IT was the day Gordon Chisholm saw his name in lights, up on the Wembley scoreboard no less, after 46 minutes of the 1985 Milk Cup final.
He had just wrong-footed the goalkeeper by turning Asa Hartford’s shot into the net, a crucial and, as it turned out, decisive contribution that caused the stadium to erupt.
If only it were a happy memory. If only it had been the other half of the 100,000 crowd that he had ignited. Chisholm had netted the winner all right, but not for his own team, Sunderland. The Scottish defender had scored an own goal for Norwich City, handing them a 1-0 victory which ruined the biggest day of Chisholm’s footballing life.
“Sometimes they give it to the person who has taken the shot but, no, when I looked up, it was my name that was in lights. I thought ‘oh jeez’. All my family were there. I had everybody down from Glasgow, a lot of friends. It was disappointing but it’s one of those things that can quite easily happen in a game. You try to rectify a mistake and suddenly...”
The mistake was someone else’s. Young David Corner, drafted in to replace the suspended Shaun Elliott, had misjudged his attempt to usher the ball over the byeline, allowing John Deehan to take possession and feed Mick Channon in the box. Chisholm tackled but, when the ball broke loose, Hartford’s shot deflected in off his chest.
Last week, as Sunderland prepared for a return to Wembley, where they will today play Manchester City at the same stage of the same competition, Chisholm’s son sent him a clip of the goal. “Should have been braver,” said the accompanying message, although both know that the old man was faultless.
If there was a culprit on the day, it was Corner. Or Len Ashurst, the manager who picked him. Or Clive Walker, whose second-half penalty grazed the outside of Chris Woods’ left-hand post. Up in the stand, Walker’s wife sat two seats along from Chisholm’s. Between them was the wife of Sunderland striker Ian Wallace, who turned to them and said: “Are you two OK?”
Chisholm will be at Wembley today with his wife and two sons, all of them hoping to see Sunderland win their first major trophy since 1973. They were his first club. They gave him his biggest and best experiences in the game. And now, he is back working for them as a scout, after a playing career that took him to Hibs, Dundee and Partick Thistle, as well as a managerial one at Queen of the South, Dundee United and Dundee.
“You always have an affection for your first club,” he says. “It’s a family thing. My oldest [son], Gordie, was born in Sunderland. Grant was born in Glasgow, but he’s kind of got the bug. You just jump on the train and head for Newcastle. They were at the last derby, and absolutely loved it.
“I have some great memories of everywhere I’ve been, but going down there and playing at Old Trafford, Elland Road, the North-East derby... it was unbelievable. For the big occasion, the big crowds, Sunderland was the best. I don’t think people in Scotland appreciate what kind of following they have.
“So many people have asked me to get them tickets for this final, but you just can’t get hold of them. It seems like half the city is going. It’s a massive support, but more than that, it’s loyal. Their fans have been through a lot. It would be nice for them to get a reward.”
Chisholm was there for the best part of a decade. After growing up in Glasgow, where he played for Possil YM – Sunderland’s nursery club – the young defender signed in 1976. Two years later, he was making his debut, at home to Charlton Athletic. In 1980, he helped them secure promotion with a 2-0 win against West Ham United, who had won the FA Cup just two days earlier.
In the First Division, Chisholm was a regular. He made 192 appearances for Sunderland. He also scored ten goals, one of which was in the fourth round of a thrilling run to that 1985 final. His team had taken Tottenham Hotspur to a replay at White Hart Lane, where Chisholm conceded a penalty before grabbing the winner.
Sunderland then took care of Watford before seeing off Chelsea in a two-legged semi-final that is remembered mostly for its crowd violence, especially at Stamford Bridge. “I have to say, that was an intimidating night. Before the game, our team bus was surrounded by Chelsea fans, who started rocking it back and forth. And I remember, at one stage, going to take a throw-in and having a big chunk of wood fly past me. It’s also the only time I’ve been on a pitch and seen a horse run by. When Colin West scored our third goal, there were police horses on the field. I’m thinking ‘what’s happening here?’ We won the game, but I felt for the support that night. There was a lot of trouble.”
Despite all its promise, the season did not end well for Sunderland. Not only did they lose at Wembley, they were relegated from the top flight, as were Norwich. Ashurst was sacked, Lawrie McMenemy replaced him and Chisholm accepted an offer to join Hibs. There, he appeared in another League Cup final, his second in the same calendar year.
The semi, against Rangers, had gone well enough – he scored on what was his Hibs debut – but the final, a 3-0 defeat by Aberdeen, was the ultimate anti-climax. “We let ourselves down that day. It’s great to go to a final, with all the hype, and everybody up for it, but we were 2-0 down in about 12 minutes, and it knocked the stuffing out of us. At least in the final with Sunderland, we were always in it. With Hibs, we never even challenged.”
As a manager, Chisholm would lose two more cup finals, with Queen of the South and Dundee United, although there was no shame in either. Those disappointments – inflicted by Rangers and Celtic respectively – were far from the biggest of his career in the dugout. They were nothing to the day, in 2010, when he was made redundant by the administrators at Dundee. “What happened at Dundee soured things for me, it really did. I didn’t think I would want to get back in the game. It kind of dampened my spirit.”
After a short spell with East Fife, Chisholm was offered the chance to be Sunderland’s international development coach, and thought ‘why not?’ It was a secure position, with opportunities to learn, not just about football, but about life. As part of the job, he made frequent trips to Ghana and South Africa, where Sunderland have partner clubs. Now, as first-team scout, he is still on his travels, albeit mostly in Europe.
If he’s not in Belgium or Denmark, taking in two or three games a day, he’s up and down the UK, anxious to miss nothing. The week before last, it was Rochdale on Saturday, Brighton on Monday, Sheffield on Tuesday, Nottingham on Wednesday and home to Glasgow on Thursday. He is grateful for the work, even if it isn’t quite what he expected at 53.
“I get well looked after by Sunderland. I stay in nice hotels. I’m given good transport. Everybody says, ‘oh, great life’, but what a lot of people don’t understand is that it’s quite a lonely existence. I’m on my own, staying in a hotel, watching the match and moving on. I miss the day-to-day coaching. I miss the banter.”
Still, being at games on a regular basis has restored some of the appetite he lost at Dundee. And he is grateful for the opportunity to be in and around a club as big as Sunderland, especially as they prepare for a historic occasion. “Seeing the boys building up for the cup final, seeing the suits coming in... it brings it all back. I’ve had some great experiences in my career, but there’s nothing quite like walking out at Wembley.
“It will be very difficult for Sunderland. They’ll have to work really hard as a team. But I’m going down there with optimism. How many times have you seen it happen? On the day, you just never know.”