Torment and catharsis: Sunderland's David Corner and the 1985 League Cup

An error at Wembley in the 1985 final led to years of bullying. But a play about his life has enabled David Corner to share his experiences

The second half was a few seconds old. Dave Watson, the Norwich centre-back, pumped a long ball into the corner. There seemed little danger. The 18-year-old Sunderland centre-back David Corner tried to shepherd the ball out for a goal-kick but John Deehan nipped round him, kept the ball in play and cut it back to Mick Channon. He was tackled but the ball broke for Asa Hartford and his shot flicked off the chest of Gordon Chisholm, wrong-footing the goalkeeper, Chris Turner, and scuttling in at the near post. It was the only goal of the 1985 Milk Cup final and would come to define Corner’s life.

Corner still describes that day as “a dream come true”. He was a Sunderland fan, brought up 250 yards from Roker Park, and had played his fourth senior game the previous week. With the captain, Shaun Elliott, suspended, Corner was included on the right of a back three alongside Chisholm and Gary Bennett. “I had quite a good game,” he says. “I kicked one off the line. I’ve watched the video a load of times and I did OK.”

But nobody remembers that. “My teammates were fantastic,” Corner says. “Shaun Elliott put his arm around me and told me to forget about it, said it wasn’t my fault. Barry Venison [the stand-in captain] was superb with me, said it could have happened to anybody.” Others, though, were less understanding.

The following day, a few hundred fans were waiting at Roker Park to greet the team bus. Len Ashurst, the manager, told the players to go and shake a few hands. “I went up to the first person,” Corner says. “He was a biggish fella, and he grabbed the tracksuit I was wearing and pulled me towards him over the railing. ‘You, yer bastard,’ he said. ‘You’re the reason we lost the cup.’”

John Deehan and David Corner watch the ball go past Chris Turner, towards the Sunderland net
John Deehan (left) and David Corner (second left) watch the ball go past Chris Turner, towards the Sunderland net. Photograph: Mirrorpix/Getty Images

He certainly was a reason, but Clive Walker later missed a penalty and even after Corner’s error it had required three separate moments of ill-fortune for the goal to be scored: the way the ball broke from the tackle, the deflection and that Deehan, offside but unpunished, ran across Turner’s line of sight.

The referee, Neil Midgeley, later told Deehan he had looked to the linesman expecting the flag to go up before concluding that after a drab first half the game had probably needed a goal.

“He changed my life with that,” says Corner. “I don’t know which way it might have gone, but he changed it. I’d put my hand up more in hope than anything, but if it had been offside, would I still be remembered at all?”

The altercation outside Roker Park was the start of years of bullying. Being more than 6ft tall with bright ginger hair, it was hard for Corner to be inconspicuous. “The abuse got worse and worse,” he says. “I could take the verbal stuff – and some of it was nasty – but then it got physical.”

A couple of years after the final, he was in a Sunderland nightclub when a man approached him. “There were a few choice words,” he says. “Then it carried on outside. I was in hospital for 12 days with a fractured eye socket and broken cheekbone.”

On another occasion, he was in the Londonderry pub, now renamed the Peacock, in Sunderland city centre. “I’d just put my pint down and a lad said: ‘Can I have a word?’ I thought he wanted to chat about football or something, but as I turned around he just punched me. It smashed my teeth and I had to have stitches under my mouth.”

Eventually, Corner left Sunderland for Leyton Orient and then Brian Little’s Darlington, where he was twice player of the year before suffering the knee injury that ended his career. But every time he met a Sunderland fan would come the question: “Why didn’t you just put it out?”

Norwich’s Chris Woods,  Dave Watson, Paul Haylock and Steve Bruce pose with the League Cup after their 1-0 win against Sunderland
Norwich’s Chris Woods, Dave Watson, Paul Haylock and Steve Bruce (left to right) pose with the League Cup after their 1-0 win against Sunderland. Photograph: David Cannon/Getty Images

Even in Durham CID, the final continued to haunt him. Corner had just joined the police force in Seaham, a pit village six miles down the coast from Sunderland. “I was just out of probation,” he says. “We heard there was a fight in a house. I got there first and there was a bloke outside with his top off, covered in blood, high on I don’t know what. ‘I’ve killed him,’ he says. ‘I’ve killed him.’ So I cuff him and get him in the back of the car.

“But I’m curious. So I get somebody to keep a check on him and walk into the house. There’s a fella sitting in the corner, surrounded by police and paramedics. He’s got a cut across the top of his head from one side to the other, covered in blood. The bloke outside’s gone for him with a samurai sword. His eyes are wide open, but he’s not saying anything, won’t talk to the sergeant or the doctor, just staring into space. But his eyes lock on to mine and follow us as I walk round the room.

“Then suddenly he speaks. ‘Davey?’ he says. “‘Hello, mate.’ I’ve never met him, no idea who he is. “‘Davey,’ he says. ‘Why didn’t yer just put it oot?’ And this is 12 years on.”

Five years ago, playing in a charity cricket match for Ashurst at Whitburn, he was approached by the local BBC Look North presenter Jeff Brown, who suggested writing something about his life. From that stemmed Brown’s play Cornered, which enjoyed a sell-out run around the north-east.

Corner attended every night at the Customs House in South Shields, the Gala in Durham and then, most fittingly, in the upper room at the Peacock. “Without a doubt it was cathartic, people seeing what I’d been through,” he says.

David Corner (right) and BBC presenter Jeff Brown in 2017.
David Corner (right) and BBC presenter Jeff Brown in 2017. Photograph: NCJ Media

The play is being released as an audiobook in National Anti-Bullying Week (16-20 November) with all proceeds to go to the Foundation of Light, a charity founded by the former Sunderland chairman Bob Murray that works with disadvantaged children and families from across the north-east.

“Times have changed,” he says. “There’d be outrage now at what happened to me, but at least I didn’t have social media to deal with. But there were times when I did feel intimidated and down, when I didn’t want to go out.

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“People need to speak out about this, to know that bullying is something that happens to adults as well as children. This is about raising money to extend the programme and make what’s there better, about letting people know there is help out there and about education, showing people it’s wrong.”

Corner knows he should have put it out; he has never needed 35 years of reminders.

Contributor

Jonathan Wilson

The GuardianTramp

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