Written by Brian Leng
Whilst it was Bob Stokoe who quite rightly received national acclaim for masterminding Sunderland’s incredible 1973 FA Cup triumph, it was undoubtedly his predecessor Alan Brown who was instrumental in developing the nucleus of the team that went on to lift the famous trophy. Indeed, you would need to turn the clock back a further sixteen years to the summer of 1957 and Brown’s arrival at Roker Park to trace the very first seeds of Sunderland’s 1973 FA Cup-winning success.
Alan Brown was born in Corbridge and enjoyed a highly successful playing career at first with Huddersfield Town and then with Burnley where he captained the Turf Moor side in the 1947 F.A. Cup final against Charlton Athletic at Wembley. Brown was a tough uncompromising centre-half who led by example and it is perhaps no surprise that probably his two greatest signings for Sunderland were both central defenders.
Brown’s first managerial post was at Burnley where he quickly began to establish himself as one of English football’s most forward thinking coaches. At Turf Moor he also became one of the first managers in the game to set up a youth development programme which soon began to unearth a wealth of talent, including quite a number of youngsters from the North-East. In the years ahead those young players would provide the nucleus of the Burnley side that brought the Football League championship and European football to Turf Moor in the early ‘60s.
By then however, Brown had left the club and was now in charge at Roker Park where he was already beginning to reap rewards from his philosophy of developing young players. In fairness, much of the credit for unearthing the raw talent must go to his chief scout Charlie Ferguson, a man who had built up an impressive scouting network at Burnley before following his old boss to Roker Park. If a single person has to take the credit for assembling the players that formed the backbone of Sunderland’s 1973 FA Cup success, then it would have to be Charlie Ferguson who was responsible for bringing no fewer than nine of the cup-winning team to Roker Park.
At Roker Park Brown inherited a very different squad of players to those he had left at Turf Moor with almost every Sunderland first team player an established international. Known as the ‘Bank of England Club’ Sunderland had embarked on a post-war spending spree that was unprecedented in the English game and, on paper at least, the wealth of talent at the disposal of the then manager Bill Murray seemed certain to bring success.
However, whilst the club did come close to clinching the league title in 1950 and also reached two F.A. Cup semi-finals in 1955 and 1956 it was largely an era of huge disappointment and in 1957 the whole of Wearside was stunned when a Football League enquiry found Sunderland guilty of making illegal payments, banning the players involved and chairman Bill Ditchburn sine die. The fact that the enquiry’s findings would ultimately be overturned was of little consolation to the club as the events off the field had clearly had a devastating effect on results with relegation being avoided by single point at the end of the 1956-7 season.
As a manager, Brown had already established a reputation in the game as a tough disciplinarian, a man of principle who would do things his way regardless of the consequences and as the 1957-8 campaign got under way Sunderland fans began to witness sweeping changes at the club as young players were blooded into the first team with experienced internationals left sitting in the stands. The new training regime and work ethic introduced by the new manager certainly didn’t go down too well with many of the senior players at Roker Park although one man who welcomed the new boss’s approach was England international Billy Elliott, a man who would later become a key figure in the 1973 triumph.
The arrival from Millwall of Charlie Hurley a young, almost unheard of centre-half did little to appease the fans as the club continued to struggle in the lower reaches of Division One. Hurley, of course, would go on to achieve legendary status at the club but in those early days there was little evidence of the player who supporters would later vote their ‘Player of the Century’ as the Republic of Ireland international struggled to come to terms with English football’s top flight.
Undeterred however, Brown stuck rigidly to his policy as one by one many the star players were ‘bombed out’ prompting Hurley to hand his new boss the nickname ‘The Bomber’. Relegation looked a certainty as the season reached its closing stages but a late rally in results gave supporters hope with everything hinging on the final game of the season at Portsmouth. To their credit, Brown’s team did the business with a 2-0 victory only to discover when they returned to the Fratton Park dressing room that Leicester City, their nearest rivals, had also won at Birmingham thus condemning Sunderland to the Second Division for the first time ever. At that time Sunderland’s record was that they were the only club never to have played in any division other than the first, a proud boast that appeared on the front of every home match programme. Suddenly, in the new manager’s first season, that record was gone and Wearside, it was reported, was in a state of shock. Many supporters simply never forgave Alan Brown.
There was little to cheer Sunderland fans in those first few seasons of Second Division football but signs of a revival in the club’s fortunes came in 1961 with a great run in the F.A. Cup when they reached the quarter-finals, coming within a whisker of beating a Spurs side on their way to the first league and cup double of the twentieth century. Three years later, after two near misses, promotion back to the top flight was finally achieved and Brown, true to his word, had developed a fine footballing side built around Charlie Hurley, now regarded by many as the finest centre-half in Britain. Whilst the Sunderland manager had bought wisely in the transfer market with the likes of George Herd, Johnny Crossan and George Mulhall, the nucleus of the promotion side was home grown players such as Cec Irwin, Len Ashurst, Martin Harvey, Jimmy McNab, Nick Sharkey and the first of the 1973 squad to break into the first team, Jimmy Montgomery.
Born in Southwick just couple of miles from Roker Park, Monty made his debut in a League Cup tie against Walsall 1962 and went on to make a record breaking 623 appearances for the club. As a youngster his footballing idol was Bert Trautmann, the Manchester City goalkeeper who suffered a broken neck during the 1956 F.A.Cup final against Birmingham City, yet played on to help his team to victory. Seventeen years later Monty would be writing his own piece of Wembley cup final history.
“It was after watching Bert Trautmann performing heroics in that cup final that I made my mind up to do everything I could to become a top-class goalkeeper. Sunderland had always been my team and I naturally dreamt of playing for them one day yet I very nearly signed for Burnley after a trial at Turf Moor. At the time they had taken quite a number of players from the North East, ironically via the scouting network that Alan Brown had set up when he was manager there, but the thing that put me off was the fact that they had three top quality goalkeepers competing for a place in the first team at the time. Colin McDonald was England’s first choice ‘keeper and then there was Jim Furnell and also Adam Blacklaw would soon win full international honours for Scotland, so breaking into the first team ahead of those three seemed a daunting prospect to a young lad from Wearside. Having said that, I enjoyed my time at Turf Moor enormously although at the end of the day Burnley didn’t offer me terms and I headed back to Wearside with my footballing future little uncertain to say the least.. However, the morning after I arrived back home, my school-teacher Alfie Lavender and Sunderland physio Johnny Watters turned up at our house and offered me the chance of a trial at Sunderland – the rest, as they say, is history!”
As the club’s long awaited return to the top flight approached, there was an air of optimism among supporters as season ticket sales hit record levels. Everything it seemed was geared up for a serious assault on the big league when suddenly the news broke that Alan Brown was leaving the club. Players and supporters alike were stunned. A few days later he was unveiled as Sheffield Wednesday’s new boss while back on Wearside everyone was left to speculate on why the man who rebuilt the club so successfully had left when they were on the brink of the big time. In typical fashion, there was no positive reason coming from within the club and Brown, a very private man, remained tight-lipped.
With the manager who had masterminded Sunderland’s promotion success now gone it was hardly surprising that the team struggled to come to terms with the rigours of First Division football. George Hardwick, the former Middlesbrough and England full-back, was eventually appointed as Brown’s successor and, to his credit, managed to stabilise the club and relegation was avoided comfortably. However, his stay in the Roker Park hot seat was short lived and in the 1965 close season former Rangers captain and Scotland boss Ian McColl was brought in as his replacement.
McColl wasted no time in splashing out in the transfer market and immediately returned to his old club to land the signature of Jim Baxter, a talented Scot who was regarded by many as the best left-sided midfielder in the game. Baxter’s exceptional ability was undoubted and on his game he had few peers, yet there was another side to the man that would soon destroy the tight discipline and togetherness that Alan Brown had established at the club. ‘Slim Jim’ as he was known north of the border, was something of a maverick character who often preferring the local night life to the rigours of daily training sessions and his three seasons at the club can only be regarded as a period of huge disappointment.
The 1966-67 season were the nearest Sunderland came to achieving any success in the Baxter era when they reached to 5th round of the FA Cup before going out to Leeds United in a second replay. The season had also seen the arrival in the first team of the next two players who would carve they names in FA Cup history six years hence, Bobby Kerr and Billy Hughes. Kerr had literally exploded onto the scene when he netted a last-minute winner against New Year’s Eve 1966 and in the games that followed he netted no fewer than seven goals in eleven games. Sadly, his dramatic start came to a shuddering halt when he when sustained a broken leg following a challenge from Leeds United’s Norman Hunter in the 5th round tie at Roker Park. Kerr would then suffer the agony of breaking the same leg again in a reserve game at Ashington and it would be almost eighteen months before he returned to first team action again.
Following Baxter’s departure Ian McColl wasted no time in bringing in a replacement and again he headed north of the border but this time he unearthed a real gem and a player who would go on to achieve truly legendary status on Wearside. In England, few people had heard of Ian Porterfield but in Scotland he was already being compared with Baxter by pundits who followed the Scottish game. Both were cultured left-sided midfielders with an eye for the defence-splitting pass and coincidentally, both had begun their careers at Raith Rovers. Sunderland paid the Kirkcaldy-based club £40,000 for Porterfield’s signature and he was literally thrown in at the deep end when he made his debut in the Wear-Tyne derby at Roker Park on the penultimate day of 1967.
Within a matter of weeks, Ian McColl’s uneasy tenure in the Roker Park hot-seat came to an end and the club surprisingly turned to their former boss Alan Brown to revive the team’s flagging fortunes. Since leaving Roker Brown had enjoyed a highly successful spell with Sheffield Wednesday leading the Hillsborough club to the FA Cup final in 1966 and the Sunderland directors must have secretly rued the day the allowed him to leave three and a half years earlier.
As previously, Brown immediately set about another rebuilding programme with the emphasis again on youth and the 1968-68 season saw first-team debuts handed to midfielder Dennis Tueart and Ritchie Pitt, two local lads who had come through the ranks at Roker Park. Born in Seaham on the outskirts of the town, Pitt was an England youth international and when Sunderland reached FA Cup final in 1973 he was the only player to have previously played on Wembley’s hallowed turf!
RitchieUnder McColl the club had struggled badly in the First Division constantly flirting with relegation and perhaps it came as no surprise when the club finally dropped down to Division Two in 1970. Brown now had the unenviable record having twice taken the club down to English football’s second tier although in his defence, he had inherited an ailing squad and had been operating on limited resources with little or no funds available for new players. However, the 1970-71 season saw the Sunderland boss move into the transfer market to make two significant signings both of whom would become significant performers in the 1973 FA Cup run although to fund the transfers, Brown was forced to sell his star player Colin Todd to Brian Clough’s Derby County.
The first to arrive was Dick Malone, an attacking full-back who was signed from Ayr United and a player who would soon become a great favourite with Roker fans. Sunderland were one of a number of English clubs who’d been tracking the Scottish Under 23 international and Dick could well have joined Fulham had it not been for a somewhat unusual meeting with their manager Vic Buckingham.
“Fulham were the first club to come in for me and to be fair they did look an attractive proposition.” recalls Dick, “They were in the First Division at the time and had the likes of George Cohen and Allan Clarke in their side not to mention Johnny Haynes who was generally regarded as their greatest ever player. When I travelled down to discuss a possible move I was introduced to the squad and Haynes got me thinking when he pulled me to one side and said: “Be careful – the manager’s a nut-case!”
Vic Buckingham then took me out onto the pitch and proceeded to explain how he was going to turn me into the club’s star player. However, it was as if he was on the stage as he stood on the centre spot and pointed to the empty terraces shouting: ‘You will be our star man…..you will be the fan’s favourite……you will become a Craven Cottage legend!’ His behaviour was quite bizarre and when I asked how he saw me fitting into the Fulham team he replied: ‘I will play you as an attacking sweeper!’ ‘Bloody hell,’ I thought, ‘Haynes is right, this bloke is crackers!’
We then went up to his office where he suddenly turned and pointed at me shouting: ‘You don’t like me, do you?’ Well, I didn’t know what to say so I told him I was a little unsure about the attacking sweeper’s role. ‘Leave that to me,’ he replied, ‘In fact I’ll tell you what I’m prepared to do for you – I’ll let you continue playing for Ayr United and fly you down each week to train with us to see how you fit in.’ I told him I wasn’t sure how my manager Ally MacLeod would react to that suggestion and the next minute he’s on the phone to Ally. Eventually, he hands the phone to me and Ally says: “Listen son, I know you can’t speak but if you want to sign for them say ‘Yes’ if you mean ‘No’ and ‘No’ if you mean ‘Yes’. I immediately replied: ‘Yes, definitely boss!’ Ally’s plan worked a treat and I left Craven Cottage and headed back to Scotland with Buckingham convinced I’d agreed to the arrangement. I never saw him again, thank goodness!
I thought the world of Ally MacLeod, he really was a superb manager to play for but soon after I’d returned from Fulham we fell out when he accused me of not trying in a game against Airdrie. It was a game in which I’d played particularly well so I was furious and told him so in no uncertain terms. The following morning I handed in a transfer request and within a matter of days Alan Brown had got in touch and I was on my way to Sunderland.”
Soon afterwards, Brown paid Rotherham United £100,000 for the service of Dave Watson although at the time few fans had even heard of the Nottingham-born central defender. However, just as he had done with Charlie Hurley in 1957, Brown had unearthed an absolute gem and in the years ahead Watson would soon develop into arguably the finest centre-half in British football. Ironically, in those early days Brown used Watson in an attacking role although this was probably due to the club’s lack of a quality target man and to his credit Sunderland’s new signing performed the role admirably. In fact, in his first full season he wore the number nine shirt in every single game and finished the campaign as the club’s top scorer with 14 goals.
For most of the 1971-72 season Sunderland were very much in the running for promotion but after defeats in key matches towards the end of the campaign the challenge fell away and they end up finishing in fifth place, five points behind second-placed Birmingham City. In March, Brown had blooded Annfield Plain-born Mick Horswill, a tenacious midfielder who was so impressive in his debut against Preston North End at Deepdale that he stayed in the team for the rest of the season.
Brown had signed Horswill after watching him play in a cup final for Stanley Boys although as Mick explains, he thought he’d blown his chance after a less than impressive performance in front of the Sunderland Boss.
“It was actually my last day ay school and as things turned out, the most important day of my life! After walking out of school for the final time on the Friday afternoon, I headed up to Heaton where I was playing for Stanley Boys in a cup final against Newcastle. As soon as I ran out onto the pitch I noticed Sunderland’s chief scout Charlie Ferguson standing on the touchline although at the time I didn’t pay too much attention as Charlie a regular spectator at our games and I knew he’d been watching me for a couple of years.
“The game itself was a disappointing affair and with the game entering its final stages we were losing 1-0 when we won a throw-in near the corner flag. When I raced over to take the throw this tall chap standing nearby threw the ball to me and it was only when I looked closer that I realised it was Alan Brown. After that I seemed to go to pieces making stupid mistakes and when I glanced towards where he’d been standing I noticed him walking out of the gate. I really thought I’d blown my chance and when I travelled back to Annfield Plain that night I was pretty despondent because to make matters worse we’d also lost the game. However, when I walked into our living room there was Alan Brown sitting chatting to my parents – he’d even brought his wife with him. He told me he like me to sign for Sunderland there and then and immediately produced a contract which I signed without hesitation. Before leaving he re-assured my parents: ‘Don’t worry Mr and Mrs Horswill, I’ll look after him – I’m his father now!’”
When the 1972-73 season began there was a strong feeling among supporters that this could be Sunderland’s year for promotion although that early optimism soon evaporated after an indifferent start to the campaign. Whilst Alan Brown still enjoyed enormous respect from his players he could hardly be described as being universally popular with supporters and when the expected promotion challenge seemed to be failing to materialise, the vultures began to gather. Matters came to a head after a humiliating 5-1 defeat at Oxford early in October and predictably, a few days later, Brown was relieved of his duties. For many of his players it was a shattering blow and at the time few could have imagined that their boss’s departure would be the catalyst for what would turn out to be the most dramatic season in the club’s long and illustrious history.
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Sunderland Former Players were saddened to hear of the passing of Corny O'Donnell. Corny's Funeral arrangements are as follows:-
Friday 9 March, 11am St Augustines, Wealcroft, Felling NE10 8QS
12.00 Saltwell Crematorium, Saltwell Road, Gateshead, NE8 4TQ