Sunderland have faced Wolverhampton Wanderers on many big occasions and even played the Black Country side in their second ever League game at the start of the 1890/91 season. Three nil up at half time, Sunderland lost 4-3 and initially struggled against top flight opposition before a late rally took the Wearsiders up to 7th (out of 12) place in the table.
The following season a 3-1 success at Molineux on Boxing Day 1891 was celebrated lustily when news arrived by telegram back in Sunderland with many fans convinced that the red and whites could now go on and win their first League title. So it proved.
By the start of the 1936/37 season Sunderland had captured the League trophy on six occasions. However in the ‘big one’, the FA Cup - the trophy all fans wanted to see their side win, especially now that the final was at Wembley - Sunderland had yet to win the competition, with the nearest being a defeat in the final in 1913 when a then world record crowd of 120,081 saw Aston Villa beat Sunderland 1-0 at the Crystal Palace. Defeat prevented Sunderland becoming the first side in the twentieth century to achieve the League and FA Cup ‘double’ as they won the League title, for the fifth time, in 1912/13.
Sunderland won their sixth title in 1935/36 season and were top of the League on 5 December 1937 and looking good for a consecutive success, but ultimately the side relied too heavily on its home form and won just two away League games all season in 36/37.
Sunderland were slightly fortunate to overcome a determined Southampton second division side at the Dell in the FA Cup third round that year, winning 3-2. The Wearsiders were 2-0 behind at Third Division south opponents Luton Town and lucky not to be more down before Jimmy Connor and Len Duns scored half way through the second period and in the replay at Roker Park the Hatters were beaten 3-1. In round five Swansea lost 3-0 at Sunderland and when the draw for the sixth round was made Sunderland faced Wolves away.
The tie attracted a crowd of 57,751, 21,000 more than witnessed the League fixture between the sides at the same ground that season.
The County Durham side’s poor away form - which the previous weekend had seen them lose 6-4 at WBA - meant Wolves were favourites to progress. The home XI were a young, speedy side and Black and Gold fans entertained real hopes that Wolves would win the FA Cup for the first time since 1908.
In an attempt to neutralise the pace of the Wolves forwards the Sunderland boss Johnny Cochrane chose to keep Sunderland’s wing-halves - Charlie Thomson - Alec Johnston - Sandy McNab - deep and it was against the run of play that the home side took the lead on 37 minutes when Brynmor Jones drove a shot past an unsighted John Mason in the Sunderland goal.
Forced to push up as they game progressed Sunderland should have equalised but Duns shot poorly when left with only Bill Gold to beat. Raich Carter also missed a splendid chance.
The equalising goal came as a result of a series of passes between Bobby Gurney and Duns before the latter netted in the seventieth minute. The game continued thereafter to be hard fought throughout with plenty of hard knocks on both sides. Gallacher appeared to have been tripped in the box, but referee Mr Twist was stuck on the half way line and appeals for a penalty were dismissed, before there was relief for the Wearsiders when Guy Wharton missed narrowly with only a minute remaining. In a game in which every Sunderland player had battled to the very end the undoubted star was McNab, whose reserves of energy were amazing.
Sunderland returned to Wearside and the team, no doubt in an attempt by the Directors to make sure no one celebrated too strongly, was booked into the Roker Hotel where they stayed to prepare for the replay four days later.
The game on the Wednesday afternoon was played during a working day. Yet 61,796 turned up - the crowd would have been much larger but the gates were closed half an hour before kick off in an attempt to prevent the crowd outside gatecrashing the match - and with four minutes left those who had lost a day’s pay to watch the game must have regretted their decision to do so.
On 86 minutes Thomas Galley had driven Wolves ahead, and the fear was 1937 was going to be a repeat of affairs in 1933 when Sunderland, after forcing a sixth round replay, had lost to Derby County on a Wednesday afternoon before a crowd of 75,118, a figure that remains the largest ever crowd to watch Sunderland at home.
With just over a minute remaining Thomson lofted the ball forward and Gurney brought it down with his body and, as he was almost on his knees, he walloped home the equaliser past Gold. Sunderland players mobbed the scorer and the roar on the terraces split the air. An inspired Sunderland swept into the lead within 3 minutes of extra-time starting when Duns, having earlier missed two great chances, smashed home. Pandemonium again, but it is often the case that teams are at their weakest when they have just scored. A lapse in concentration allowed George Ashall to drive across a dangerous cross and an unmarked Harold Thompson made it 2-2 on 97 minutes. The game slowed in pace in the next 23 minutes and the 2-2 draw was a fair one on the balance of play.
The second replay took place on Monday 15 March 1937 at Hillsborough. Whilst a number of fans of both teams did make the occasion, the vast majority of the 48,900 present were local Sheffield people. Such was the draw of what was then the biggest football competition in the world.
This time Wolves were finally put to the sword. Bill Shankly later said of the Sunderland side of 1935-37. “In many ways the Sunderland team played the same brand of Total Football as the great Holland team of the 1970s.”
This match was one where Cochrane’s side was at its imperious best and literally played and ran Wolves off the park on a tricky, muddy pitch that was hard underground.
Gurney netted on ten minutes when he controlled a Duns fee-kick and hopped round Stan Cullis and Joe Gardiner before netting. For the next half hour the sides were equally matched but the tie was effectively ended when first Carter and then Gallacher netted between the 40th and 44th minute. First Carter burst on to a fine Eddie Burbanks pass to score before Gallacher reacted quickest to a bouncing ball in the box after Wolves had failed to clear a Duns corner. The second half saw Sunderland rarely under serious trouble and the victory was complete when Thomson netted his first penalty for the club after John Taylor had needlessly handled with just six minutes remaining.
When the referee sounded the final whistle Gurney, in recognition of his equalising goal at Roker Park the previous Wednesday to save the tie, was carried shoulder high from the field. Sunderland knew they would be back in Yorkshire, this time at Leeds Road, Huddersfield to face Third Division south side Millwall. The Lions were to be beaten 2-1 in the semi-final before Sunderland advanced to face and beat PNE 3-1 in the 1937 FA Cup Final at Wembley.
A vintage art print of Raich Carter hoisting aloft the FA Cup for the first time in Sunderland’s history can be bought from here. Copies are also available from the SAFCSA shop near to the Stadium of Light.