Written by Brian Leng
A few days after the semi-final draw, Arsenal secured there place in the last four with a narrow 2-1 victory over Chelsea in the 6th round replay at Highbury to stay on course to become the first team ever to appear in three consecutive F.A. Cup finals. The year before they’d lost in the final to a solitary Leeds United goal and twelve months earlier they’d beaten Liverpool to become only the second team in the twentieth century to win the league and cup double. Indeed, as the Hillsborough game approached Bertie Mee’s were well placed to repeat the feat again sitting only a couple of points behind league leaders Liverpool.
In some quarters Sunderland we looked upon as nothing more than a mediocre Second Division side that just happened to be enjoying a good run in the F.A. Cup even though in the games leading up to the semi-final, Bob Stokoe’s men had been in championship-winning form which had taken them into the top six in Division Two. Leeds United skipper Billy Bremner was quite scathing when asked for his opinion on Sunderland’s chances of making it through to Wembley stating: “I wouldn’t bet on Sunderland with stolen money!” Arsenal’s star player Alan Ball also dismissed any suggestion of his team being dumped out of the competition telling reporters: “It’s impossible for Sunderland to win!” These comments and other similar views were just the sort of motivation Bob Stokoe and his team needed as they quietly prepared for the big game no doubt relishing their role as underdogs.
In the week leading up to the game Stokoe took his team to Buxton, where the quite Derbyshire spa town provided a perfect escape from the distractions of the cup fever that was engulfing Wearside. As Ron Guthrie recalls, the opportunity to relax and prepare for the game worked brilliantly: “No one bothered us during that week at Buxton and I remember on one of the nights we all headed off to the local pub. Some of the lads had a pint or two but there were a few who didn’t drink. The important thing was being together as a group and because we all got on so well together it helped our team spirit enormously.”
As the game approached, Bob Stokoe was able to relax safe in the knowledge that his squad were all fully fit whereas his counterpart Bertie Mee had been dealt a major blow a week before the game when his skipper Frank McLintock had torn a hamstring. Jeff Blockley, a recent £200,000 signing from Coventry City was drafted into the side as a replacement but other than that Arsenal were at full strength.
Thousands had travelled down to Sheffield for the game and as kick-off time approached the area surrounding Hillsborough was awash with Sunderland fans. The journey from Buxton was a relatively short one for Bob Stokoe and his team and when they arrived at the ground they received a magnificent reception from the thronging red and white hordes as their coach inched its way to the players’ entrance. Sunderland had been allocated the massive Kop End of the Hillsborough ground where over 20,000 of their fans turned the huge terracing into a swaying sea of red and white and there was a thunderous roar when Bobby Kerr led his team out onto the pitch.
Sunderland were unchanged for the fourth successive game into the competition and were sporting a brand-new all-white kit which had been delivered to their Buxton headquarters the day before. McNab won the toss for the Gunners with Sunderland starting the game attacking the Kop End and any pre-match suggestions that Bob Stokoe might adopt a negative approach were soon dispelled as his team surged forward from the off.
Halom was the first to threaten when he broke away on the left but when he crossed Storey cleared the danger after a backward header by Hughes. Then Hughes threatened again when Malone crossed into the box but the Sunderland striker was penalised for backing into Blockley. At this stage it was all Sunderland and after eighteen minutes Horswill almost opened the scoring with a terrific effort after McNab had given away a throw-in near the right hand corner flag. Kerr launched the throw into the penalty area and when the ball was headed clear, it went straight to Horswill on the edge of the box. The Sunderland midfielder chested it down before sending in a brilliant left-foot volley which was dipping under the bar until Wilson produced a magnificent right-handed save to tip the effort over the top.
It was a brilliant stop by the Arsenal ‘keeper but a minute later he was picking the ball out of the net after Halom had given the underdogs the lead. Horswill won the ball in his own half and launched a long ball through the middle for Halom to chase although the opening seemed to have gone when Blockley won possession twenty yards from goal. However, when he dropped his back pass to Wilson short, Halom raced through to bundle the ball past the Arsenal ‘keeper before rolling the ball into the empty net to send the massed ranks of Sunderland fans behind the goal into a frenzy of joy.
“As I forced the ball past Bob Wilson it bobbled badly,” recalls Vic, “So I had to check my stride before slotting the ball home. It was an unforgettable moment and the whole place erupted when the ball hit the back of the net with our fans behind the goal going absolutely crazy!”
The goal was the start of a purple patch for Halom and for the rest of the first half he literally ran the Gunners’ defence ragged. Midway through the half Horswill set him away again with almost a carbon copy of the pass that had created the opening goal. The Arsenal defence was all over the place as Halom rampaged through to win the ball on the edge of the box and go clear but his effort was turned away by Wilson who immediately vented his anger on his shell-shocked defenders. Then Kerr crossed in from the right and when the ball dropped, Halom sent in a terrific left-foot volley which beat Wilson but was blocked on the line by McNab.
As an attacking force, little had been seen of Arsenal other than a left-foot shot from Armstrong which had Montgomery diving to his left to tip the effort around the post. However, just before the break they came within a whisker of grabbing the equaliser. The chance came from a left-wing corner taken by Armstrong and when the ball came back out to the Arsenal winger he sent in left-foot shot which had Montgomery diving to his left before a deflection forced the Sunderland ‘keeper to change direction and produce a stunning save at the foot of the post. Moments later the half-time whistle blew to bring to an end an incredible forty-five minutes of football that could well have seen Sunderland two or three goals in front.
Having the one-goal advantage, Bob Stokoe could have been forgiven for taking a more defensive approach in the second half yet it was very much Sunderland who were in the ascendancy in the opening stages. Ten minutes in Bertie Mee took the decision to bring on John Radford in place of Blockey who since his mistake for the opening goal had been unable to handle Halom’s powerful, strong-running play. Radford gave Arsenal an extra attacking option which they certainly needed because, up to that point in the game the Sunderland defence had coped brilliantly with everything the Gunners’ forwards had thrown at them. The warning signs were immediate however, and with his first touch Radford set up a chance for George who had two shots beaten down before the ball was finally cleared for a corner. Then, when the kick was cleared the ball fell for Simpson who sent in a low shot from outside the box which travelled narrowly wide.
Arsenal were certainly coming more into the game but in the sixty-second minute Hughes came close to doubling Sunderland’s advantage when he was sent clear only for Wilson to come racing out to block his effort. The game was on a knife edge at this stage but a minute later the advantage swung heavily in Sunderland’s favour when they grabbed a dramatic second goal. The chance came from a long throw by Kerr on the right and when Tueart flicked the ball on Hughes sent a backward header goalwards which caught Wilson off his line and dropped into the far corner of the net.
It was an amazing moment and Hughes and Horswill raced towards the Sunderland bench in celebration where they were soon joined by their ecstatic team-mates – Wembley’s twin towers were now within touching distance!
Predictably, Arsenal began to throw caution to the wind as they tried desperately to get back into the game but Sunderland, to a man, were defending magnificently. Guthrie produced a tremendous tackle to deny Armstrong and then Montgomery rose majestically to take Radford’s cross with George threatening. But it wasn’t a totally rearguard action by any means and Wilson was forced to make another great save when Tueart fired in an angled drive after being released by Halom. A goal then would have surely sealed Sunderland’s place in the final but with only six minutes remaining the game was in the balance again when Arsenal pulled one back. The ball was played in from the left and when Radford failed to make contact at the near post George drove the ball goalwards from the edge of the six-yard box. Diving to his left, Montgomery got a hand to the ball but could only watch as it squirmed from his grasp and rolled agonisingly over the line.
In the remaining minutes Sunderland defended resolutely as Arsenal pressed forward but in the dying seconds Radford broke away on the right and when he crossed, Pitt rose at the near post to head behind for a corner. The tension was unbearable as Radford and Armstrong prepared to take the kick but before they could get the ball into play, referee David Smith blew for full-time – amazingly, Sunderland were in the final!
The scenes that followed defy description as players raced to one and other to celebrate, many in tears, while on the terraces their massed ranks of supporters joined them in the grandest style imaginable. On the touchline, Bob Stokoe waited to greet his conquering heroes giving each one a hug of joy before they headed down the tunnel. On the giant Kop End, no one was moving – the man they wanted was Bob Stokoe and after they’d chanted his name for some minutes the Sunderland boss finally emerged holding his arms aloft with tears in his eyes saying to nearby reporters: “There’ll never be another moment like this!”