, just to get going. Then, as I was pondering the merits of looking for a bus, someone stopped and said
“I’m going to Birkenhead, is that any good?”
Too right it was. The Birkenhead ferry docked near the bus station, providing an easy finish to my journey, and I spent that night, wearing a borrowed tie and a six-inch grin, telling a host of people I’d never met before that I was going to Wembley…
… I did go to Wembley and a few weeks later I graduated. All in all, 1973 was a good year for me. But that one day, 7th April, that one special day, that was the day God looked on me and smiled.