Sixer recalls: when ooh ahh Cantona saved Man Utd’s blushes

Malcolm Dawson writes….I got a text from Pete Sixsmith this afternoon. It read “sitting having a drink of tea in my Northern League mug – the nearest I’ll get to any football this week!” Yes it’s a sad fact that the amount of rain we have had in sunny County Durham, falling onto already saturated ground has seen the postponement of every non-league fixture. Things were so bad that Marske United switched their much postponed FA Vase tie against Team Northumbria to the well draining home of Billingham Synthonia only to see conditions so bad there yesterday that the match was still called off. Pity no-one thought to let League President Mike Amos know. Reliant on public transport and Shank’s pony he arrived at The Stadium only to find the gates locked and no-one at home. So no Northern League for Pete and me this week and not even a quiz at The Red Lion to look forward too as they have their floors ripped up while some new heating system is installed. Starved of his footy fix Pete has been recalling an F.A Cup tie at Manchester United where we almost upset the incumbent Champions. Read on and be entertained.

Sixer and Sobs on a terrace somewhere
Sixer and Sobs on a terrace somewhere


Never mind Sergeant Pepper teaching the band to play, it’s 20 years ago this week that Sunderland awoke from their slumbers and took to the road to Old Trafford to give Manchester United an almighty scare in the FA Cup.

It heralded the start of a period of relative success for our club. We had spent the previous five years in the second level, had almost been relegated to the third under Terry Butcher and Mick Buxton and had seen a young, fresh faced Peter Reid haul us away from the trapdoor by our bootstraps. By January 1996, we were second in the league and had drawn Manchester United at Old Trafford in the FA Cup, a tie that brought back memories of 1964 for many of us. It gave us a very similar result and restored the faith of many wavering Sunderland supporters in the club.

For United, this was the season that started with a 1-3 defeat at Villa Park and led to Alan Hansen making that statement about never winning anything with kids. They met us after a 4-1 whopping at White Hart Lane and they languished in second place behind the Keegan Entertainment X1, who were loving it, just loving it at the top of the league.

They turned out a mix and match XI. Peter Schmeichel was rested and Kevin Pilkington played in goal. Youngsters Gary Neville, Nicky Butt and David Beckham also played and there was the brooding presence of the returning Eric Cantona up front. Future Sunderland managers Steve Bruce (whose head was getting fatter by the day) and a beardless Roy Keane were on the starting sheet as well.
For us, Reid picked his strongest line up. Alex Chamberlain was between the sticks, behind Dariusz Kubicki, Andy Melville, Dicky Ord and Martin Scott. In midfield we had Paul Bracewell, David Kelly (the Danny Graham of the 90’s), Kevin Ball and Mickey Gray, with Craig Russell and Phil Gray up front and Martin Smith, Steve Agnew and Lee Howey on the bench.

Five of the 14 were local lads with three of them coming from the city. Kelly had cost us a lot of money when he came from Wolves but he never hit it off and struggled to get a place in the team. Three of them had been signed by Terry Butcher, while Mick Buxton had brought in the reliable and very popular Kubicki and the equally so Martin Scott and Steve Agnew. He had a good eye for a player did Mick – and he brought good characters into the club as well. What would he make of the likes of Lens?
In those pre Glazer days , when the Premier League was going through its mewling and pewking stage, United did not make it compulsory for supporters to attend Cup games. They gave us 7,000 tickets in the Scoreboard End and we sold them in a crack.
There were many coaches on the road that day. The one I travelled on stopped in Manchester for a pre match snifter or two, one of which was in a grubby Holt’s pub if memory serves correctly. From there we drove through the streets of Manchester to Old Trafford, to a ground that was undergoing a major transformation.

The crowd that day was a full house of 41,583 as the club redeveloped the North Stand. Whether the ground was full of tourists, as it often is nowadays, I could not say but the 7,000 Sunderland supporters made a terrific din as the teams came out.
It went quiet when Nicky Butt put United ahead in the 13th minute and we went in a goal down without ever really threatening Pilkington’s goal. But Reidy, showing flair and intelligence that was nowhere near dulled by complacency and Chardonnay, took the ineffective Phil Gray off and replaced him with Steve Agnew to tighten the midfield.

Steve Agnew - inspired sub
Steve Agnew – inspired sub

Agnew was a very good player who had always performed well against us whether at Barnsley, Portsmouth or Leicester. His Roker career was dogged by Achilles trouble (as had his time at Blackburn) and in five seasons with us he only made 62 appearances. But his introduction at Old Trafford changed the game and gave us a warm glow. He ran through the United defence and slotted the ball past Pilkington to level the game in the 63rd minute to cue wild celebrations in the Sunderland end. Two minutes later, he threaded through a wonderful pass and Craig Russell took it on to give us the lead. If you thought the celebrations were impressive for the equaliser, you should have seen the ones for what should have been the winner.

Alas, it was not to be as Eric Cantona, returning from an eight month sabbatical for drop kicking an obnoxious Crystal Palace fan, headed home at the far post as Alec Chamberlain was too hesitant to attack a centre. Chamberlain, nice guy that he was, played two more games, both of which we lost before being replaced by Shay Given. Given’s loan spell at Roker gave him the only medal he has ever won in English football.

It was a giddy journey home and I have an abiding memory of passing the Rochdale turn off as a car with a youth wearing a Newcastle shirt (“everybody’s second team”) pulled into the inside lane. His face turned white as 52 excited Red and Whites heckled him and made it clear that if they had their way, they would happily run him into the ditch. His girlfriend slid down the seat.
We lost the replay 1-2 with Andy Cole scoring in the last minute, but we went on a tremendous run and won promotion and the league relatively comfortably. United went on to do the double so there was no disgrace in losing to them.

I don’t expect anything as exciting or epoch changing at Ashburton Grove on Saturday. I do expect to see Jordan Pickford, Jordi Gomez, Danny Graham and maybe one of the three Robson’s in the Under 21 squad grace the turf. I don’t expect to see them at Swansea on Wednesday.

4 thoughts on “Sixer recalls: when ooh ahh Cantona saved Man Utd’s blushes”

  1. I travelled to this game alone by train and popped into a pub in Piccadilly called Miller’s Bar, for obvious reasons. It was quite early, the pub was freezing and there were only 3 guys in.

    One of them came up to me at the bar and asked if I was David Miller – it was a guy called Les Packer, who was a cracking centre half in my old Sunderland school team at Southmoor. I hadn’t seen him for almost 20 years. He was signed by Billy Bremner when he was Doncaster Rovers’ manager, sadly, Les’s career ended tragically early with a horrific knee injury. Les said Bremner was great to play alongside but a horrible person.

    When I took my seat in the very back row of the stand it was a pleasant surprise to see the blokes I stood beside in the Fulwell End sat beside me. Our fans were making a helluva noise.

    During the warm-up, Peter Reid came out, to huge cheers, and started chatting to Craig Russell, probably telling him he could terrify Bruce and Pallister with this pace. Then, he looked at our fans and cupped a hand to one of his considerable ears and made a winding-up gesture with his arm. Our fans loved it and the noise went through the roof.

    Russ nearly scored in front of us in the first minute when the defenders and goalie made a mix up, we’d made them nervous as hell I reckon.

    Both our goals were superb and Agnew played his best game for us I think.

    Micky Gray was fouled before the cross that Cantona scored from, the free kick would have been given had it been the other way round.

    Our fans and the team were one that day, I was so proud.

    Can’t believe it’s been 20 years.

  2. That season I also went on holiday to the Irish Republic and on Bank Holiday Monday (80th anniversary of the Easter Uprising) was in a bar in Cork City watching the Blackburn v Mags match on TV.

    The Mags took the lead through David Batty with only 15 minutes to go and a local standing next to me and my mate started celebrating. With less than five minutes remaining the Blackburn sub Graham Fenton (a Whitley Bay lad and now manager of North Shields) scored twice to give Blackburn a 2-1 win, virtually scuppering the Mags chance of winning the title.

    Each time the same Irish lad jumped up and down and cheered wildly. At the end of the game I asked him why he had been so happy to see both teams score. His reply “I’ve a bet on Newcastle to win the League but I’ve also got a bet on Man Utd to do the Double so either way I’m winning!” – True story.

  3. I saw Shay Given’s debut at Leicester City. I was a Primary School teacher in that county at the time and got some free tickets to take the school team along to Filbert Street. Sat in the middle of the family enclosure I wondered how the home fans would react when I jumped up to celebrate a Sunderland goal. Needn’t have worried. It was one of the most boring games I’ve ever had to sit through (and I’ve sat through a lot!) and ended up 0-0.

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