Sunderland’s first competitive match against QPR came in the FA Cup third round in 1956-57 when the side from the Third Division South travelled north to face a First Division side and who, at this stage, had never been relegated.
The game was effectively over by the eleventh minute as by then the home side were three up, with the third coming when Charlie ‘Cannonball’ Fleming burst through in the middle, cut in between two defenders and scored with a low left foot shot as the goalkeeper came out.
It was the sort of goal Sunderland fans had seen Fleming score many times and the 1956-57 season was to be his finest in the red and white stripes. QPR left for London having lost 4-0.
With a goal every 150 minutes, Fleming is one of the most lethal Sunderland strikers ever. The Scotsman was 27 when he made the journey in early 1955 over the border to join his former East Fife colleague George Aitken at Roker Park. Like the man moving in the other direction, Tommy Wright, Fleming had started out playing for Blairhall Colliery before becoming a regular at Bayview Park. He was a member of a very fine team, winning League Cup winners medals in 1950 and 1953 and collecting a Scottish Cup runners up medal in 1950.
In December 1951 he had also represented the Rest of the United Kingdom against Wales on the 75th anniversary of the Football Association of Wales. Playing alongside Bolton’s Nat Lofthouse he scored his side’s second after 64 minutes in a game won 3-2 by the home side. Nearly two years later Fleming won his only international cap, scoring twice in a 3-1 win against Northern Ireland.
Fleming’s arrival in January 1955 was intended to bolster Sunderland’s assault on the League title. Bill Murray’s side were level on points at the top of the League with Wolverhampton Wanderers, yet were struggling to win matches having drawn eight of their last 13 league games.
And it was another repeat performance in his first match, when switched from his usual inside right position to play centre-forward for the injured Ted Purdon, Fleming drew praise for his efforts but couldn’t grab a goal as Sunderland drew 0-0 at Blackpool.
Back at Roker Park it was a disappointing home debut as Sunderland lost at home for the first time in the season, going down 2-1 to Charlton Athletic. Fleming missed a simple chance in the first half but stayed in the side for the fifth round FA Cup match at the Vetch Field the following weekend. Having dallied too long on the ball in the first period, Fleming’s scoring touch returned in the second half when he headed home Billy Bingham’s cross to ensure a 2-2 draw. Returning home, he sent Wearside into cup frenzy when just after half time the Swansea keeper Ken Evans was just too slow coming off his line, allowing Fleming to rise high and head Billy Elliott’s cross home.
With Purdon fit and returning as number 9 for the derby match at St James’ Park Fleming was moved inside, donning the number 8 shirt. The change didn’t do him any harm, as by scoring both his sides goals he ensured a 2-1 success.
In a rousing match he pushed home a Sam Kemp header just before half time and with just a minute of the game remaining he superbly steered his header past Ronnie Simpson, who later won the European Cup as a member of the Celtic side in 1967, for the winner.
After such a fine display and result there was real disappointment when in midweek Sunderland were easily beaten 3-0 at Bolton Wanderers. In his autobiography ‘Captain of the North’, Stan Anderson has argued that most Sunderland players, with Len Shackleton in particular, had become fixated with getting to Wembley and playing in what was then the world’s biggest football match, the FA Cup Final. It’s certainly true that against Cardiff City in the weekend before the quarter-final match with Wolverhampton Wanderers, Sunderland played poorly. A goal down Fleming dived bravely amidst the attempted clearing boots of the Welsh side to ensure Sunderland drew another match. In seven matches he had scored five times, four with his head.
It was Purdon though who was the hero in the quarter final game, scoring both goals in a 2-0 win to set up a semi-final match against Manchester City at Villa Park.
Sunderland were to start the game having lost their two League games against Sheffield United and Arsenal. On a rain swept pitch they never reached the heights thousands of Wearsiders were praying for and flopped out of the cup beaten 1-0, leaving City to move onto Wembley to play Newcastle United.
The following weekend the season was as good as finished when Chelsea scored two early goals before Fleming gave his side a chance with what might be described as a classic ‘Cannonball’ goal, as this report from the Journal captures perfectly.
Fleming’s goal in the 52nd min was Sunderland’s first in 4 games and one of the best scored this season. Taking in his stride a pass from Shackleton Fleming zipped between two defenders and with excellent timing drove a fierce shot past the advancing goalkeeper. It was the first cannonball goal he has scored for Sunderland and the one highlight of a disappointing game from the Wearsiders’ point of view.
Unable to force an equaliser, Sunderland travelled north beaten 2-1 and, although Fleming was to again score twice more during the season, including the only goal at Burnley, the chance to collect a League winners medal had long since gone with his side finishing fourth, just four points behind winners Chelsea.
Fleming began the 1955-56 season in great form. He was Sunderland’s best player and scored the sides only goal in an opening day 3-1 defeat at Cardiff City. Hitting the bar he was also denied twice by Howells. He then scored in the two home wins that followed.
Two more flew into the Chelsea net at Roker Park when three goals down Sunderland, with Anderson in fine form, roared back to beat the First Division champions 4-3. In early October Fleming scored two goals in consecutive games against Birmingham City and WBA. After an indifferent first half hour against Birmingham he suddenly became a perpetual menace to the City defence.
His long raking strides carried the ball past defenders time after time in the second half and his powerful shooting brought gasps from the crowd.
Away to Burnley he grabbed his 13th and 14th goals of the season as Sunderland recovered from going two goals behind to recover to draw 4-4 and move to the top of the League. Hammered 8-2 at Luton Town in the next game Bill Murray’s side were aided in their recovery by four more goals from Fleming in the next two home games, both of which were won 3-2. Fleming atoned for an earlier penalty miss by scoring the third against Charlton. Going into the busy Christmas period, Sunderland fans were looking for their side maintaining their challenge at the top of the table. However with only two points from ten, and a crushing 6-1 hammering at home to Newcastle, it was obvious that there was no serious prospect of any title success come the seasons end.
Attention thus turned, once again, to the FA Cup. Fleming scored his first hat-trick, and the first by any Sunderland player since the war in the FA Cup, as Third Division Norwich City were beaten 4-2 in the third round. He might have had even more as he also missed a number of opportunities that on another day he would have gobbled up. In the fourth round replay against another Third Division side, York City, he hit the winner with just three minutes remaining. Beating Sheffield United in a replay, Sunderland advanced to the semi-final for the second consecutive season when Purdon scored both goals as Newcastle were beaten 2-0 at St James’ Park.
Playing badly against Birmingham City though Murray’s side were well beaten 3-0 at Hillsborough. Although there was little to play for in the league Fleming continued to score regularly, with his two at Fratton Park sending his total to 26 goals in 31 matches.
Against Spurs in March he atoned for a series of earlier misses by scoring twice in the last ten minutes to turn a 2-1 deficit into an unexpected victory. He was to score his final goal of the season against Wolves on the closing day, giving him 28 league goals for the season, just four behind Nat Lofthouse at the top of the Division One Scorers chart. It meant he missed out on becoming one of a select band of players who have finished as top scorer in England as well as Scotland, Fleming having achieved the latter by tying with Hibernian’s Lawrie Reilly in 1953.
Fleming was the star of the Sunderland side that struggled in the 1956-57 season. He began with a bang, ramming home eleven games in as many matches. Failing to score in November he scored both Sunderland’s goals in a 2-1 home success against Burnley and the only goal in the game against Luton Town. Two more followed against Newcastle but as six were conceded it mattered little.
With Sunderland sliding down the table his goals kept the side out of the relegation zone, scoring in the 1-1 draw with Manchester City and both in the 2-1 away victory at Blackpool.
At Chelsea he finished off an impressive performance by scoring the second in a 2-0 win
The goal came when Hedley pushed the ball into the middle to Fleming who then collected a return pass from Colin Grainger, crashed through the middle past three defenders and put the ball past Reg Matthews.
It was his 24th goal of the season, and he was to add two more by the end of the season to again finish as top scorer for a side that had only just finished outside the relegation zone.
Not for long however, as come the end of the following season Sunderland had departed from the top flight. Stung by the criticism that followed revelations that Sunderland had been illegally paying players ‘under the counter payments’ manager Bill Murray had quit in the summer. New man in charge Alan Brown had set out to refashion the side by bringing in younger players and Fleming was one of those who missed out. He scored his last goal in the red and white stripes against Aston Villa on 11 January 1958 and played his last match the following weekend against Everton.
Brown, in a last ditch gamble, bought Don Kichenbrand from Rangers. A rough, tough player he was never in the same class as Fleming, and Sunderland were relegated.
In the summer of 1958 at age 31, Fleming took up the opportunity of becoming player-manager at Southern League side Bath City where he struck 216 goals in 300 appearances.
Playing in the same team was Tony Book, who later won major honours with Manchester City and was joint winner of the Football Writers’ Player of the season in 1968. Book later said he had “never seen anyone time the ball as well as Fleming.” Considering Book played with the likes of Francis Lee, Colin Bell and Rodney Marsh that’s some compliment.