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Sunderland during the 1935-37 period were unstoppable; Memories of Raich Carter & Brentford

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“In many ways the Sunderland team of this era played the same brand of Total Football as the great Holland team of the 1970s.” - Bill Shankly

FA Cup: Brentford v Sunderland Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images

Sunderland first played Brentford in an away fixture during the 1935/36 season. The away side were top of the First Division after 14 fixtures with exactly a third of the season having gone. The previous weekend Sunderland had beaten Preston North End at Roker Park to give them a record of nine wins, four draws and just one defeat in a season which fans hoped to see their club knock Arsenal off top spot - the Gunners having won the title in the three previous seasons.

Brentford had gained promotion to the top flight at the end of the 1934/35 season and over 26,000 fans packed out Griffin Park to see their side face the League leaders.

The performance of the Sunderland side was to be a magnificent one and gives us some understanding why Bill Shankly, then a PNE player, said years later:

In many ways the Sunderland team of this era played the same brand of Total Football as the great Holland team of the 1970s.

The pitch was like a marshland for the game. There were pools of water everywhere and rain fell from the beginning to the end. Yet the accuracy of the visitors’ passing, whether long or short, was to be sublime and every player exhibited perfect ball control. Sunderland’s speed of manoeuvre and constant interchanging of positions had the Bees unable to get to grips with their opponents.

Raich Carter in particular seemed to be everywhere, popping up when least expected and although listed at inside right he scored from the inside left position and made Gurney’s second, which was Sunderland’s third on 57 minutes.

On the left wing the partnership of Gallagher and Connor had Astley and Burns dizzy. Gallacher got one goal and Connor, who twisted and turned and danced past the opposition, made three. Only heroic defending by centre-half James and great goalkeeping by Mathieson kept the final score down to 5-1 in favour of the League leaders.

Sunderland had grabbed an early lead through Gurney and by fifteen minutes they were two up when Duns, meeting a Connor centre, scored before Hopkins, looking suspiciously offside, gave the home said a glimmer of hope by netting from five yards out. Brentford pressed for an equaliser for the next five minutes before Sunderland reasserted their supremacy.

Sunderland’s fourth was as a result of Carter’s powerful cross shot and the fifth came after Gallacher was presented with an easy chance following a dazzling Connor dribble. There was not a weak link in the winning side with Morrison’s right back display featuring splendid anticipation whilst Clark at right half played superbly and Duns at outside right was often unplayable.

Willy Meisl was the brother of Hugo Meisl, who had been the manager of the Austrian Wunderteam in the 1930s. The Wunderteam were perhaps the first serious challengers to England’s European footballing supremacy. In Willy’s 1956 publication entitled Soccer Revolution he put forward the theory of ‘the Whirl’ to describe the way in which the Wunderteam had played.

At the centre of the Wunderteam was Matthias Sindelar, ‘The Man of Paper’ (in due deference to his slight frame), also called ‘the Mozart of Football’.

The Whirl was a tactical development in which footballing individuality was set free. To execute The Whirl every man on the team had to be able to tackle anybody else’s job on the team temporarily, without fuss. It relied on players within the team being able to second guess and rely on their teammates to fill in for them without the team losing shape.

The Whirl was in effect the forerunner of the Total Football so successfully employed by the Dutch during the 1970s. German forwards had partially employed this technique in the late 1920s; however, then they had called it ‘the Top’, but it was narrower in focus, being applicable to forward players only.

Employed correctly the Whirl was unstoppable. It almost guaranteed a degree of success and, against a rigid man-for-man marking system it was particularly effective.

In the years that passed the great Bill Shankly likened the Sunderland style of play of the mid-1930s to the Whirl. Sunderland during the 1935-37 period were almost unstoppable. In James Connor they had a fine winger who possessed a superb left foot which could be used to great effect on either flank. Alex Hastings, though traditionally a left-half, had on occasions played at right-back and centre-half, although at school he had been a centre-forward. Raich Carter was notionally an inside-forward and, although naturally left-footed, had magnificent ball control with either foot, a strength he used to devastating effect.

Total Football had come to Wearside and no one had any answer to it, least of all Arsenal Football Club, who surrendered every trophy to Sunderland in the space of little more than 18 months. Ironic really as Hugo Meisl was great friends with the former Arsenal manager Herbert Chapman, who had died suddenly in 1934.


For more on this great side get a copy of Paul Days and Mark Metcalf’s book: TOTAL FOOTBALL; Sunderland AFC 1935 to 1937.

Paul and Mark have also printed a series of vintage art prints from that era including this one of Raich Carter with the FA Cup at Wembley in 1937 and which can be bought here.