The biggest ever game between Sunderland and Middlesbrough took place on 5 May 1928 at Ayresome Park.
It was the final match of the season and the visitors knew that anything other than victory would see them relegated and playing Second Division football for their first time since they had entered League football in 1890. A failure by the home side to take at least a point from the game would mean a return to the lower tier that they had exited the previous season when - with George Camsell having then set a League record number of goals in a single season at 59 - they had captured the Division Two title.
Earlier in the season, Sunderland had beaten their near neighbours 1-0 at Roker Park on Christmas Eve. This had taken the Wearsiders up into thirteenth place, and when Sunderland later drew 1-1 at home against Newcastle in mid-March they rose to ninth position out of 22 teams. However the table was extremely tight, so much so that when the season ended only 16 points covered top from bottom and the bottom thirteen sides were covered by just four points. This was, of course, in an era when two points were awarded for a win.
Sunderland beat Bolton Wanderers 2-1 at Burnden Park on Easter Saturday. Both of the away goals were scored by David Halliday, a prolific goalscorer who during his time on Wearside notched 162 goals in 175 appearances, including forty-three goals in the 1928/29 season when the Scot finished as top scorer in Division One.
Halliday also got the winner when Sunderland beat Blackburn, the 1928 FA Cup winners, 1-0 at Roker Park before then losing four consecutive matches to leave them level on points with Middlesbrough, who had won just once in the previous nine matches, but with an inferior goal average. Victory was thus essential.
So important was the match viewed that the appointed referee, Mr R Bowie of Newcastle, was replaced by Mr T.G.Bryan of Willenhall, who had earlier refereed the FA Cup Final in which Blackburn beat Huddersfield Town 3-1.
Another man who had been replaced was Sunderland manager Bob Kyle, first appointed to the role in 1905, who on 15 March 1928 had announced his retirement. As such it was trainer Billy Williams, a club servant since 1897, who took charge of the team at Ayresome Park.
The match was watched by a 41,997 crowd, including 10,000 away fans, that made a deafening roar that never abated from start to finish. Albert McInroy returned in goal for Sunderland who in the previous match had chucked away a two goal lead to lose 3-2 at home against relegation threatened Sheffield Wednesday.
‘Keeper Paddy Bell had been blamed for the loss of two crucial points and although McInroy was clearly not fully fit he was given the task of keeping out the Boro forwards, including Camsell, who had scored 33 goals in the League during the season. In the event the Boro striker was to have an indifferent match and he failed to finish off a series of half chances that Boro’s skillful approach play fashioned for him.
At the same time McInroy was, especially in the first half, in brilliant form with his point blank range save from John Carr just before the break the highlight. This meant the away side retained its 1-0 interval lead that was scored by David Wright on thirteen minutes, the Sunderland player pushing the ball past Sid Jarvis and John Smith before beating Jimmy Mathieson in the Boro goal.
The home side thereafter dominated the rest of the half and the vast majority of the crowd were convinced their side must equalise when Carr’s shot was pushed against the post by McInroy and as the Boro forward moved to smash the loose ban into the net the Sunderland custodian dived full length to push it round the post for a corner.
Sunderland made it 2-0 on 55 minutes when Halliday, with his thirty-fifth League goal of the season, took advantage of some hesitation by Mathieson to double Sunderland’s advantage. The keeper had saved Halliday’s original shot but seemed to lose sight of the loose ball and a supreme predator like Halliday was not going to let a simple chance go begging.
A third goal by the away side was to ensure they would certainly avoid relegation and it came when their left winger Billy Death, playing his final game for the club, drove in a brilliant shot that Smith inadvertently pushed into his own net.
The game, which with the away fans reacting sympathetically to Middlesbrough’s plight was played in almost stoney silence towards the end, ended Boro 0 Sunderland 3. Middlesbrough were thus relegated and Sunderland finished in fifteenth place.