“The past is a different country” is such an apt phrase. It is often hard to recall what a national occasion the FA Cup final used to be. The two main terrestrial channels battled it out to attract the captive television audience with coverage of the event which would start early in the morning. Many viewers would be worn out before the game had kicked off having overdosed on alcohol, cigarettes and crisps.
The final of 5 May 1973 had the ideal participants from the TV executive’s perspective. Leeds United, the cup holders and a side packed with internationals, were playing a bunch of unknowns from second tier Sunderland. Leeds United were most successful team of the era yet were reviled in equal measure. The FA Cup has become fabled for David v Goliath giant-killing moments but romantically uplifting as these occasions were, by the time of the final the natural footballing order was invariably restored. The last time a second division side lifted the Cup was West Bromwich Albion in 1931. History and form were on the side of Leeds.
Under the leadership of Don Revie, Leeds had become a formidable footballing powerhouse. In nine seasons they had won the league, FA Cup, league cup and the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup. Sunderland, by contrast, were in serious decline and suffered relegation in 1969. For Leeds, this was their fourth FA Cup final in eight years; Sunderland’s last appearance was in 1937.
Leeds United had alienated the football purists with their brand of combative football and their cynical professionalism. No other side has ever suffered such levels of hostility from the footballing media yet received such scant recognition for their immense achievements. The most popular chant on the football terraces was “We all f***ing hate Leeds”. It was clear that everybody wanted Sunderland to stuff them.
Leeds, however, were the hottest favourites in years. Yet, Sunderland were on a roll. Bob Stokoe had overseen a dramatic improvement in form after his appointment in November, which saw Sunderland climb from the bottom four to an eventual top-six finish. But it was the FA Cup run that caught the town’s imagination. In the fifth round, the Mackems overcame Malcolm Allison’s star-studded Manchester City side and then proceeded to defeat Arsenal, double winners two years previously, two-one in the semi-final. The result would have been greeted with joy at the BBC and ITV as it prevented a repeat of the previous year’s dour final in which Leeds had defeated Arsenal one-nil.
There was no love lost between Stokoe and Revie. The Sunderland boss had been highly critical of Leeds in the run-up to the final. Revie somehow let Stokoe get under his skin and allowed himself to be unwittingly drawn into a war of words with his counterpart. Stokoe cleverly put pressure on the match official Ken Burns, pleading with him to not allow Billy Bremner to referee the final. Leeds had history with Burns, feeling his decisions had cost them the 1967 semi-final against Chelsea.
Sunderland had nothing to lose and were determined to enjoy their big day. However, Stokoe had been meticulous in his preparation and encouraged his players to believe that they would win. Whilst Sunderland played up for the television cameras in their hotel, Revie’s superstitious and paranoid tendencies were starting to impact on his players as he refused to allow any photographers near his team. In contrast, Stokoe was quite happy to allow the television crews on the team coach.
As the players walked out of the tunnel, the vociferous Roker roar of “Ha’way The Lads” echoed around the arena. Sunderland harried Leeds from the kick-off, not allowing their opponents to settle, with 21-year-old Micky Horswill leading by example. A challenge from Watson on Bremner after 10 minutes looked a clear penalty but referee Burns was unmoved. Had Stokoe’s words got to him ?
The decisive moment of the game arrived on 31 minutes. Sunderland had been practising set pieces all week so when Billy Hughes curled in the corner, Dave Watson made his run from the edge of the penalty area. Although Watson failed to connect with his header he took two defenders out of the game leaving midfielder Ian Porterfield completely unmarked to volley the ball into the roof of the net as it bounced loose. Revie’s instructions to double mark Watson meant nobody picked up Porterfield.
Leeds struggled to play their normal game in the opening stages, but gradually started to create chances as Sunderland tired. In the 56th minute, Leeds’ constant pressure appeared to pay off. Jim Montgomery parried a Trevor Cherry header into the path of the deadly Peter Lorimer, who was lurking five yards from goal. He took aim and fired the ball towards the net. Everybody, both in the stadium and watching on television, was convinced that he had scored. Somehow Jim Montgomery had flung himself to push the ball onto the underside of the crossbar, and the ball failed to cross the line. Billy Bremner later acknowledged that this was the moment that they knew fate was against them and that they were destined to lose.
When the final whistle blew Bob Stokoe, who had defied protocol to wear a bright red tracksuit, rushed over to hug his goalkeeper. In a final dig at Revie, he said that he wore it because “he didn’t have a lucky suit like Don’s”. The emotion of the occasion even seemed to get to the ITV commentator Brian Moore who mangled his words to proclaim ”Ha–War the Lads” as captain Bobby Kerr lifted the cup.
Many in the media could not resist the opportunity to gloat at Revie’s comeuppance. The Daily Telegraph echoed the spirit of the times by proclaiming: “they emphasised by beating Leeds, the apostles of cold efficiency, that there is no substitute for flair, imagination, and spirit”.
Sunderland’s epic 1973 Cup Final win was arguably the greatest giant-killing act of all but undoubtedly there has never been such an occasion when so many neutrals rejoiced in the slaying of a giant.
Part of our Magic of the Cup series