Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Review - Stokoe, Sunderland and '73

Orion. £12.99 Out now

Once upon a time the FA Cup meant more than finishing fourth in the League and in those days - before saturation TV coverage - the final itself was the football event of the year. This book, as the title suggests, tells the story of the biggest fairytale of them all - Sunderland's victory over Leeds United in 1973.

It's hard to underplay what a staggering achievement Sunderland's win was. Leeds, the Cup holders, were in their pomp at the time and fielded 11 full internationals, whereas Sunderland had none and were 250-1 outsiders at the start of the competition.

The appointment of journeyman manager Bob Stokoe turned the club's season on its head bringing much-needed pride back to club and town alike. He arrived in November 1972 with Sunderland in 19th and staring relegation in the face but by the end of the season they had beaten three of England's best teams - Manchester City, Arsenal and Leeds - on the way to the Cup and risen to sixth in the League.

Stokoe spent most of his playing career with Sunderland's bitter rivals Newcastle United, winning the FA Cup with them in 1955. The size of his achievement with the Roker Park club can be summed up by the fact that following their semi-final defeat of Arsenal, the fans would always hail him as the Messiah.

The book doesn't just focus on the Fifth of the Fifth, Ian Porterfield's goal and Jim Montgomery's double save or the glorious run that took Sunderland to the final, it also provides a potted history of their sad decline from being the Bank of England club to Second Division also-rans.

We learn about the financial irregularities for which the club was punished in the Fifties and the iron-fisted management of Alan Brown in the Sixties (which in many ways laid the foundations for Stokoe to build on). There's also an interesting sub plot of the three-way rivalry between Stokoe and two former Sunderland players Brian Clough and Don Revie (both of whom were offered the Sunderland job before him).

It's a story that Lance Hardy plays out well with evocative imagery of what life was like in Sunderland in the aftermath of the Second World War as well as an incredible depth of detail. The fact that it was the only time an orange ball was used in an FA cup final and that 750,000 people welcomed the team home despite the census placing the population at just 271,000 are just two of the trivia gems he unearths.

The chapter on the match is peppered with interviews from all the key players (apart, sadly from the two managers and Porterfield all of whom have passed away) as well as fans both at the game and back in the North East watching on TV or listening on the radio. Hardy also talks to the ITV director who captured Stokoe's celebratory post-match run for all posterity.

For Sunderland fans, the epilogue may leave a bitter taste in the mouth as it charts how the team quickly broke up - in some cases in acrimonious circumstances - and the club never quite built on the superb foundation laid by the Cup-winning team, but it would be wrong to finish on a sour note.

Stokoe was the North East’s original football Messiah, long before Kevin Keegan stepped off the golf course and into the dugout and, more to the point; this Messiah actually produced a miracle.

Last review: Pay As You Play

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