Long before Ian Wright Wright Wright there was Alan Alan Sunderland – #HighburyHero

This week’s Highbury Hero takes back down memory lane to the late 1970’s. When a man with a perm earned himself a permanent place in Arsenal’s history, with the last gasp winning goal in the Five Minute Final in 1979. It’s Alan Alan Alan Sunderland.

Alan’s magnificent Afro

Alan had a fine turn of pace and although was not the tallest he was excellent in the air and as brave as a lion.  David O’Leary said of him, “I always felt he was at his best if a defender kicked him early on”.

Alan tussles with Steve Perryman in the North London Derby

Alan had a wonderful touch, bringing the ball under control instantly and he was so sharp in the box. He was not a prolific scorer but in tandem with Frank Stapleton, they were a wonderful partnership and a handful for any defence.

Alan and Frank Stapleton the perfect strike force

Alan was born on the 1st July 1953 at Conisbrough in South Yorkshire. It was a mining area and Alan knew that as football was the only thing he was good at, that was his way of avoiding following his father down the pits as a miner. Alan’s mother was German and his parents met in Dortmund when Alan’s father was in the army.

Sundy went to Wolves and it was a tough transition as he described it – “The early days. It was tough being away from home at 16. I was at Wolves, I was a northern bumpkin and I knew nothing. I was from a rough part of Yorkshire and I was still using biblical language – thee, thou, and thine. When I went back to Yorkshire I was ‘a bit of a poof’ because I’d started talking normally, and then when I started drinking lager and lime, and not Yorkshire Bitter, I was ‘100 per cent a poof’. But at least I was playing in the first team at Wolves when I was 18”.

A young Alan Sunderland in the old gold of Wolves

Alan broke his leg when he was 17 in a training ground collision with the Wolves captain Mike Bailey and was out for a year. However, he came back and made his debut for Wolves in midfield aged 18 against Manchester City at Molineux in a 2-1 win. Alan was part of the Wolves side that won the League Cup in 1974 beating Manchester City 2-1 in the Final at Wembley. He also played in Wolves championship winning side that won promotion to the top flight in 1976-77.

Arsenal swooped to sign Alan in November 1977, when Terry Neill paid £220,000 for his services. I remember picking up a copy of the Evening Standard and reading about it on my way to see Supertramp in concert.


Alan swaps his Wolves shirt for a red and white Arsenal one

When he first came to Arsenal he came straight into the side and played wide right as Malcolm Macdonald and Frank Stapleton were the strike force at the time. Alan made his debut against Manchester United on the 5th November 1977 at Old Trafford in a 2-1 win and scored his first goal for the club against Newcastle United away, on the 19th November 1977 in a 2-1 victory. Sundy was in the Arsenal team that lost the FA Cup Final 1-0 against Ipswich Town in his first season at the club.

Alan Scores against the old enemy Tottenham

In his second season at Highbury Supermac hardly played because of his chronic knee problems and Sunderland and Stapleton formed an even better striking partnership than Stapleton had with Supermac. They complemented each other perfectly. The pair of them were such a handful for the opposition. I remember being at White Hart Lane just before Christmas in 1978, when The Arsenal demolished Tottenham 5-0 and Alan scored a hat-trick in a scintillating display from the Gunners.

Sundy scores a hat-trick in the North London Derby

However, it was in the FA Cup that he really came into his own. Arsenal had to play 11 matches to win the famous old trophy that season, including the five-match marathon against Sheffield Wednesday. Alan scored six goals in the competition. He scored both our goals in the 2-0 Quarter-Final Replay against Southampton at Highbury, as well as scoring in the 2-0 Semi-Final win, against Wolves at Villa Park.

It was a beautiful sunny day at Wembley and we were coasting to a 2-0 victory over Manchester United in the 1979 FA Cup Final, which became known as the “Five Minute Final”. Suddenly Terry Neill for some reason replaced David Price a midfield player, with a defender Steve Walford and it unbalanced the side and allowed United to come back into the game. With five minutes left Gordon McQueen pulled one back, then two minutes later Sammy McIlroy dribbled his way past a couple of Arsenal players and scored the equaliser.

The “Five Minute Final” 

The United fans started roaring their team on and we could not believe what was happening. Then as the game looked as if it was heading for extra time a tired Liam Brady, socks rolled down round his ankles made a great run down the left gliding past two United players and rolled the ball into Rixy’s path. Rix then delivered a brilliant cross that went over the United keeper Gary Bailey and cometh the hour cometh the man, there was Alan Sunderland to smack the ball into the net to send us Arsenal fans into ecstasy and immortalise himself into the history of Arsenal Football Club.

Alan and the rest of the victorious 1979 FA Cup side

The two questions Alan gets asked the most are what did it feel like to score that goal and what was he saying as he wheeled away to celebrate. Alan’s answers to the questions “Unbelievable. There is no feeling like it. As to what came out of mouth, it is unprintable. Every foul word imaginable, in an explosion of relief”.

A humorous take on Alan’s famous goal with Skinner and Baddiel

1979-80 Alan was the top scorer for Arsenal with 29 goals in all competitions. It was an epic season with Arsenal playing an incredible 70 games. Alan continued his love affair with the FA Cup notching up another 6 goals in the competition, bringing his tally in the FA Cup to 15 goals in three seasons. Once again, The Arsenal had to play a gruelling 11 matches in the competition. This included the four game Semi-Final against Liverpool. I recall he scored in the first replay at Villa Park, but we missed it as someone pulled the communication cord on the train on the way up there and it was almost half time when we eventually got to the game.

Heartbreakingly, we lost two Finals in five days as sheer fatigue caught up with us as we lost the FA Cup Final 1-0 to Wear Ham United on the Saturday, then lost in a penalty shoot out to Valencia in the Cup Winners Cup Final on the Wednesday. We also lost our best player Liam Brady that summer to Juventus. Alan also got his only full England cap against Australia in Sydney.

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The following season 1980-81 proved to be the last season of Sunderland’s great partnership with Frank Stapleton as our Irish centre forward left the club acrimoniously for Manchester United at end of the season. He was top scorer again in 1981-82, but scored only 11 times in the league.

In 1982-83, Arsenal added to the striking department by splashing out on Tony Woodcock and the woeful Lee Chapman. The season after that 1983-84 was Alan’s last season. Arsenal signed “Cannonball Kid” Charlie Nicholas from Celtic and Alan was hardly getting a game, making just 16 appearances in all competitions, scoring five goals, due to Woodcock and Nicholas being the first choice options. Alan’s last goal for Arsenal was against Everton at Highbury in a 2-1 win, on the 19th November 1983 and his final game for The Arsenal was the infamous 2-1 defeat against Walsall at Highbury in the League Cup on the 29th November 1983.

It should be said Arsenal did not have a 20 goal a season player again until 1986/87.

Alan’s replacements Tony Woodcock and Charlie Nicholas

In February 1984, Alan joined Ipswich Town on loan, which turned into a permanent move in the summer. He played a couple of years there before finishing his career at Derry City in Ireland.

Alan in the blue of Ipswich Town

Alan Sunderland played 281 times for The Arsenal scoring 92 goals. His favourite motto is “Fight for every point. Never give in”. These days Alan lives in Malta but the Arsenal fans will forever remember him for that dramatic last minute winner in the “Five Minute Final” in 1979.

A superb compilation of Alan Sunderland’s Arsenal goals

As always thanks for reading. Another Highbury Hero will be coming along next week.

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