Saturday 11th May 1968 was a great day for Hartlepool United and I was there to witness it. The tiny Victoria Ground was packed to the gills for the match against Swansea Town with 11,000 fans celebrating the team’s first ever promotion to the old Division Three after years of being close to slipping out of the League. They went on to win 2-0 and finished in third place though the groundwork for this achievement had been laid by Brian Clough, who’d managed them till leaving for Derby the year before. The recent Cliff Richard Eurovision hit ‘Congratulations’ echoed around the ground as my mate Anth and I strained to see above the throng of heads in front of us. We were there just to experience the buzz and when the game started we quickly got bored, especially as it was very crowded and uncomfortable, and so we left and had a wander around town. When we got back to the station more than an hour later, we met a lot of other Sunderland fans who’d been to the match too and were getting our train home and then we got our second big buzz of the day.
Other much bigger fish were being fried in Division One that afternoon with lowly Sunderland away to champions-elect Man United while second-placed Man City were away to Newcastle. Nobody had given us a cat-in-hell’s chance of getting a result but we shocked everyone by coming away with a 2-1 win and thus allowed City, who won a great game 4-3, to take their first title since 1937.
Sunderland’s played 4-3-3 that day and the team was Montgomery, Harvey, Hurley, Todd, Ashurst, Porterfield, Harris, Herd, Stuckey, Suggett and Mulhall, with Albert Brown as unused substitute about whom I remember nothing at all. Six of those players had been in our promotion squad in 1964 while only Monty and Porterfield would play at Wembley five years later, though Martin Harvey was still coaching with us then. Kenneth Wolstenholme was doing the commentary for Match of the Day and I’ve always remembered that as the teams warmed up he said, “Sunderland realize that they’re almost here to make up the numbers.” To be fair he did add that we had some good players, highlighting Colin Suggett, who did have a great game that afternoon. I was disappointed by Suggett in the end as I never thought he fulfilled his initial potential for us. A year later we sold him to West Brom for a club record fee of £100,000, which seemed a massive sum at the time. We started the game brightly and were soon one-up after a good pass from Harris found Stuckey and his cross from the right took a deflection and was driven in at the near post by Suggett. We continued to press and scored our second when Porterfield moved forward down the centre and passed to Suggett on the right wing, whose cross was met by a powerful header from Mulhall. I was at my uncle Alf’s house in Blyth on the following afternoon and as we watched that second goal go in either he or my dad said, “I didn’t know Sunderland could play football like that.” I have to say it was a bit of a surprise to me too. I suppose it was a typical last game of the season, what-have-we-got-to-lose? situation. In the second-half United pulled one back with a great goal from George Best but it ended 2-1 and United’s hearts were broken. They didn’t have to wait long for some consolation though, as eighteen days later they became the first English club to lift the European Cup with that memorable 4-1 win over Benfica at Wembley.
As for Hartlepool, they managed to stay in the old Third Division for only one season and plunged back down to the basement of the Fourth following their relegation in 1969. John McGovern scored one of the goals for Hartlepool on that sunny afternoon but very soon he was off to link up again with Cloughie at Derby and achieve great success there and later at Nottingham Forest.
Sunderland’s memorable win meant that we finished 15th (out of 22) with 37 points but we only stayed in the First Division for two more seasons of struggle, finishing 17th and then 21st which of course meant relegation in 1970. Even though we hardly set the First Division alight during those six seasons back in the top flight, that made rare games like the Man United match all the more enjoyable. Check out the black and white highlights on You Tube and stand (sit) tall.