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‘I lead the attack’; the tale of Trevor Ford, who left Sunderland for Cardiff & blew the lid

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‘I Lead The Attack’ was the autobiography of Trevor Ford, the extraordinary Welsh footballer who blew the lid on under-the-counter payments in football - a revelation which cost Sunderland dear. Mark Metcalf tells his story.

Over the years there have been many players who have represented both Sunderland and Cardiff. The best known is Swansea-born Trevor Ford who, like many of his age, had to wait until his mid-20s to make his official debut because of WWII.

Ford was a proven goalscorer and he scored 70 times for the Rokerites between October 1950 and December 1953. Yet his contribution to the history of Sunderland is best remembered for events off the field.

Ford’s October 1950 move north from Aston Villa was recorded at the time as having cost Sunderland £29,500. It was a club record fee and remained so until 1970.

What the sum didn’t include was the £250 that Sunderland manager Bill Murray later secretly handed over to the Welshman. This was part of an under-the-counter payment designed to overcome the maximum wage then in place in football.

In 1956 and three years after he had left Sunderland to play for Cardiff City, Ford revealed the £250 payment in his autobiography. When this was combined with a January 1957 letter from a club ‘insider’ to the Football League on the same subject then this led to an examination of the Sunderland accounts. Illegal payments were uncovered, fines were imposed and directors were banned. And whilst a points deduction at the end of a season in which Sunderland had finished just outside the relegation zone was avoided, the whole affair helped create the conditions for a first ever relegation at the end of the 1957-58 season.

Soccer - Football League Division One - Tottenham Hotspur v Sunderland
Trevor Ford (R) pictured here with fellow Sunderland player Geoff Toseland
Photo by Barratts/PA Images via Getty Images

Ford’s 70 goals for Sunderland came in just 117 League and FA cup appearances. After finishing as top scorer in Division One in the 1949-50 season, Dickie Davis had struggled at the start of the 1950-51 season and scored just twice in eight games. With Ford installed at centre-forward, Davis was moved to inside right. The move paid immediate dividends as Ford scored three on his home debut in a 5-1 win over Sheffield Wednesday. He was helped by an injury to his marker, centre-half Edgar Packard, who at 2-1 was forced to limp off the pitch. Taking full advantage he hammered home two close range efforts and completed the scoring soon after Packard returned.

Sunderland’s form though was patchy and Ford’s arrival failed to change that. The following weekend they were hammered 5-1 at Highbury. Two points from the next four games meant Sunderland had just fifteen points from twenty matches. The half way mark in the season came at the Baseball Ground. It proved a remarkable game, one of the best ever seen at Derby. With heavy snow making turning almost impossible it was inevitable that defenders would struggle. Eleven goals were scored, with Ford and Davis each scoring a pair. The battle between Ford and Derby centre-half Ken Oliver was one of many highlights but in the end Sunderland slipped to a 6-5 defeat - although six points from the next three matches showed there were no lasting problems.

In March, Sunderland drew 2-2 at St James’ Park. Ford was amongst the scorers when he superbly glanced Harry Kirtley’s cross beyond Jack Fairbrother’s left hand for what was one of sixteen League goals for Sunderland in the 1950-51 season.

Sunderland started the 1951-52 season back at the Baseball Ground. Seven goals were scored and Sunderland got four of them with Ford snatching an 87th minute winner. Yet Sunderland struggled and after seven games had only five points. Ford’s goalscoring touch had deserted him - ‘Ford is having a hard struggle to reach his best and here he seemed more out of touch than ever’ [The Journal after Sunderland lost 1-0 at home to Stoke in early October] and he managed only two goals in his first fifteen games of the season.

Trevor Ford
Ford in action in 1953
Photo by Harrison/Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

His form returned as Christmas moved closer. Seven goals in six games pushed Sunderland up the table and although January saw him score just the once, he then scored in February - his second Roker Park hat-trick - in a 4-1 defeat of Chelsea. With Len Shackleton getting the other it meant that the pair had scored fifteen of Sunderland’s last eighteen goals. Two weeks later Ford had one of his best games for Sunderland, as Wolves were beaten 3-0 at Molineux.

Billy Bingham and Kirtley created his first and he scored his second when Bingham returned a cross that had been forced away. Then towards the end, Ford returned the favour for Bingham to complete the scoring. Three games over Easter saw Sunderland collect five points. Huddersfield provided three of them. Ford’s goal at home in the 7-1 victory was his 100th in the League and after two more in the return he cracked Sunderland’s third in the 3-1 defeat of Middlesbrough at Roker Park. Another goal on the final day of the season at the Hawthorns pushed his total up to 22 for the season, one more than Shackleton.

It’s now well known that the pair didn’t get on. In his autobiography ‘Captain of the North’, Stan Anderson - who made his debut in the 1952-53 season - recalled that “there was generally a good spirit in our dressing room with one exception: the relationship between Fordie and Shack. This was a shame. They were the mainstays of the side: Shack was the provider and Ford the scorer. If they’d played together, as they should have, we would have won the League.”

Anderson recalls that Shack disliked the fact that Ford was very friendly with one of the directors and that he would stand in front of the mirror saying, only partly in jest: “You must be the best-looking player in the game.” Shack later denied that on occasions he would deliberately put the ball beyond Ford’s reach to make him look like he had missed a simple chance. “Shack didn’t like Ford and the feeling was mutual,” says Anderson.

Len Shackleton
Len Shackleton
Photo by Monty Fresco Jnr/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

The 1952-53 was Ford’s last full season at Sunderland. At Old Trafford he finished off Tommy Wright’s lovely cross for the only goal of the game. At home to Liverpool he scored twice, bursting through on to a Tommy Reynolds ball for his first and heading home Tommy Wright’s cross for his second in a 3-1 success.

The following weekend at Maine Road, Ford played arguably his best game for Sunderland. On the morning of the game he’d told travelling reporters that: “I might get a hat-trick today.” In fact he was wrong, but only because he scored four times in a 5-2 win. He hit his first two within five minutes of the start and by 31 minutes had fulfilled his prediction. City had attacked from the start and the gaps they left at the back allowed Kirtley to punish them with the sort of chances Ford was certain to net. Kirtley scored his sides fifth but not before Ford had scored his fourth from the penalty spot.

The next time he played away Ford also scored twice in a 2-2 draw at Tottenham Hotspur. According to his manager Bill Murray he might even have equalled his record at Maine Road if he had been “allowed to play his natural game” with Sunderland concerned that Ford’s robustness was now being confused with dirty play. Despite these fears Ford continued to score regularly throughout the season at the end of which he had scored 22 goals of which two had come in the FA Cup.

Ford scored a further nine goals for Sunderland the following season. Three came in a remarkable game in which the League Champions Arsenal were beaten 7-1 at Roker Park but he also missed the chance to bring back a point from St James’ Park when he missed an 83rd minute penalty in a game Newcastle won 2-1. He scored his final goal for the club in a 4-3 home win against Tottenham and made his final appearance against Liverpool in mid-November.

A shoulder injury meant he was out of the side when Cardiff City enquired about his services in December and even though at that point Sunderland had no idea who might replace him - Ray Daniel the centre half was to be pushed to number nine over the next few matches - and were in relegation trouble, the Swansea born centre-forward was allowed to move back ‘home.’

Trevor Ford
Ford in 1954 during his Cardiff stint
Photo by Reg Speller/Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

When he returned with the Bluebirds in January, Sunderland had signed Ted Purdon - “nowhere near as good as Ford” [Stan Anderson] and Ford was forced to watch Shackleton play one of his greatest games for Sunderland, during which Shack created two goals for the new boy in a 5-0 thrashing.

Ford - who played 38 times for Wales - later played for PSV Eindhoven, Newport County and Romford. Ford scored a total of 165 First Division goals for Aston Villa, Sunderland and Cardiff City combined.

Ford scored 23 international goals and only Gareth Bale with 26 and Ian Rush with 28 have scored more goals for Wales. Ford’s strike rate was better than Rush’s who scored his goals in 73 games.