When did some people actually attend a match at Roker Park when they didn’t even want to be in the ground? Anyone aged sixty or older will probably reply, “Oh, the Man United match”, referring to our epic F.A. Cup 6th Round replay on the evening of Wednesday 4th March 1964. Four days before that we’d drawn 3-3 at Old Trafford, with Johnny Crossan getting two for us, but United pulled back two late goals, one of which was scored by a seventeen-year-old newcomer called George Best. In those days the Stop Press section of the Saturday Sunderland Echo used to carry details of late goals and I recall seeing the name Best appended to their second goal, in the 87th minute as far as I remember, and thinking, “Best? Who the hell’s that?”

I can also remember seeing a black and white photo in one of the Sunday papers the next day of a very short-haired George being congratulated by his team-mates and, frankly, the image didn’t please me one bit. A big crowd would’ve been expected for such a replay anyway, especially as we’d seen off the mighty Everton in the previous round, but, although I didn’t realize it at the time, George’s magic was already beginning to work on the fans nationwide and many young girls were planning to come along. Incidentally my big brother was at the Everton match and he told me he’d passed an Everton fan who was announcing to no-one in particular his opinion of Sunderland A.F.C. as he strode by the ground i.e. “Second Division shit! Second Division shit!” On the afternoon of that game I was in our living room making a jigsaw with my mate David when my dad twice came running through from the front-room to tell us that we’d scored. We were three-up after about half an hour. A long time later he came walking through to announce Everton had pulled one back and the final score was 3-1.

I’d started going to games at Roker Park in October 1962, when I was eight, and I can’t remember exactly why I didn’t attend the Man United game but I vaguely recall my mam not wanting me to go as everyone knew it was going to be packed. As it happened, I could hardly see anything at a match till 1967 but I still liked to go. On the day of the match a classmate Derek came to my house for his tea and afterwards we kicked a ball around at the top of Elmwood Street and recreated the night’s impending game between the two of us. Sunderland won of course. It was a warmish evening in late winter and in the Burn Park area there was no hint of the mayhem that was building over at Roker Park.

We’ll never know how many people were in the ground for the match but in the Sunday Mirror’s Brian McNally’s account of the events, he estimates there were 120,000 in and around the ground and says his teenage feet didn’t touch the ground for ten minutes as he was carried along in the human tide. Most estimates were that around 75,000 actually got inside, many of whom hadn’t paid as the crowd pressure on a gate at the Roker End had caused a wall to collapse and thousands surged in. There were soon stories doing the rounds of little old ladies going out to get a packet of tea and being so engulfed by the tightly-packed crowd that they were swept into the ground through the gap in the wall. I think I recall seeing photos in the Echo of a street being awash with shoes that had come off in the crush. In the chaos two people died of heart-attacks and around eighty were injured and it’s really a surprise that there weren’t many more casualties. The official attendance was 46,727, one of whom was my brother Graham. The cinder track around the pitch had to accommodate thousands who couldn’t fit onto the terraces and when I watched the highlights on the news later, I’m sure many of these ran onto the pitch after one of our goals.

We lined up in our usual 2-3-5 formation and the team was Montgomery, Irwin, Ashurst, Harvey, Hurley, Elliott, Usher, Herd, Sharkey, Crossan and Mulhall. United’s team was Gaskell, Brennan, Dunne, Crerand, Foulkes, Setters, Herd, Chisnall, Charlton, Law and Best. It was a real ding-dong of a match from start to finish and we played out of our skins with particular plaudits going to our full-backs, Cec and Len. We went one-up in the 43rd minute when a throw by Elliott was back-headed by Sharkey, who then blasted home Foulkes’s headed clearance. United equalized in the 62nd minute after an uncharacteristic error by Monty, who made a poor goal-kick that landed at the feet of Dennis Law and he duly put it away. In the first minute of extra time Sharkey’s shot from the angle of the area was turned into his own goal by Maurice Setters. In the 107th minute Law was close to an equalizer but with Monty beaten, his shot came back off the bar. United got their equalizer as the seconds ticked away with a Charlton header from a cross by David Herd.

The second replay was at Huddersfield on the following Monday and we lost 5-1. I believe I was watching ‘The Lucy Show’ as the goals piled in. My dad was no football fan and so he thought the Herd who scored for United was our own George Herd and not their David Herd. United were beaten 3-1 in the semi-final by West Ham, who went on to beat Preston 3-2 at Wembley.

I was very disappointed that we’d lost, of course, but after all we were a Second Division side and United had won the Cup in 1963 so we’d done very well to take them to two replays as well as defeating League Champions Everton on the way. But it’s still the mayhem of the crowds that stays in the memories of most of us more than the match itself. Any lingering disappointment was soon soothed by our promotion to Division 1 at the end of the season.

Many thanks to Paul Days for his help in the writing of this article.