McCormick’s 1973 Craic: Arsenal 1 Sunderland 2. The day God smiled on me

John McCormick 1972
John McCormick renewed his passport in 1972, in time for journeys to Nottingham, Manchester, Sheffield and Wembley, plus a ferry ‘cross the Mersey.

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!



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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” .

“Thanks”.

“And you, Bobby.”

“Thanks”

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.

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4 thoughts on “McCormick’s 1973 Craic: Arsenal 1 Sunderland 2. The day God smiled on me”

  1. God smiled on me too but in a different way.Not sure how I got my ticket but I did and went down to Sheffield alone .

    After the game I was walking back to the station with the throng when a bunch of Arsenal supporters dressed in white overalls ( anyone recall the film A Clockwork Orange) appeared from a side street singing ” we ain’t got no manners we fight wiv spanners”.Then all hell broke loose. I legged it back to the station and on to the train just in time for a brick to smash through the window.

    Can’t stand bad losers!

  2. I too didn’t have a ticket and travelled on one of the special trains in the hope of getting one. As soon as we got to the ground I was happy to see plenty of touts (people I normally despise) at work. There was a big cockney guy who appeared to be directing operations and I quickly attempted business with him. I was a few weeks short of my seventeenth birthday and I got about 50p pocket-money a week. The face-value of standing tickets was 70p and I had about a fiver to spare. I managed to knock him down by claiming I needed some money for my bus fare home at the end of the day and I think we eventually agreed on about £4.50. I had been worrying about this for weeks yet within five minutes of being at Hillsborough I had one !

    After walking away I looked at the ticket to realise it was for the Arsenal end. So I decided to ask a younger looking tout, further up the street, if he could exchange an Arsenal ticket for a S’land ticket. I expected him to say “yeah, but it’ll cost you a few quid” – surprisingly he could help me out and agreed to a straight swap ! This time when I walked away I realised he’d accidentally given me two tickets for my one !

    Needless to say I didn’t go back to him. I have to say I then sold the spare ticket for more than face value but only at a price which meant, at the end of the day, I ended up paying 70p for a 70p ticket (a fiver was an awful lot of money for me at that time).

    So God was smiling on me that day as well.

    You would have thought there were 50,000 of our fans in the ground that day and about 5,000 Arsenal. I remember the train journey back, the atmosphere was fantastic and everyone was just so happy. I lived at Stockton so was one of the first off the train. I remember saying to everyone as I got off “see you at Wembley in a few weeks”. I never did get a ticket for the final (in fact I never got a ticket through any of the ballots the club used to run when allocating tickets in those days) – so the Hillsborough semi remains my favourite match of all time. The way football has changed since then, I don’t expect it to be bettered.

  3. A fine piece of work John. I do remember that it was the same day as The Boat Race- no-one seemed to be bothered who won that at about 5 o’ clock! Stood in the Kop end, we were in a prime position to see Jeff Blockley let Vic through and knock the ball past Bob Wilson and into the net and bit our nails after Charlie George pulled one back.
    Two more memories- our dog Bess wearing a Sunderland rosette when we eventually got home and thanks to our Pete who got me a ticket- we were unlucky in the ballot.
    Oh yes, The Mainbrace- part of the Zoological pub crawl down Beverley Rd and up Cottingham Rd- 11 pints if you counted the St. Johns!

  4. Fabulous read John, many thanks!

    Yes, “we did fu** Arsenal” and (as you can imagine), even after being there, I did what I think many others did which was to buy every newspaper on the Sunday and Monday mornings.

    It was on the Monday that I discovered that not only did the Financial Times carry a match report but opened it with the following sentence which is still ingrained upon my memory;

    “If the score had been 10, 12 or even 14 one the Arsenal could have had no complaints”!!

    Heady days!!

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