Bob Murray: Sunderland's road to Wembley has never been smooth

Reaching cup finals while fighting relegation, losing play-off finals but going up. Sunderland’s post-War relationship with Wembley has been full of contradictions, former chairman Bob Murray tells Stuart Rayner

Sunderland players celebrate with the FA Cup after defeating Leeds United in the 1973 final
Sunderland players celebrate with the FA Cup after defeating Leeds United in the 1973 final

Bob Murray’s experiences of Wembley are a strange mix of contradictions.

Unable to get a ticket for their only post-War win there, he has watched his beloved Sunderland at the home of football four times. Twice they lost play-off finals only to secure promotion, once they were denied by an own goal and a missed penalty, only to be relegated weeks later.

The FA Cup final was reached by a caretaker manager battling Division Two relegation. Murray felt press-ganged into giving Malcom Crosby the job full-time and soon regretted it.

This year is just as full of contradictions.

“We’re fighting relegation but we’ve reached one cup final and we’re one game away from Wembley in the FA Cup, it sums Sunderland up, doesn’t it?” says Murray. “It’s a great character-builder being a Sunderland supporter.”

The most entertaining of Murray’s games was the 1998 Second Division play-off final. Sunderland lost in the most heart-breaking way possible – 7-6 on penalties after a 4-4 draw. The goal that took the match to a shoot-out brought up a hat-trick for Charlton Athletic’s Clive Mendonca – a Wearsider. Fortunately hindsight gives that excruciating afternoon a more positive spin for Murray.

“The best game at Wembley was Charlton,” he says. “That sums our football club up, doesn’t it?

“That defines being a Sunderland supporter – the highs and lows. In 1998 we couldn’t get more.

“We got promoted by losing that game because an hour after the final whistle the lads promised they wouldn’t allow this to happen again. The next season they went up with 105 points.”

Recovering from adversity has been a theme of Sunderland’s Wembley trips. All their post-war cup finals have come against a backdrop of relegation battles.

“We got to the League Cup final in 1985, the year I joined the board, arguably played in the worst cup final ever and got relegated,” Murray recalls. “Mr (Tom) Cowie (the then-chairman) introduced me to Lawrie McMenemy and then I had an even worse year before I inherited the whole mess.” Murray’s first season as chairman ended in the club’s lowest point. McMenemy was sacked as manager after taking the Rokerites into English football’s third tier for the only time.

“We got up straight away easily and started to build the team,” Murray says. “The recovery started in those sad days and in 1990 we reached the (Division Two) play-offs.

“It was a very strange thing, a unique game of football, the game that didn’t count.”

Sunderland and Swindon Town both went into the final hoping to be playing in a different division in 1990-91. They both did after winners Swindon were demoted to Division Three because of financial irregularities.

“When we beat Newcastle (in the semi-finals) I knew we would go up,” says Murray. “Newcastle thought they should go up because they finished third (in Division Two), and Sheffield Wednesday thought they should stay up because they finished third bottom (in Division One). Promotion was won in a hotel in York when the legal people argued Sunderland had advanced through the competition but that didn’t stop Newcastle and Sheffield Wednesday having a right old crack.

“The president of the Football League said to me at Wembley, ‘Don’t you lose this today,’ because he didn’t want to have to make that decision. But it had all been sorted out before the game actually started.

“I never shared it with (manager) Denis Smith or the players.

“It was an awful game and we didn’t get started. I felt sorry for the Sunderland supporters going through such a grim game, and the Swindon supporters.

“A couple of days later the decision was made. I hadn’t said anything beforehand because I didn’t want to embarrass the League or put the decision into doubt.”

If Murray could watch in a state of calm, his next Wembley date came after a season of worry. “We went into 1991-92 with a lot of hope,” he recalls. “Marco (Gabbiadini) went (to Crystal Palace), Don Goodman came in and we changed managers (sacking Smith, and replacing him with Crosby).

“The league team kept losing and the cup team kept winning. I was more concerned with staying up.

“When Don, our most expensive and allegedly best, came out of the team we won, and we struggled when he came back.”

Crosby got Sunderland all the way to Wembley before finally getting the manager’s job full-time, though beating a star-studded Liverpool was a step too far.

“It was not comfortable,” Murray admits. “We were doing awfully in the league, we nearly got relegated. Given the wherewithal at our disposal it was very poor. The 1973 team had picked up in the league once the cup run started. Bob (Stokoe) came in and grabbed it with a marvellous run.

“The pressure was to appoint Malcolm (permanently), which we did in the end. That didn’t work out.”

When it comes to Sunderland, football life rarely runs smoothly.

How 'Bob the Builder' fixed Wembley embarrassment

That Sunderland will be playing under Wembley’s arch for the first time is a significant milestone for Bob Murray.

The then-chairman took his side to the Twin Towers three times but they have not been back since it was rebuilt for the new Millennium.

It was a process which became a national embarrassment until “Bob the Builder” took it on.

The man who moved Sunderland to the Stadium of Light and Academy of Light also played a pivotal role in finally getting the Wembley project up and running.

“There was a Labour government at the time and the FA were going on about the new Wembley but in reality nothing was happening,” Murray recalls. “The Government got involved because of the 2006 World Cup bid. A big part of the bid was Wembley and they didn’t have much confidence in what they were being told by Ken Bates and the like.

“They insisted on setting up a Wembley board and I was inflicted on it. They went for me because I know the personalities, which can be the most difficult bit, and I had delivered the Stadium of Light. It wasn’t as big as Wembley, but I had taken a club into that sort of arena.

“I didn’t like it, it wasn’t my scene, but we got a contract in place and fully funded. That was all I wanted to do.”

Murray’s role was not overlooked. As well as being knighted in the 2010 Queen’s Birthday Honours, he was also put in charge of the building of St George’s Park – another long-running Football Association saga which was threatening to become nothing more than a pipe dream.

He takes particular pride in what he achieved with Wembley. “I think it’s the best football stadium in the world bar none,” he says.

Journalists

David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer