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Black Cats due another glory night

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Jonathan Wilson

Jonathan Wilson is the editor of the football quarterly The Blizzard and writes for the Guardian, the National, Sports Illustrated, World Soccer and Cricinfo. He is the author of six books on football, including Inverting the Pyramid, which was named Football Book of the Year in both the UK and Italy. His latest book is The Outsider: A History of the Goalkeeper.

   
 

On Tuesday, Sunderland faces Everton in an FA Cup quarterfinal replay. For me, as I suspect for any other Sunderland fan who was there, the game will recall another FA Cup quarterfinal replay 20 years ago.

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Journalists are often asked what the greatest game they’ve attended was. I feel privileged to have been in Libreville this year when Zambia beat Ivory Coast to win the Cup of Nations, to have been in Istanbul in 2005 when Liverpool came from 3-0 down against AC Milan, to have been in Saida in 2000 when Japan turned Asian football on its head by beating Saudi Arabia 4-1. I could list a dozen other astonishing games. But as a fan, one night stands out above all others: March 18, 1992 – Sunderland 2, Chelsea 1.

The thing that still stands out to this day is the silences. After every line of every chant, the silence was complete: everybody was joining in, nobody shuffling or muttering, 26,000 people united as one entity. We’d heard the legends, of course. We knew about the Roker Roar, the great visceral howl of encouragement. We knew the stories about how Manchester City manager Malcolm Allison was so struck by the atmosphere as Sunderland, then of the Second Division, beat his then league leaders in a fifth-round replay in 1973, that he broke into the ground the following morning to check if amplifiers had been installed. We knew all of that, but this was the first time we’d experienced it, first time we’d really felt the noise roll off the corrugated roof of the Fulwell End and pour down across the pitch.

After the fairytale FA Cup win of 1973, Sunderland had bobbed around the top two divisions, never settling on one or the other for long, before finally collapsing into the Third Division in 1987. Promotion under Denis Smith had been immediate, reassuringly simple, and there was even a season in the First Division. But by 1991-92, there was a sense that the club was treading water, not living up to its glorious history (even if that history was getting on for a century in the past). Smith was sacked shortly after Christmas, but without any thought of who might replace him. While the board looked for a successor, Malcolm Crosby took over as caretaker.

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Short-termism unkind to Kenny Dalglish, Liverpool.

He was respected as a coach, but had no managerial experience and, frankly, he looked slightly comical, like an exaggerated version of Robin Williams in Toys. But slowly things began to stir. Port Vale and Oxford were beaten in the third and fourth rounds of the FA Cup. This, older fans recalled, was how it had been in 1973, when Bob Stokoe had taken over an ailing team in November and led them to glory (Martin O’Neill took over the present Sunderland at the beginning of December). After a wind-ravaged 1-1 draw at home against First Division West Ham, Sunderland won an epic replay 3-2 at Upton Park.

Chelsea, though, was a class above – and there was history between the clubs after Chelsea fans had rioted at both legs of the League Cup semifinal in 1985. After the second leg in London, when Sunderland had scored a decisive goal and a police horse chased a pitch invader across the penalty area, they’d set up road-blocks in the streets, hauled Sunderland fans off buses and slashed their faces. This time, they outplayed Sunderland at Stamford Bridge, but John Byrne stole an equalizer with seven minutes left. Suddenly, we believed.

In the first half, Sunderland was superb. Peter Davenport, nice, polite Peter Davenport with his neat side-parting, a quietly thoughtful footballer who had no place amid the bloodlust that night, put Sunderland ahead. Tony Norman, a heroically unorthodox goalkeeper who is now a policeman, made a couple of outstanding saves, but Sunderland deserved its lead. We knew, though, that there was no way we could keep up that pace.

The second half became a siege, a bombardment in front of the Fulwell End. Norman was brilliant, and when he slipped, leaving the goal gaping, Tony Cascarino headed against the post. Shot after shot, cross after cross, an equalizer seemed inevitable but never arrived. Each wasted chance, each block, each save added to the belief: our name was on it, this was our year again.

But then, finally, crushingly, with four minutes remaining, Dennis Wise leveled. ‘Let’s get this over with,’ I thought. ‘Let them score again because we’re tired and in extra-time it could get embarrassing.’ But even as I was thinking that, Paul Bracewell launched a long diagonal at David Rush. Rush was hopeless, a local kid kept on far too long for sentimental reasons, but he’d got the winner at West Ham, and there’d been some hype about him from national journalists who hadn’t suffered him every week. A few years later, he appealed against the removal of his license for some driving offense by saying he was too famous to take the bus without being mobbed. It was an inspired defense, but utterly delusional. The Chelsea defender Steve Clarke, though, taking no chances, put the ball out for a corner.

The youthful, fluffy-haired Brian Atkinson took it, an outswinger. Gordon Armstrong, a local boy with a vast, shiny forehead, met it with a firm slap. From the stand at the other end, I could see it was looping over Dave Beasant’s dive. They didn’t have a man on the post. It was going in, and yet it wasn’t in. Only later, seeing the highlights on television, did I understand why it had taken so long: Armstrong was 18 yards out. For an age the ball hung, and then finally the net rippled and the Roker End went up and the unthinkable had happened. On the bench, Crosby looked incredulous, pursing his lips beneath that vast nose like Kenneth Williams hearing a risqué joke.

The noise had barely abated when our hard man, John Kay, a tiny nugget of aggression who used to prove his hardness by eating the antiseptic cubes from urinals, nailed their hard man, the notorious Vinnie Jones. It conceded a free-kick just outside our box, but it didn’t matter. We knew they were shot, and the foul was greeted with a roar almost as loud as the winner had been.

At the final whistle, fans poured deliriously from the stands. A huge red-and-white banner, maybe 30 yards long and 15 yards across, rare in English football in those days, was stretched out across the top of the Fulwell End and passed hand over hand down the terrace to be paraded across the pitch. In one of those inexplicable moments of a crowd finding, as one, spontaneous inspiration, the chant struck up: “Malcolm Crosby’s red-and-white hankie.”

Sunderland won a poor semi against Norwich and then were well beaten by Liverpool in the final, but it didn’t matter. We’d had our night. Twenty years on, it’s probably about time we had another one.

Jonathan Wilson is editor of the football quarterly The Blizzard and a columnist for World Soccer. He is the author of five books, including a history of tactics, Inverting the Pyramid, and a biography of Brian Clough, Nobody Ever Says Thank You.

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