A giant “Ha’way the Lads” banner has been strung across the Wearmouth Bridge. Hucksters are flogging red-and-white chequered flags from the backs of vans.
Even a hip record shop dealing in expensive vinyl retreads has decided it is not above sticking cup final T-shirts in the window. And a hero from the last time Sunderland won at Wembley – 1973, a very vinyl year – cannot walk five yards without being greeted with a nod, a smile, a pat on the back, a shake of the hand. Mackems are still exceedingly grateful to the one they call the Little General.
Bobby Kerr, son of Alexandria on the southern shores of Loch Lomond, was the victorious captain for a famous final stuffed with images which have been burned into the history of the FA Cup. Sunderland were the first second-tier winners for 42 years, beating then-mighty Leeds United. It was the first and only orange-ball final. Kerr, at 5ft 4in and towered over by Leeds’ Billy Bremner, remains the smallest captain to have lifted the trophy. “And drap it!” he laughs. “When I was gangin’ down the staircase I turned round because I’d forgot my medal and the cup bounced onto the handrail. Turn up the volume on your old highlights and you can hear the clank.” The current Sunderland will do well to top all of that and win the Capital One Cup tomorrow.
But drap and gangin’. Note the mixture of Scots and Wearside. The combo was a heady one through most of Kerr’s 12 years at the old Roker Park, not least in ’73. Billy Hughes, a dynamic striker from Coatbridge, wild-haired like Kerr and the younger brother of Celtic’s Yogi, scored the goals that took the Black Cats to the final. The late, Dunfermline-born Ian Porterfield, an artful midfielder with lusty sideboards, netted the Wembley winner. Doughty Dick Malone, the right-back from Carfin with the beginnings of a combover, snuffed out Leeds’ principal dangerman with Kerr’s help. “Eddie Gray in a game before had murdered us so that day I marked Eddie and Dick marked me.”
In the words of ITV commentator Brian Moore, Kerr “ran and ran and somehow found the energy to run some more”, but today this dapper little man, still with a good head of hair, now grey like his iconic moustache, is shuffling slowly. I assume this to be two leg-breaks, one a clash with Norman Hunter, catching up with him and last summer he thought the same. “I was with Monty [Jim Montgomery, Sunderland’s goalkeeper, astonishing double-save] and moaning about not being able to play in a golf day. I’d always had bother with my right knee but this was the thigh; it just shot up. ‘Right,’ said Monty, ‘I’m taking you to hospital. I’m sick of folk telling me there’s nothing wrong with them and it turning out there was.’ Deep-vein thrombosis. I’d been due to fly to Hong-Kong at the end of the week to see Sunderland on a pre-season tour but the nurse actually told me I could have died the following day if Monty hadn’t brought me in. He pulled off those incredible saves and then he saved me. So thanks, pal.”
We’ve made it to Kerr’s flat in a quaint cobbled street. His local pub is just across the road but he decides we’ll stop here, for now at least. On the coat stand there’s a dinner jacket, handily-placed like a superhero’s tunic, and it seems that in this city Kerr must be ready with a ’73 reminisce at a moment’s notice. After our chat he is due on local radio, for a show hosted by old-team-mate Micky Horswill. So what was Horswill’s job on that day of days? “To mark Bremner. If Billy went for a shite, Micky had to gang wi’ him!”
This is a tale of some humour, also plenty of sadnesses brought on by booze, bankruptcy, divorce and death. But let’s begin in the Vale of Leven by those bonnie banks. “I’m a Vale man, that’s it,” he’ll say more than once. What was his young life like there? “Well, we had Loch Lomond and the hills but …” Clearly, water and slopes are no use to a football-obsessed boy. Both his big brothers were players – Billy for Queen’s Park while George had a wandering career round the Barnsleys and Grimsbys extending into management. Kerr was spotted by Sunderland scout Charlie Ferguson, as was a promising Renton boy called John O’Hare. “Charlie hunted in the Vale. The joke was he liked to visit his mum in Dumbarton so would take the chance to do it on club expenses.” Kerr, who at 15 hadn’t even seen Glasgow, was accompanied down to England’s north-east by his father. “We checked into our hotel and then Dad and Charlie went out and got pissed, leaving me chatting to the bell-boy.” Looking round Roker the next day, he met Scottish physio Johnny Watters – “Great guy, played for Celtic before and after the war, full of tales about Old Firm derbies in front of 120,000” – who was mildly alarmed by Kerr’s diminutiveness. “Johnny used to say I only weighed seven stone wet through.”
The urchin was billeted to digs with O’Hare and another Sunderland Scot, George Herd. “Aggie and Pop Fenwick were a lovely couple but I made the mistake of telling my landlady I liked banana sandwiches. She’d go: ‘It’s your favourite again, Bobby.’ What could I say? George, on the other hand, was fed on steak.” From his £4 a week apprentice’s wages, £2 was sent back to the Vale. “Mum never spent any of it. When I came home she’d treat me to new clothes. You know what proud mums are like.”
Kerr’s football life was shaped by idiosyncratic men. There was Brian Clough who ran Sunderland’s youth team while trying to recover from his horrific leg injury. “We played together in the reserves, beat Halifax Town 7-1, Cloughie scoring a hat-trick. The Halifax centre-half said afterwards: ‘Mr Clough, it was a pleasure to play against you.’ That told me the kind of player he’d been.” The manager who recruited Kerr was Alan Brown, a disciple of the Moral Re-Armament religious movement. “Football-wise, he was ahead of his time. At training he had us play ‘shada’ [simultaneous translation: shadow] where we’d have a game against invisible opposition while he shouted at us from the directors’ box.” But he was a disciplinarian: wingers had to get white paint on their boots to show they’d stayed right out wide and facial hair was banned. There was an interlude when Ian McColl was manager and the ex-Ranger and fellow Valeman handed Kerr his debut, against Manchester City on the last day of 1966. Then Brown returned to Roker with his rules, only to leave again, for good. “Right away I grew a moustache, for devilment. It felt like freedom.” Even so, the suit and tie Kerr is happy to wear every day is Brown’s influence. Then, enter Bob Stokoe.
The most enduring image of ’73 is of Stokoe running on to the pitch delirious at the end like he is escaping a burning building. The raincoat he wore over his tracksuit – “Was he the first tracksuited manager?” wonders his skipper – is on permanent display at the Stadium of Light along with his trilby. Kerr shows me a scrapbook. “There’s Bob lifting me up at the end and that picture’s unique. It’s the only one I’ve seen of myself without my false teeth. Me and Hughesy always kept our wallies in little boxes on the touchline. So Bob’s showing the world my gums and look, I’ve lifted his hat to show the world his bald patch. He wisnae happy about that!” Kerr stresses he retrieved his falsers before collecting the cup from the Duchess of Kent. Phew.
Seven Scots played in that final and interestingly only one – Malone, ex-Ayr United – had previously done time with a Scottish club. English-based scouts swarmed over Scotland back then, spiriting talent right over the border. Certainly Sunderland placed their faith in Scots and alongside those already mentioned, Kerr reels off other Mackem Macs from the first half of his Roker tenure including Neil Martin, Ralph Brand, Nicky Sharkey and the Georges, Kinnell and Mulhall. “Sometimes Monty seemed like he was the token Englishman, except for when he broke his arm. His place was taken by Sandy McLaughlin, an Edinburgh lad!”
And then there was Jim Baxter. Kerr chuckles when his name crops up. “My abiding memory of Jim is of me walking to training and him cruising by in his big bloody Zodiac, an automatic, which was basically driving itself while he chomped on a pie that so was so huge he needed to use both hands. ‘Awright there, Bobby?’ he said. The pie was his breakfast. I’m almost certain he hadn’t been home.” Possibly Baxter had been gambling. “Johnny Watters was once asked by Jim to look after some money. ‘It’s in the boot,’ he said. Johnny thought he was looking for a bag or something. The boot was stuffed with fivers. They flew out everywhere.”
Baxter’s few seasons at Roker were dubbed the “Bacardi Years” by those who reckoned there was too much waywardness and disruption and not enough genius. Kerr says: “He was the first to visit me in hospital when I broke my leg so I’ve always backed him when folk said he was a drunk. He was, but by Christ could he play. He used to say to me: ‘Listen son, you dinnae have to keep looking back for my pass when you’re running down the wing – the ball will always arrive.’ And it did.”
Now Kerr fancies a drink so we head across the road to the Burton House with its handful of afternoon boozers, one of whom immediately offers up his seat although there are plenty of free ones. “Captain’s chair,” the man explains, but Kerr simply waves at him and we sit under a display of old Sunderland shirts and photos. He talks about the current team’s chances of this kind of deification in their final against Manchester City. “Good defence, magic goalie, a captain who hopefully won’t get sent off, a striker who might come good… ”
The Black Cats of 41 years ago beat City in an earlier round and in YouTube clips of that magical march to Wembley you can appreciate Kerr’s contribution from the midfield – displays of perpetual motion and canny through-balls, usually for his hairy compadre Billy Hughes. He started out as a striker and remembers the guffaws of the crowd when he lined up against the Liverpool colossus Ron Yeats. “I didn’t want to be a world-beater; I knew who I was. I was a grafter. I could run all day. A guy might go past me but I’d always chase him. That was the one thing about me.” In never being picked for Scotland you could compare him to Nottingham Forest’s John McGovern – both were small, unflashy and uncapped. “I’d have liked to have played for my country but, to be honest, I had enough going on.” An idol in a one-team city, he was celebrated in song: “We don’t need Chivers, Lee or Ball – we’ve got Bobby Kerr”. He laughs: “The lads recorded that right after winning the cup. I think we sold two copies!”
Kerr was the last of the ’73 team to exit Roker and headed off to Blackpool to be with Stokoe, who’d christened him the Little General. There have been a few drinking stories today. The Hogmanay party back in the Vale after his debut when he rather over-celebrated his winning goal. The awayday routine where he and Monty would sneak beer into their hotel room (“The other guys were on Mogadon to help them sleep. We preferred a few cans”). The Match of the Day interview in the midst of the cup celebrations with our man sporting a ripped tuxedo (“I’d just tripped on the stairs – bloody platform shoes”). After the career wound down at Hartlepool he ran pubs. For a while the business was going well, but then tragedy struck.
“My second wife Linda died of deep-vein thrombosis, which almost did for me. She’d just been in America. Linda was the brains of the operation. I was useless with money so my job was to sit at the end of the bar, chatting to the punters. The business went down the swanny. To try and save my name, I sold the house and pumped thousands into it. But I went bankrupt. I drowned all my sorrows. Was I an alcoholic? I think so.”
Kerr, who still bears guilt from the break-up of his first marriage, lives quietly now. He likes to bump into old pals from ’73 but after last year’s anniversary, wondered where the next reunion was going to come from. “I thought it might be some poor bugger’s funeral. But then Sunderland went and got to another cup final.” This time he’ll go to Wembley without tux, without platforms, but with hope in his adopted-Mackem heart. “No-one’s giving the team a chance except the fans and funnily enough that was our situation all those years ago…”