At the height of the last great Miner’s Strike in 1984, Wearside was one of the great epicentres of defiance to Margaret Thatcher’s devastating schemes. The pits of Sunderland and surrounding areas were under threat as people’s livelihoods and way of life were being extinguished by the ruthless Conservative government. Money was tight and morale was low, so the escapism of football bound supporters even more tightly to their clubs during these harsh times. Under the circumstances, a full house shows how even through tough times, people still love the game.
Roker Park, a traditional old ground famous throughout the land for ‘The Roker Roar’, hosted this First Division fixture between Sunderland and championship hopefuls, Manchester United. The North East coast at anytime of year can be an excellent place to take a ‘bracing’ walk, but in this late November encounter there was an especially chill wind blowing in from Seaburn for the players and fans to bear the brunt of.
United, led by gregarious mac-wearing, sweepover-sporting, gold-chain magnet, Ron Atkinson burst into life straight from the kick off as they poured forward towards the Fulwell End. Despite an early long-range effort from mullet enthusiast, Barry Venison, it was the visitors who took the lead on 13 minutes.
Building down their right hand side, the ball broke to skipper Bryan Robson who at that time was at the zenith of his mighty powers as England’s top player. Robson, born nearby in Chester-Le-Street, swung his left foot at the ball but failed to make proper contact. His scuffed effort trundled towards goal. Mackem’s keeper, Chris Turner, who would go on to be a United player himself in future years, scurried helplessly across his six-yard box as if trying to tap dance through porridge. His efforts were fruitless as the ball slipped past him into the bottom left corner of the goal. 1-0 United.
Barely had the Black Cats recovered from this blow when another one followed straight after. Norman Whiteside, nicknamed ‘The Shankhill Skinhead’, and the youngest player to appear at a World Cup Finals aged 17 in Yakubu/Kanu years, slipped the ball through to United’s boy wonder, Mark Hughes.
The Welsh forward raced clear of the Sunderland back line to drill the ball past the onrushing Turner to give the Red Devils, playing in a superb blue Adidas away strip, what should have been an unassailable two goal advantage.
Straight from the resultant restart, Sunderland were back in it thanks to former Chelsea winger, Clive Walker. He raced onto a Colin West flick-on to slot neatly past United’s feminine-haired goalie, Gary Bailey. Only 17 minutes gone and three goals scored. A winter warmer for those braving the conditions.
The next big talking point in this classic came when Hughes and Sunderland striker, David Hodgson, were both dismissed. The two came together just inside the Sunderland half and after the girliest of exchanges, where even handbags weren’t utilised, the pair were sent down the tunnel much to the disgust of Big Fat Ron and Sunderland’s Borat-like assistant manager.
The hosts found themselves level when they were awarded a penalty for a foul on Gary Bennett. What the gangly centre-half was doing that far forward is anyone’s guess but he was brought down by Bailey whilst in full gallop. The follically impaired Walker smashed the spot kick to Bailey’s left to send the home fans delirious.
More drama was to come as Sunderland won a second penalty. Stan Cummins burst into the United box only to be felled by veteran yard-dog Gordon McQueen, who arrived at Cummins’ ankles far too late to avoid contact. Nervelessly, Walker bagged his second penalty and a superb hat-trick, as he hit a carbon-copy spot kick past a despairing Bailey. An incredible first half closed with Sunderland 3-2 up when seemingly they were down and out after just 15 minutes.
The second continued as the first had ended with Sunderland on the front foot. Bailey saved acrobatically from Cummins long range drive and followed that with a point blank stop from West’s near post diving header.
United midfielder, Remi Moses, spurned a late opportunity to earn a point when Whiteside cleverly put him through on goal. His effort was deflected over the bar to safety when the ball really should have nestled in the net in front of the travelling support.
This thrilling 3-2 win ultimately proved inconsequential to Sunderland who ended the season relegated to Division Two. Clive Walker’s penalty luck deserted him later in the season when he missed one in the 1-0 Milk Cup Final defeat to Norwich City.
Manchester United, who had begun the season on fire and harboured title hopes, finished the campaign in fourth spot, 14 points behind champions, Everton. Atkinson’s men would upset the odds at Wembley against the treble-chasing Toffees when they heroically won the FA Cup with 10 men thanks to Norman Whiteside’s superb curling winner.