Contemplating a win at Wembley is more than unsettling but the thought of creating another David Corner, who was blamed for defeat in the 1985 final, is just as bad
"I've got something I have to tell you," Steve said. We'd been drinking for a few hours and his lapse into seriousness was troubling. "It's only fair that you know."
"OK," I said, doubtfully. We were both doing post-grad work at Durham, were both Sunderland fans and both played a lot of Championship Manager. We drank together a lot but I wasn't really sure I wanted to hear him unburdening.
"You see that?" he said, jabbing a finger at his chin. I peered uncertainly. "What colour is it?"
There were a couple of ruddy flecks in his dark stubble.
"Ginger?" I said.
"Mark of Cain, that is," he said, in his aggressively sardonic Stirling-accented way. "Mark of fucking Cain." I'd met self-hating gingers before, but this seemed excessive.
"Everybody gets ginger stubble …" I said, but he cut me off.
"You don't understand. I'm related to David Corner."
That was 14 years after Corner's moment of infamy in the 1985 League Cup final; Steve was, I think, a second-cousin. Time has softened the response and there is now general sympathy for an 18-year-old central defender thrust suddenly into a cup final because the captain Shaun Elliott was suspended, but back then the flame-haired Corner was the scapegoat, so much so that for a couple of years if you messed up playing in the yard at school everybody would point and shout, "Aaaaagggh, Corner …" .
In the first minute of the second half he had tried to shepherd a ball out of play by the corner flag, only for John Deehan to nip in and dispossess him. He cut the ball back for Mick Channon, but Gordon Chisholm got in a block. The ball ricocheted to Asa Hartford, just outside the box. He shot, Chisholm thrust out his chest, and the ball was deflected in at Chris Turner's near post. Deehan was offside and standing right in front of Turner, but nobody raised a protest.
Everybody blamed Corner, including Corner himself, his face a picture of mortification. Even his name seemed to highlight his mistake.
Corner now works for Durham police and co-owns a taxi in Sunderland. At weekends he often goes for a drink with the driver of the cab. At least twice each Sunday, his friend reckons, somebody comes up to him and says, "Yer should've just put it out, Davie lad."
A few years ago, the driver tells everybody who gets in his cab – if they respond appropriately to his (hilarious) impression of Don Goodman doing an impression of Mick McCarthy – Corner was called to a disturbance in Seaham where a man was going berserk with an ornamental sword. All attempts to reason with him failed until he caught sight of Corner and the tell-tale flash of orange hair.
"Are yiz ... are yiz Davie Corner?" he asked disbelievingly. Corner confirmed he was. The man dropped the sword and offered his hands to be cuffed. "Yer've not had much luck, son," he said. "So I'll give yer this 'un. But, Davie lad, why didn't yer just put it out?"
I was eight at the time of the 1985 Milk Cup final. It was the first time I'd really understood that disappointment and triumph went hand-in-hand, that you could have a narrative arc that seemed like a fairy story but that everybody might not live happily ever after.
It was in the fourth round that it seemed something special might be happening. Sunderland had beaten Crystal Palace and Nottingham Forest – after a replay and extra-time – to set up a tie against Tottenham, second in the table at the time. Chris Turner was superb in securing a 0-0 draw at Roker Park, but he was even better in the replay.
Few had expected much and when Graham Roberts put Spurs ahead with a first-half penalty, I went to bed. The next morning, though, my parents had gleeful news. Clive Walker equalised on the counter from Howard Gayle's low cross and when Glenn Hoddle miskicked another Gayle cross, Chisholm put Sunderland ahead. But then Elliott mystifyingly handled a Chris Hughton cross – was he nudged in the back? Did Sunderland's historical tendency to self-destruction just overwhelm him? – and Spurs had another penalty. Roberts took it, hard to his left, Turner flew across his goal and turned the ball away with an extended right hand.
"Oh, what a save!" yelled John Motson. "One of the great saves of the season, surely." It was more than that: it was, by some margin, the single greatest moment of the 80s.
Watford were beaten in the quarters but by then Sunderland's league form had collapsed. They'd gone seventh when they came from 2-0 down to beat Manchester United in the November – I was staying at my gran's and persuaded her to let me sit up to watch Match of the Day for the first time – but nine defeats in 11 games saw them drop to 18th. And then came the infamous semi-final against Chelsea.
On the pitch, the first leg, at Roker, was almost entirely about Dale Jasper and Colin West. Twice Jasper gave away penalties – the first a handball, the second a tug on West – and twice West, a bustling six-footer from Wallsend, took them. The first went straight in, the second was turned on to a post by Eddie Niedzwiecki but bounced back kindly for West to nod home. What lives in the memory, though, is the violence that followed, the fights along Fulwell Road, the attacks on cars and shops and pubs. I remember looking at the broken windows at Fulwell library the next day and feeling nauseous. In my head, this was akin to the sacking of the library at Alexandria: truly, these people were barbarians.
What happened in the second leg was even worse (the clip is worth persevering with if only for the excruciatingly awkward player interviews at the end). Sunderland won 3-2, but of far more significance were the 104 arrests and the 40 people injured.
Remarkably, because the Chelsea chairman Ken Bates had demanded £20,000 for rights, no television company covered the game, so the only footage that survives was shot by a company hired by Sunderland for match analysis. Chelsea went ahead but Walker, a former Chelsea player, levelled nine minutes before the break and when he squeezed in a second 19 minutes from time, the tie was as good as done.
It was that goal that prompted the violence, fans attacking police and pouring into the pitch, being cleared only after charges from mounted officers. There was even a horse on the pitch as West scored Sunderland's third. David Speedie was sent off for a horrendous challenge on Elliott and the last few seconds were characterised by players shuffling towards the tunnel, desperate to be as near as possible when the final whistle went. Sunderland fans were then targeted outside the ground, with reports of roadblocks being set up to try to trap coaches heading back to the north-east.
The final couldn't have been more different. Huge games of football broke out between Norwich and Sunderland in car-parks across north-west London and so amiable was the atmosphere that the Friendship Trophy was established, to be awarded to the side that won on aggregate over the two games whenever they were in the same division (such was Sunderland's ineptitude that they didn't actually win the trophy for 14 years). Nor did they win the final.
Sunderland were given the chance to level when Dennis van Wijk, having slipped in challenging Barry Venison, the youngest ever captain in a Wembley final, flicked at the ball with his hand as he lay on the ground. But the luck Sunderland had had with penalties all through that run deserted them and Walker hit a post.
Gary Bennett, just becoming a cult figure, made a couple of surges from the back, but Sunderland never really threatened after that. The barber my mam took me to in Roker brought me a programme from the final: it was beautiful and yellow and smelt of new paper, but I never opened it. Sunderland and Norwich were both relegated that season and the Heysel ban meant Norwich didn't even get their European campaign.
The next time Sunderland went to Wembley, Bennett scored an own goal as they lost the 1990 play-off final to Swindon (but went up anyway).
Two years after that they never turned up for an FA Cup final against Liverpool and were well-beaten 2-0. And six years after that, they drew 4-4 against Charlton in the play-off final and lost on penalties.
There was a lot of luck used up in 1973.
I bumped into Bennett at Arsenal on Saturday, passing him on the stairs after the final whistle. He shook his head and muttered, "Glad that's over." Ostensibly he was talking about the game, in which Sunderland had been abject in losing 4-1, but he was also talking about the wait before Wembley: no more worrying about injuries and suspensions (the heart-in-mouth moment when the Manchester City game was postponed and I forgot the Southampton FA Cup tie and thought Wes Brown's suspension from the Hull game would carry over), no more going through the motions before the game that everything has been geared towards since the penalty shootout victory over Manchester United.
Infuriatingly, I was on a plane to Sri Lanka when that second leg took place. United led the second leg 1-0 when we took off, so I'd happily written the game off as lost, only for the full drama of the denouement to be brought home by the 36 texts I'd received from various people that I read – in strict order – on the runway as soon as we'd landed at Colombo: a real-time record of 15 of the daftest minutes in football history.
I'll be there on Sunday, though, assuming my accreditation comes through for Sunderland's fifth final (including play-offs) in my lifetime. I fully anticipate a fifth defeat. To be honest, the thought of victory terrifies me: what if we do win and it doesn't feel as good as I hope it will? What if we do win and I realise, as my dad did at the final whistle in 1973, that football will never be as good again? It horrifies me as well that my dad then was three years younger than I am now. How did that happen? In 1992, it seemed there would be at least a handful more chances to win things: 22 years on, I have to accept this may be the last one.
You fear as well the creation of another scapegoat. For Corner, the disgrace must have been particularly acute because he was local and a kid. He was actually quite promising – he played for England at the World Youth Championship later that year – but his reputation never really recovered after the final and he left Sunderland in 1988 having made only 33 appearances. A further 19 followed for Leyton Orient and Darlington before, in 1991, he dropped into non-league football with Gateshead.
There are two local players in the team this time – Adam Johnson and Jack Colback, neither quite as local as Corner and neither anywhere near as inexperienced, but you look at Colback's hair and see an echo of Corner's vibrant ginger, and you just hope that two decades from now he's not being patronised after disarming a man with an ornamental sword.