Forty years ago next month, the unforgettable evening of Wednesday March 4 1964, the most fearful crowd scenes occurred In and outside Roker Park.

Sunderland, second division leaders, played Manchester United in an FA Cup sixth round replay, four days after the first match. The official gate was 46,727, at least 15,000 below capacity.

At least 17,000 more got in without paying when two gates collapsed in the asphyxiating melee, another 50,000 were locked out, two died, 47 were taken to hospital and hundreds more treated for minor injuries.

The following morning's Northern Echo carried an eye witness account from a reporter called Robert Colquhoun: "The date and the names should be printed in large letters on thousands of placards and hung in the Football Association boardroom, the boardroom of every football club in the country and in the chief constable's office of every police division," it began.

Maybe they couldn't read. It was to be another 25 years before football acted decisively.

We recall it now because of a passing reference in Tuesday's column to an undated newspaper cutting showing injured spectators being treated on the Roker running track.

That was the one, an accident waiting to happen.

"The roughest night since Sunderland played Derby County in the Cup way back in the 1930s" said a polliss with either a good memory or a long service medal. "For the first time in my life I was really frightened," confessed a second.

Mike Corner, another Echo reporter, wrote of the most badly organised and badly handled crowd he'd ever been in. "If you fell you were dead," he added.

For George Thompson from Escomb, near Bishop Auckland, Tuesday's paragraph stirred such vivid memories of that mad March night that he might have been Kenneth Wolstenholme sitting on the Clock Stand roof, providing a running commentary.

"We were there by half past five," says George. "It was the only way we could have got in."

Asked that night why the match hadn't been all ticket, Sunderland vice-chairman Syd Collings assumed the fatuous defence position. "There wasn't time to print tickets. People don't work on Saturdays and Sundays" he said.

An Echo editorial let him down lightly. "It is not a very good excuse," we said.

The police, conspicuous chiefly in absence, were also criticised for failing to anticipate the interest or the size of the crowd.

Sunderland chief constable William Tait promised a Watch Committee recommendation the following day that all big Cup matches would in future be all ticket.

Robert Colquhoun, among those outside unable to look in, continued to address the police and football authorities. "The ball lies at their feet to prevent a repeat," he wrote.

There was still a quarter of a century before Hillsborough.

Wearing what Frank Johnson termed a "strange blue outfit", Sunderland had led 3-1 in the first match at Old Trafford - two goals from Johnny Crossan, the other by George Mulhall - until United scored twice in the final four minutes, the equaliser by a promising 17-year-old called Best.

The replay - "a game the North-East and the soccer world will talk about as long as the game is played," said the Echo - ended 2-2 after Bobby Charlton equalised three minutes from the end of extra time.

Nick Sharkey's scissors kick had given Sunderland the lead and sparked a pitch invasion, United equalising George Herd's goal when Jimmy Montgomery cleared straight to Denis Law.

The second replay was five days later at Huddersfield Town - all ticket, extra police, barbed wire around the perimeter fence, stable door bolted.

Manchester's five second half goals, three in as many minutes after Sharkey's opener, finally ended the affair.

The total crowd for three games was 167,379, the total receipts £30,598. The lessons were awfully slow to be learned.

The Derby game which the polliss produced in evidence was another sixth round replay - March 8 1933 - when 75,118 were somehow squeezed into Roker Park and the gates still closed an hour before kick-off.

Two died that night out as well, 30,000 were locked out.

It was a record gate for any midweek match in Britain, beating Sunderland's previous best by almost 12,000. Receipts were £4,565.

"If Roker Park had held 100,000 the ground would still hardly have been big enough," said the Echo, observing also that women in rich fur coats jostled with out of work miners in mufflers and cloth caps.

The first match had ended 4-4. In the replay, Bobby Gurney had a goal contentiously disallowed and Scottish international winger Patsy Gallacher was carried off before Ramage's winner for Derby in the 12th minute of extra time.

It wouldn't be much longer, however, before Sunderland's name was on the Cup.

First week of March 1964? Alderman John Neasham, 63, resigned after 13 years as chairman of Darlington FC, 27-year-old George Bowes from Blackhall Rocks lost his British bantamweight title fight to Irishman John Caldwell, the Echo forecast that Crook Town, Ferryhill, Spennymoor and Whitby, drawn apart in the Amateur Cup quarter-finals, would all reach the semis - only Crook made it - and the FA once again promised to act on shamateurism. It was another ten years before they sorted out that one, an' all.

Backtrack Briefs...

On Tuesday to the White Swan at Evenwood, an occasion of seriously mixed emotions and a night when Bulldog Billy Teesdale forgot to bare his teeth.

We reported in November that Julie Savage, Billy's daughter, had died at the age of 29 from cystic fibrosis.

In her memory, a cheque for £3,500 raised by Billy's family and friends at Evenwood Cricket Club was presented to the Julie Kent Trust, which helps North-East children and young adults with the illness.

It should not be supposed, however, that the Bulldog is an entirely changed man. He still left it to his 79-year-old mum to get the round in - prompting delightful Dot Teesdale to observe that Billy had brown eyes and John and Alf, her other sons, hadn't.

"These are my blue eyed boys," she said.

Even before Julie's death, they'd been raising funds by all manner of means - from sponsored walk to Great North Run, from charity match to on-field fines.

There were penalties for dropped catches and for no-balls, for scoring more than ten and for "inappropriate dress", an interesting concept in Evenwood.

There was £95 from the White Swan swear box - "is that ******* all," said Billy - and another tenner from a chap who'd won an unspecified bet on Gerard Houllier. Billy himself had been fined £25; the summons said it was for being a raggy arse.

When the total reached £2,600, Julie's friends around Brough Park Greyhound Stadium - identified on the balance sheet as the "local dog fraternity" - chipped in another £900.

"The generosity of people in our locality never ceases to amaze me," said John Teesdale.

"It's your round again, mam," said his brother.

The Julie Kent Trust was set up in 1992 by railway policeman Mike Kent and his wife Marilyn, from Durham, in memory of their daughter who died from cystic fibrosis at thirteen and a half.

The founding £1,000 was their Julie's savings. Since then the Trust has raised £120,000, to be increased when Mike and Marilyn walk the West Highland Way in the Spring.

"It's such a horrible illness," said Marilyn. "A sufferer can look so robust, so healthy, and in a few days they can be dead."

Bulldog Billy didn't say much at all. His bark may yet be worse than his bite.

Then, of course, the conversation turned to cricket, two months and counting, and to happier times ahead.

Evenwood, defending Durham County League champions, talk of adding another couple of names to the club - former Middlesbrough central defender Steve Vickers, local lad made good, and Andy Dunlop, newish landlord of the Swan, who began his cricket career at Billingham Synthonia and played subsequently for Suffolk.

Andy - "bowler and whacker" he said - claims that a bad back has ended his playing days. Steve Vickers, 36, is in house renovation partnership with former Boro goalkeeper Steve Pears and, perhaps up on the roof, hasn't been available for comment. "If he knows I'm still here, he'll be back like a flash," said Billy.

The other topic of conversation being floated in the White Swan was of Sir Bobby Robson and his next move.

It is not (so far as we are aware) away from St James' Park. The septuagenarian Robsons are bucking the trend and moving to a bigger house.

It's a hall near Chester-le-Street. Purchase price estimates vary but a chap in the bar had a delivery there the other day and, though the Magpies manager hasn't yet moved, met him on the doorstep.

"There's still some work to be done, but it's going to be fabulous," says our man. "Sir Bobby deserves it."

The ever generous Sir Bobby, incidentally, will be the guest at a Willington FC talk-in at the Kensington Hall Hotel in Willington on Thursday April 1, starting at 8pm and finishing - if experience is a guide - quite late. Tickets are £10, including a buffet. Details - get in fast - from club chairman John Phelan on 01388 768551.

It means that the testimonial for long serving player Brett Cummings (Backtrack February 10) has now been put back to Thursday April 8.

And finally...

The six Scottish League clubs with the letter 'f' in their name (Backtrack, February 10) proved agreeably confusing. They are Forfar, East Fife, Dunfermline, Falkirk and - the tricky twosome - Heart of Midlothian and Queen of the South.

Bob Foster in Ferryhill today invites readers to name the first player to make 100 appearances for four different Football League clubs.

The column appears again on Tuesday.

Published: 13/02/2004