The story of Colin West's Sunderland heartbreak - and why it took 35 years to heal

It took 35 years, but Colin West finally extinguished his Wembley heartbreak earlier this year.

Thursday, 31st December 2020, 4:00 pm

The former Sunderland striker - now assistant manager to Keith Curle at Northampton Town - helped the Cobblers back to League One via the play-offs and will now come up against the Black Cats this weekend.

That play-off win over the summer was his first taste of the national stadium, over three decades on from a bitter row centred around the Twin Towers that infamously ended his time at Roker Park.

And as West prepares to reunite with Sunderland, we take a look back to 1985 - where it was Wembley heartache for the Wallsend-born striker:

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Former Sunderland striker Colin West has finally seen his Wembley heartbreak eradicated

Sunderland and West’s cup exploits

While they were scrapping - ultimately unsuccessfully - against relegation from the First Division, the cup competitions offered Sunderland a break from the rigmarole of league action.

And it was in the Milk Cup where the Black Cats, and specifically West, made their mark.

Having beaten Crystal Palace, Tottenham Hotspur and Watford in the competition, Sunderland found themselves at the semi-final stage - where they would face Chelsea over two legs.

The first leg took place on February 13, 1985, with West scoring his first home goals since September to take Sunderland to the brink of Wembley.

The 22-year-old Tynesider came up trumps with a brilliant double to sink the Blues by a score of 2-0 on a memorable night at Roker Park in the first leg of the semi-final.

The Red and Whites produced an energetic performance, although the night was spoiled by violence before, during and after the match.

On the pitch, Sunderland manager Len Ashurst was well satisfied with a two-goal cushion to take to Stamford Bridge, though he warned: “Chelsea scored four goals against Sheffield Wednesday in the fifth round and we must be prepared mentally for the return.”

Chelsea boss John Hollins remained confident, despite the setback of defeat, coupled with bad injuries to defenders Joe McLaughlin and Colin Lee, plus bruised ribs sustained by Mickey Thomas.

He told the Echo: “We didn’t do badly for nine men and we are not out of it yet.

“Sunderland didn’t create a great deal and we are pretty good at comebacks.”

The Blues could have been ahead inside two minutes, with Kerry Dixon just inches away from connecting with a Thomas cross, following a good link-up with Paul Canoville down the left.

Chelsea could certainly have done without losing centre-back McLaughlin to a dislocated elbow in just the 12th minute, with youngster Dale Jasper forced into an earlier than expected appearance.

Jasper was to play a crucial role in the game, handling David Hodgson’s 27th-minute cross and allowing West the chance to hammer a powerful penalty out of the reach of Chelsea keeper Eddie Niedzwiecki.

Roker Park erupted, and ex-Chelsea star Clive Walker fired a tremendous effort just over the bar as the hysteria increased. The keeper denied Walker minutes later, as he looked to get on the end of Hodgson’s pass.

In the second half, Chelsea were undone again by the hapless Jasper, who gave away a second spot-kick.

Barry Venison’s good throw was met well by West, but, as he tried to turn inside the box, he was brought down by Jasper.

Niedzwiecki made a good save to deny West, pushing the penalty against the post, but the alert striker ran in to prod home the rebound and seal the triumph.

‘We are pretty good at comebacks’

With the words of Chelsea boss Hollins still ringing in their ears, Sunderland headed to the capital intent on ensuring a comeback wasn’t possible.

While the semi-final was pushed back due to bad weather, a 3-2 win for the Black Cats at Stamford Bridge sealed progression to the Final.

West, again, was on the scoresheet. He netted Sunderland’s third on the night to send the Black Cats through to the final.

Norwich City were waiting at Wembley, with West and Sunderland eyeing a morale-boosting cup triumph.

A notable absentee

As Sunderland headed to the Twin Towers, there was a notable absentee from their match day squad.

Semi-final hero West was dropped from the side completely, with David Hodgson instead leading the line.

West was naturally furious, with his relationship with manager Len Ashurst turning sour as a result. The striker would go on to leave the club in the summer, moving to Watford for a six-figure fee.

As for the game, Gordon Chisholm’s goal moments after half-time proved enough to hand the trophy to Norwich.

Sunderland could have done with West’s penalty prowess when they were awarded a spot kick moments after the restat. Clive Walker, however, couldn’t convert - with his effort coming back off the post.

West, though, was left to watch on and wonder what could have been.

Speaking in 2009, the striker looked back on the game - and why he was left out of the side.

“I definitely wasn’t injured for the final.

“I don’t know what went on but I have since found out through one or two people that the deal [to go to Watford] was more or less done between the clubs before the final. They’d been speaking about it. And then I got left out of the final.

“I got told on the Sunday morning – the day of the game – at the hotel that I wasn’t playing. If I had played and we’d won then there’s no way I would have wanted to leave Sunderland I’m sure. But I think the deal had been done between the two clubs.

“We lost the game. We had a penalty and Clive [Walker] missed it. I took the penalties so I was sitting there thinking, ‘I might have scored that.’”

Up until now, that may have proved a source of regret. But this year’s triumph beneath the arch will have extinguished any lingering Wembley heartbreak.