Can the ruby anniversary of a famous triumph revive the romance of the cup?

Posted by Colin Randall

Oh for the excitement of January and the third round of the FA Cup.

David and Goliath battles loom - Hastings, Crawley, Cheltenham and Mansfield will know what I mean - Wembley offers a tantalising prospect and, just to emphasise the respect Premier League managers and supporters feel for the competition, weakened sides and paltry attendances abound.

It is difficult to fault either the cautious team bosses, knowing how much league success means and how ruinous can be failure, or the fans.

But it is heartening to report that Sunderland's game at Bolton Wanderers, irritating an intrusion as it may feel in what has become a fight for survival, has applied a spot of spit-and-shine to the competition's fading allure. The away ticket allocation of 5,000 has been sold out and supporters crossing the Pennines to the Reebok will be in great voice whatever starting 11 Martin O'Neill chooses to send out.

And no wonder. Added to the traditionally strong away support Sunderland always seem to command, there is a rather important FA Cup anniversary in 2013.

No member of O'Neill's squad was alive when Bob Stokoe raced across the Wembley turf to congratulate his goalkeeping hero, Jimmy Montgomery, after that astonishing 1-0 victory against Leeds United, then among Europe's elite, on May 5 1973.

Promotions apart, there has not been a Sunderland trophy since. Four subsequent visits to Wembley have brought two losing play-off finals and two losing cup finals (the Milk Cup to Norwich in 1985, the FA Cup against Liverpool seven years later).

Such a long time has elapsed since that last touch of major silverware that the London branch of the Sunderland supporters' association voted several years ago to change the name of its newsletter from 5573, the date of most recent glory, to Wear Down South. I thought the new title quite witty but the sad explanation for change was that younger members found it harder to relate an event so far in the past.

I am not among the younger member and recall that day as vividly as if it were yesterday. Not that I was able to get a ticket; the sports editor of the local paper for which I worked had failed to live up to a "cast-iron" promise, repeated on the eve of the final, to produce one. My wife remembers hearing my bellows as she walked along the street and noticed the living room window open just at the moment Ian Porterfield fired home the Sunderland winner.

Anyone who supports Sunderland and was there, or watching at home, retains the sort of memories that will never be lost.

Melanie Hill, the Sunderland-supporting actress who became best known for her roles in Bread, Brassed Off and When Saturday Comes, was just 11 years old. Her family had moved to Kent but her mother had acquired a precious ticket.

“I can still see her that evening, staggering down the street half-cut in the red PVC coat she’d bought specially for the cup final, and carrying a fake cup and a flag," Melanie once told me in an interview. "Goodness knows what the neighbours thought. They wouldn’t have understood, but even now I love to think of it … it’s so brilliant to have a memory like that of your mother.”

The author and agony aunt Denise Robertson, who won a celebrity edition of Mastermind the other night, remembers knitting scarves
for her sons to wear for the team's homecoming parade. The only snag was that Wearside's shops had been bled dry of red wool. "I had to make do with orange - terrible stuff,” she said.

Not many marriages seem these days to last as long as the 40 years that have passed since that momentous weekend. Surely there is enough romance left in the cup to encourage the hope, if only in Sunderland eyes, that O'Neill and his team can make this ruby anniversary a happy one.

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