Despite the presence of nearly sixty-one thousand spectators, Old Trafford was so quiet that, from my standing-place way back in the crowd, I could hear Pop Robson and Billy Hughes shouting to each other as they exchanged a nifty one-two before Billy slammed the ball into the net to make it 2-1 to the Lads. “C’mon, we can fuck these bastards!” shouted my mate Keith beside me, perhaps unwisely seeing that we were surrounded by a sea of stunned Man United fans.
It was Saturday 30th November 1974 and Keith and I together with our mate Pete, who incidentally was a part-time Newcastle fan, had travelled up by coach from London to Manchester that morning to see the top of the table clash. That’s top of what was then called Division Two as Man United were spending a rare season in that lower league after being relegated the previous season when Dennis Law famously back-heeled a late winner for Man City against his former team in the last game of the season. We’d all been up late the night before and as we boarded the coach at Victoria we were feeling rough and afraid as we occupied the back seat. Keith must have been feeling rougher than me as before we’d left London he’d puked up a bit after slurping on a carton of milk. The couple in front gingerly moved further down the bus, the female partner with a trace of milky vomit in her hair. This was how Keith kicked off the day but he got worse, a lot worse.
Anyway, back to the football. At that point in the season Man United were top and we were second. They were managed by Tommy Docherty and us by Bob Stokoe. It was only a year and a half since our epic Cup Final win over Leeds but a lot had changed in that time, with the notable departures of Dennis Tueart and Micky Horswill to Man City and Tony Towers coming the other way. Richie Pitt had suffered a career-ending injury and Bobby Moncur had arrived from Newcastle at the heart of our defence. The aforementioned Pop had arrived from West Ham in the summer of ’74. I remember the moment I heard this news from my pal Les as we stood on a staircase at Bridon Fibres in Roker Avenue. It was like feeling really hungry and then having the best Sunday dinner your Mam ever made placed in front of you.
The journey up the M6 was as boring as ever and when we got into Manchester the skies were gloomy and we didn’t have much time to spare as we found the bus-stop over to Old Trafford. This was in the time of the Stretford End’s worst notoriety and the News of the World would go into paroxysms of outrage over their bad behaviour. Unlike the prawn sandwich crowd of modern times the Stretford Enders back then were a rough lot and most of them were from the Manchester area. They’d invaded the pitch after the Dennis Law goal that sent them down and hadn’t been in very good humour since. They maintained a regular chorus of, “In Their Sunderland Slums. In Their Sunderland Slums. They look in the dustbins for something to eat. They find a dead rat and they think it’s a treat...in their Sunderland slums.” and other welcoming ditties. We were in the stand adjoining theirs but fortunately Keith’s cry of encouragement didn’t arouse any immediate assaults on our persons, though I did keep looking over my shoulder.
Docherty had brought a number of Scots into his side including Big Jim Holton, who’d later play briefly for us too. (“Six foot two, eyes of blue, big Jim Holton’s after you! La-la-la-la, la-la-la, la-la!”) The team also included Sammy McIlroy, Lou Macari, Steve Coppell, Martin Buchan and Alex Stepney. Stuart Pearson opened the scoring for United after ten minutes or so but then Sunderland had them well and truly rattled and hit back quickly with two goals from Billy Hughes as well as creating several more good chances. You could hear the home fans wincing as we piled on the pressure and it was so nice to hear another team’s fans suffering as we’d so often done. Not long after half-time though they’d equalized through Willie Morgan and we had the whole of the second half to sweat it out, in more ways than one. There’d been a sudden influx of more boisterous and vocal home fans at the break (crowds could be very mobile back then) but mercifully Keith kept his mouth shut in their presence. Anyway, their mood was improved by Man Utd getting a dodgy goal, scored by McIlroy, which ended up being the winner. Morgan looked to be well offside near the touchline on the far left from our viewpoint when the crucial pass was made but he was judged to be not interfering with play and so the goal stood. The three of us kept quiet and bit the bullet but at the final whistle I was proud of the way the Lads had rallied and they certainly hadn’t been outplayed in a very hostile environment. As the massive crowd, which wouldn’t be bettered for many years, gradually filtered away the p.a. played ‘Juke-Box Jive’ by The Rubettes.
We had about six hours before the overnight coach would take us back to London and the joys of a boozy evening in central Manchester awaited us. We went in a pretty quiet pub on Piccadilly and played darts for a couple of hours with two friendly Man City fans, who mocked Man Utd fans of course. One of them, who was so cockeyed that I kept checking to see if he was talking to me or Pete beside me, said they gave away tickets to Old Trafford in Cornflakes packets. We were knocking the beers back and hits such as ‘Magic’ by Pilot played on the jukebox. We finally piled out of there and as we searched for another pub Keith started baiting passing strangers with insulting comments about Man Utd. We told him to watch his mouth but he didn’t take any notice.
We proceeded to the less than salubrious Yates Wine Lodge and there certainly wasn’t much wine in evidence. We ploughed through loads more beer as the place filled up, with Keith shouting “The Geordies are over here!” at various points. (The term Geordies had a different connotation back then of course.) After a while Keith went for a slash and I didn’t think too much about how long he’d been away till a guy who turned out to be the manager came over for a quiet word with Pete and I. This was only a few months after two bombs had exploded in two busy Birmingham pubs killing nineteen and injuring a hundred and eighty people and the manager pointed out that our mate had been in the bog for an unusually long time and any plain-clothes policeman on the premises would find that very interesting. He accompanied Pete and I to the lav, where Keith sat asleep on the bog in an unlocked cubicle with his trousers and underpants round his ankles. I woke him up and he shook hands with the manager before falling asleep again. Anyway, we finally got him out of there and he didn’t get any better.
We finally found our way to the stop where the coach would take us back to London and not surprisingly there were about twenty young Cockney Reds waiting to share our journey. The coach arrived and the driver came to the front door to give us all a brief warning that if there was any trouble onboard he’d kick the offenders off pronto. Keith barged to the front of the queue and when the driver asked, “Where’re you goin’?” he immediately replied, “Sunderland” to which he received a shove and the curt, “You can get off for a start!” Pete and I managed to get him allowed on and as it wasn’t very crowded we occupied a double seat each. A young Man Utd fan got on and sat next to me. Keith began baiting the Man Utd fans as we left the city and the driver stopped the coach twice to come up and warn him to shut up. By this stage I’d ceased to care really but luckily our opposite numbers were either too tired or had too much sense to rise to the bait and I told the lad next to me just to ignore my mate as he was pissed out of his head.
Speaking of heads we somehow arrived back in London at some horrendously early and dark hour with our own heads intact and Keith laughing at what a hoot it had all been.