Countdown to Wembley: merriment, misery and mishaps on Sunderland cup final days

Jake: 'que sera sera'
Jake: ‘que sera sera’

John Penman and his 10-year-old daughter Hayley are fixtures in the East Stand at home games – home for Sunderland, a longish trip south for them. Hayley is promising to become Salut! Sunderland‘s youngest columnist, younger even than Sixer. She won’t be at Wembley, willing to settle this time for a One Direction concert, but dad will. Here John retraces the steps of ghosts of cup finals past …

It was the 1973 FA Cup when it all began for Sunderland AFC and me. We had only been living in Ayrshire for a year having moved from Fife and I had started going to see Ayr United.

I was 10 years old at the time and didn’t know a lot about football to be honest. But one thing I did know was that the Leeds United team in 1973 were quite repulsive. Not only for their “methods” of winning games but the arrogance and contempt they showed made them quite dislikeable.

There was no Sky or BT sport around in 1973. In fact there was very little live football on television with only the European cup final and the Scotland v England clash available to the masses. Indeed in Scotland we didn’t get the Scottish cup final live let alone the FA Cup Final but BBC Ulster did show the FA cup final live and we were about 80 miles from an Ulster transmitter. My poor dad was sent on to the roof and with careful guidance from me turned the aerial round to receive a signal.

I was always one for the underdog and Sunderland were probably as glaring an underdog in a cup final as there has ever been. Add in the fact that Dick Malone was a former Ayr player my Sunderland connection was made.

The game has gone down in history; Porterfield’s goal, Monty’s save, Stokoe’s dance will be remembered forever. I can remember my eyes filling up as Bobby Kerr lifted the cup. Dreams do come true I thought, Sunderland are for me and years of success beckons…….

While I was enjoying my lemonade and crisps for supper my dad was still on the roof having tried and failed to turn the aerial back to BBC Scotland. Unfortunately he was unable to find a signal and Mum missed the Generation Game that night. We didn’t hear the end of that for quite some time.

Fast forward 12 years and I had retained my affection for Sunderland during this period which resulted in sporadic trips to Roker Park from deepest Ayrshire. I had of course discovered the delights of alcohol and women during the intervening years and on a Saturday night in March 1985 I headed down to my local as was normal procedure. Sporting a mullet and a snazzy Miami Vice suit my delusions of being some kind of babe magnet were mostly misguided.

With the League cup final against Norwich on the following day the main issue of the evening was how was I going to see it as we were still before the days of Sky, BT Sport or Forget the girls, seeing this game was priority number one. It was on BBC Ulster but not Scotland again and there were no willing volunteers in the pub to do a spot of aerial turning, so things were not looking great.

I got chatting to an old schoolfriend, Eric, who after hearing of my predicament remarked that his sister had a flat in Irvine with BBC Ulster on her cable TV.

Even better she was away on holiday, Eric had a key and the flat was empty. All of a sudden Eric was my best friend ever and was immediately offered another couple of drinks on condition that he would take me and three of my mates over to the flat to watch the game the next day. There was one slight problem: Eric informed us his sister was extremely house-proud and would not take kindly to any form of damage done to her home, especially by uninvited guests. I assured him through a drunken haze that we would be on our best behaviour.

Cup final day arrived and Eric dutifully drove the four of us over for the game laden with a couple of crates of beer for the game which would act as a nice top up to the half dozen pints we had consumed before we set off and the previous nights intake. The flat was immaculate and we had to open cans of beer in the kitchen sink along with making sure the toilet seat was up when used. All little sacrifices but worth it to see the Lads in a cup final.

The game progressed and, as history would show, if it could have gone wrong for us that day it did. The missed penalty and overall a flat performance in a game we really never looked like winning. The day was about to get worse as my frustration grew and the Norwich goal was greeted by a tantrum of almost titanic proportions and resulted in me dropping a can of Kestrel lager on the pristine carpet. Almost out of sympathy one of the other lads had indulged a bit too much of the Kestrel and not quite made the toilet before the contents of his stomach surfaced. It was all going horribly wrong on and off the pitch.

Eric’s face by now had turned a shade of ashen white and he was more or less speechless. We managed to see the final whistle and the Lads go up to receive their medals. I can remember even as the team walked up the Wembley stairs the only singing I could hear was from the Sunderland fans. Made me so proud despite the result.

We had to hire a cleaner to tidy the flat. Oddly enough Eric never invited us round to see any other games. Can’t think why.

It was May 1992 and we were in the FA cup final again. Rather conveniently Sky Sports had recently been born and we witnessed much of the cup run with the highlight for me Gordon Armstrong’s late headed winner against Chelsea.

I had planned to watch the final down at my local pub which by now had installed a BBC Ulster aerial allowing us to benefit from the increase in live English football. There was a small issue of a night out with a couple of old friends in Ayr on the Friday night before the game but I would just go easy on the drink, get the last train back to Troon and be safely tucked up in bed before midnight. That was the cunning plan as there was no way I was missing this game. Our cup run had caught the imagination of the country and I was looking forward to this one.

The night out was going well. The boys were in good form and so was I. In fact it got a whole lot better when I met an old girlfriend of mine whom I hadn’t seen for a few years. We got chatting, more drink was consumed and, well, you can guess the rest. The last train was missed and things continued to blossom with my ex as we left to rekindle old memories.

Not to worry I would get the train back in the morning and still be fit and ready for the final in plenty of time.

To cut a long story short I woke up a wreck on Saturday morning, having had little sleep and sporting the hangover from hell.

Somehow I made Ayr station, got on a train and rested my eyes before the 15 minute journey to Troon. Imagine the shock I got when the next time I opened my eyes we had just arrived in Paisley. I quickly forgot the hangover as I leapt off my seat with an unrecognisable urgency considering my condition.

Shock horror it was now nearly 2pm, the game was one hour away and I was stranded in a train station about 50 miles from where I wanted to be.

There was, however, a saving grace. A train heading back from where I just came had pulled in two platforms and two bridges away. What followed next was a display of athleticism reminiscent more of Olympians than hungover wrecks as I sprinted over the bridges and caught the train just as the guard’s whistle blew.

Exhausted and feeling even worse following these exertions, I had the small issue of having no money left to buy a ticket for this extra journey. A display of ducking and diving from the ticket inspector then ensued as I flirted in and out of toilets in desperate manoeuvres to avoid being caught.

The remainder of the journey went smoothly and I arrived in the pub just as the teams emerged from the tunnel. The first half was a tale of missed chances. John Byrne and his goals had been instrumental in our run to the final but he missed a crucial chance and we never really recovered. We lost a goal early in the second half and it was then an uphill battle. We struggled after that despite having matched Liverpool in the first half.

My embarrassment was completed as my tales of woe spread among my mates in the pub.The ribbing I received temporary blanked out the disappointment.

Come Sunday, I’ll be at my first cup final in the flesh. Please let the journey be uneventful and the result a shock of the right kind.

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2 thoughts on “Countdown to Wembley: merriment, misery and mishaps on Sunderland cup final days”

  1. A very entertaining account John. Here’s hoping you, me, and every other Sunderland supporter has a perfect day on Sunday.

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