Sunderland AFC Throwback – A Magical Day in the FA Cup Back in 1996

It might have taken a good kicking over the last 20 years or so, but the FA Cup third round day is still the best weekend in English football. With Sunderland involved for the first time since 2018, we take a look at a memorable day in the world’s oldest club competition

There was a time when the FA Cup was the biggest show in town. Everything about it was significant, from the draws along the way to the final itself, where even the teams leaving the hotel on the morning of the match would be considered worthy of broadcast.

Now, of course, the global interest, finances and razzamatazz of the Premier League has cast a significant shadow over the FA Cup which, steadily and surely, has dulled what used to be the jewel in English football’s crown.

The final pretty much used to be the last day of the season, for a start, and it would be the only game on that day, with a 3pm kick-off. That’s changed now, other games take place that day, the Premier League will more often than not finish a week or so later, and the teams involved in the final will have to play their penultimate league fixture a couple of days after the final.

Global TV audiences and commercial partners dictate the game kicks off at 5.15pm, meaning any team from the north of the country will struggle to get transport back home on the day. A good 20% of the Wembley allocation will go to neither of the finalists, so getting a ticket is expensive and difficult.

Many commentators argue that Manchester United’s withdrawal from the cup, as holders, to partake in the World Club Championship in the winter of 1999-2000 signalled the death knell for the FA Cup, but the Premier League’s rapid rise in profile and importance, alongside the rebranding of the European Cup in the 1990s to the UEFA Champions League just simply changed the priorities of English football.

Now, any Premier League club involved in the FA Cup, and many Championship sides too, just don’t see the cup as important. If we’re talking simple finances, the difference in prize money from finishing, say, 12th compared to 13th is more than the prize money a club could earn from winning the FA Cup. And of course, it’s even greater if a club was to be relegated from the top flight having prioritised the FA Cup (hi, Middlesbrough, Wigan).

So, you get weakened teams and a distinct lack of interest from clubs which feeds into the supporters – attendances drop for cup games quite significantly, and a cup exit is welcomed with a shrug and a “let’s just focus on the league”.

While the rot did indeed start in the 1990s, the FA Cup was still the greatest show in town at this point, and we’re going back to 1996 today for a particularly memorable day in the third round.

Having taken over a year or so earlier, Peter Reid steered Sunderland clear of relegation from the old Division One before leading his side on a promotion push in 1995-96.

Sunderland’s experiences in the FA Cup had been fairly patchy in the seasons after reaching the final in 1992 – there were few ties of any importance after this, save for a heavy televised defeat to Tottenham where Gary Bennett made a quite incredible goalline save of which he is still proud to this day. Sadly the referee didn’t quite agree and sent the centre-half off.

FA Cup third round day is the moment where the top two divisions join the competition, and has historically thrown up some magical draws as huge sides are pitted against lower league and even non-league outfits.

The third round, traditionally played on the first weekend of January, is where that form book goes out of the window, clubs put their league woes to one side and concentrate on the first steps in what could end up being a fruitful cup journey.

For Sunderland in 1993 and 1994, the draw – at that point televised from the FA’s Lancaster Gate HQ presented by the incredibly wooden Graham Kelly – rewarded us with consecutive meetings against… Carlisle United – hardly one to set the pulses racing.

But in the December of 1995, Graham Kelly finally came through for us with a true glamour tie, drawn away to Manchester United, the double winners of 1994, beaten finalists in 1995 and by some distance the biggest side in the country.

Having just swatted Millwall aside 6-0 to go top of Division One, Reid’s Sunderland were in decent form themselves and we went to Old Trafford with confidence that we could give a good account of ourselves.

For me, this game was my first away trip at the age of 12. I’d been to the odd game at Roker Park but never on the road. Naturally, heading to Old Trafford, the biggest club ground in the country having just been extended to more than 50,000 at the time, filled me with excitement – especially as I’d be seeing the likes of Peter Schmeichel and Eric Cantona in the flesh.

As a result of the Premier League being burned on to our retinas at the time, I’d seen more of Manchester United than I’d seen of my own team, the likes of Schmeichel, Cantona and Ryan Giggs were all players I had posters of on my bedroom wall, and thus it never really occurred to me that the result would be anything other than a United win. Maybe we’d score.

It was a foggy, damp, miserable day, and we had to navigate what seemed like a 30-car pile-up on the M62 heading over to Manchester. Would the game go ahead?

Nevertheless, we plodded on to Old Trafford and found our way to our seats in that famous arena. Then, my Schmeichel excitement was well and truly pissed on when Kevin Pilkington took his place between the sticks for United, but other than that it was a strong, respectful side put out by Alex Ferguson, featuring future Sunderland managers Roy Keane and Steve Bruce and with the iconic Cantona up front.

True to the form book, yet to be thrown out of the window of course, United opened the scoring as Nicky Butt scooped his finish over the onrushing Alec Chamberlain, otherwise resplendent in that iconic Avec ‘gloveprint’ keeper kit.

The away side, in the pointy-collared yellow and blue effort that we seemed to have for about six years, had a good go and were counter-attacking well, but went in at the break 1-0 down.

In the second half, we really took the game to United. Maybe they sat back a bit and looked to just manage it out, but when Steve Agnew’s low drive crept inside the post in front of the Stretford End, the hosts were rattled. At this point, Old Trafford was a fortress and few teams, let alone a Division One side, would go there expecting anything other than defeat.

With half an hour on the clock, United pushed forward, we cleared our lines and a long ball plopped into the path of Craig Russell, who controlled once with his head, then nodded it down before slotting home to mark a special moment for the young striker.

The away fans, up the other end of the ground, were in raptures. I’d been at Roker Park and seen us score plenty of times but away games are different, especially when you’ve taken the lead against the best side in the country.

For a good 20 minutes we believed we were going to do it, we knew we were, we were sure we were. Then, as so many times before and since, United’s talismanic Frenchman struck. Lee Sharpe’s free-kick found Cantona at the back post, his header was planted straight at Chamberlain who could only palm it into the roof of the net to make it 2-2.

The tie went to a replay back at Roker Park ten days or so later. In a role reversal, Sunderland would take the lead into half time, only to see that cancelled out by the player we’d go on to try and sign later down the line, Paul Scholes, before Andy Cole, a player we did actually go on to sign, broke our hearts with a 90th minute winner.

Only a year earlier, Cole was at Newcastle, and his start to life at United was less than sparkling. The fact Sunderland fans used every opportunity to remind Cole of this throughout the tie was probably fuel to his fire, and for us, the fact it was he that struck the decisive blow made it all the worse.

Nevertheless, we had indeed given a good account of ourselves. At this time, coverage of the leagues below the Premier League was awful – highlights were shown in the middle of the night on ITV, or 20 seconds on the local news if there were pictures available.

Playing Manchester United was a big deal – it was given a decent show on the highlights show that evening, while I believe the replay was televised. Getting our moment in the spotlight – and playing well to boot – sent a message that we were on our way and, although our league form stuttered in between the away tie and the replay, we settled down, signed Shay Given on loan, and put an incredible run together, winning the league to return to the top flight for the first time since 1991.

After beating us in the replay, meanwhile, Manchester United’s league position was perilous, especially having failed to win the league the season before and losing to Everton in the cup final. They sat in third, level on points with Liverpool and 12 points away from leaders Newcastle.

Even if you didn’t like Manchester United at the time, what happened next was just really good fun as United set about their chase of the Magpies, Ferguson playing – and winning – mind games with Kevin Keegan, sealing what at one point seemed an unlikely third Premier League win.

There was certainly no shame in Sunderland losing to United that season as Ferguson’s men went on to complete their second league and cup double in three years, beating Liverpool 1-0 beneath the twin towers of Wembley. Once again, it was a certain Frenchman who proved to be their saviour in the cup, volleying home late on to send Liverpool and their famous cream suits packing.

As for Sunderland, what happened next was well-documented – literally, as the following season was featured on BBC show Premier Passions.

After an absence from the third round due to our League One status and continued inability to beat the likes of Gillingham and Mansfield, it’s a relief to be part of the third round again. It may only be Shrewsbury, but all journeys must start somewhere and, with a young, exciting, attacking squad, to get our chance against another Premier League side later on in the tournament would be an exciting prospect indeed.