A wonderful, wonderful book - the very definition of a page-turner and one that defies you to put it down. I'm a pretty slow reader and usually read in bed, setting myself a target number of pages to read before I fall asleep. That went out of the window with this book, and I had several late nights reading it, desperate to know what was on the next page even though, in most cases, I already knew.
It features the linear history of Sunderland FC from the Fifties, under the hardcore Alan Brown. The era is brilliantly evoked as the tough taskmaster drills his players, monitors their drinking and socialising, but at the same time regards them emotionally as his family. It's hard not to feel sympathy for Brown who did not go out of his way to curry favour, but wanted what was best for his players and their club. That Hardy evokes these feelings is a clue to what a well written piece of work this is.
When Stokoe arrives, it's like the advent of colour TV - an apt simile. The black shorts are reinstated (Brown had made Sunderland wear white shorts) and the good times start to roll. Beautifully evocative descriptions of matches and intra-club dramas follow (if you followed Sunderland in that era, some great memories are guaranteed, of results both good and bad) until the climax of the piece, the 1973 Cup Final. We relive Ritchie Pitt's outrageous early foul on Allan Clarke, Porterfield's historic goal and, of course, THAT save.
Where it got really interesting for me was in the aftermath - unhappy players handing in transfer requests, failure to secure promotion and the break up of that incredible team. They are revealed, in some cases, to have feet of clay in thinking that they were bigger than the club. Stokoe himself, fascinatingly when you remember his jovial, favourite-uncle persona, comes across as rather mean-spirited and unforgiving. Whether he SHOULD have forgiven Don Revie for asking him to throw a match when Stokoe was at Bury is a matter of opinion, but Stokoe seemed to take his bitterness to his grave. In the euphoria following the final whistle at Wembley, we remember Stokoe skipping across the turf to embrace Jim Montgomery - but Jack Charlton alleges that Stokoe chose that moment to make an obscene gesture at him, high above Wembley in the ITV studio. It is these details that reveal what a complex character Stokoe was, and provide a complete picture of the man, the times and a never to be forgotten achievment.
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