Defying the odds, becoming national champions and hammering Newcastle United: Sunderland did it all in a few hours in 1979

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It’s not every day you defy the odds, become national champions and dismantle your local rivals in front of a sold-out crowd.

But Sunderland did it all within the matter of hours on one day in 1979.

This is the story of how the Black Cats became champions of England with a twist - by winning the Daily Express five-a-side tournament.

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The competition

The Sunderland squad of 1979The Sunderland squad of 1979
The Sunderland squad of 1979

You can imagine the furore now if, in the middle of a top flight season, clubs were asked to send seven players to London for a day for a kickabout in an indoor arena - while vital fixtures were quickly approaching on the horizon.

But in the 1970’s and 1980’s, this was exactly what happened.

With English football not as strongly represented in Europe as it is today, clubs had far more free midweeks than they do in modern football - and so small-sided games reigned supreme.

The Daily Express tournament was not the only such event organised at the time. The Football League also pioneered a Soccer Sixes competition from 1981 onwards, but it was the five-a-side tournament that really captured the imagination.

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While now it may sound farcical, it was viewed as a prestigious competition at the time.

The competition was held annually - usually in November - at Wembley Arena in front of a sold-out crowd. Teams would travel down to the capital with some of their better plays in tow, although it wasn’t uncommon for sides to leave the odd star man at home if a crunch league fixture was approaching.

It’s format was that of a knockout competition, with teams facing a penalty shoot-out if they couldn’t be separated in the short and snappy matches. Games were played as five minutes each way with sin bins and rolling substitutions in place. Its format wasn’t dissimilar to the ‘Masters Football’ that was televised by Sky in the 21st century - albeit with current players, rather than former ones.

Televised on the midweek BBC Sportsnight programme across one action-packed evening, teams from Scotland were also invited to battle it out and prove that they were the best on the tight court.

And in 1979, Sunderland did just that.

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Sunderland’s squad

Sunderland were a second division team in the 1979/80 season, but were handed a place in the tournament alongside the likes of Chelsea (also playing in the second tier at that point), Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal and Manchester United.

It was no surprise, perhaps, that some of the ‘bigger’ teams departed in the opening rounds of the competition. The Gunners and the Red Devils were both beaten in the first round having fielded weakened teams. That was generally the policy of clubs battling it out for the top flight title - although George Best did once turn out for the red side of Manchester in an early edition of the competition.

As for Sunderland, they took a fairly strong squad to Wembley Arena.

While first-team regulars such as Steve Whitworth and Bryan Robson were left on Wearside, manager Ken Knighton allowed a number of key players to take part.

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The Black Cats’ squad was the same for their four fixtures in the competition: Chris Turner, Mick Buckley, Shaun Elliott, Kevin Arnott and Stan Cummins. Roll-on, roll-off substitutions were allowed which meant that Peter Eustance and John Cooke also saw plenty of action.

The run to the final - including meeting the old enemy

The Black Cats’ run to the final was packed with convincing wins, with 10 goals scored and none conceded in four games.

Sunderland’s first round tie was against top division side Ipswich Town, who would go on to finish third in first division at the end of the 1979/80 season. The Tractor Boys were beaten 2-0 thanks to an Arnott brace.

Up next were West Bromwich Albion - another top tier side, and another who succumbed to Sunderland. Arnott, who was quickly emerging as the tournament’s star player, scored again while Elliott added the second in a 2-0 win.

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Then came the tie that fans (and no doubt broadcasters) were craving - a Wear-Tyne derby with Newcastle United in the semi-final.

Once again inspired by Arnott, Sunderland ran riot. His brace was added to by a Cummins double as the Wearsiders ran out 4-0 winners and set-up a clash with Brighton in the final.

The Seagulls had beaten much-fancied Tottenham Hotspur in their semi-final but couldn’t prevent the Black Cats from clinching the title.

Arnott again found the net, with a Buckley strike sealing the win - and the trophy.

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So what happened to the competition?

In the years following Sunderland’s triumph, the appetite for the competition faded.

The increased presence of British teams in European competitions was a contributing factor, while the decision to stop televising the tournament in 1983 saw interest wane.

The full-time whistle was eventually blown on the competition in 1986 - with Norwich its final champions.

But at its culmination there were few teams, if any, who had won with as much style as Sunderland.

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