Johnny Mapson was only eighteen when he was called upon by Sunderland manager Johnny Cochrane to move south from Reading (where he had made only a handful of Third Division South appearances) and take his place in the Black Cats goal.
Regular ‘keeper Jimmy Thorpe had died tragically young on 5 February 1936. An inquest into Thorpe’s death under the direction of the coroner J.C. Morton later gave the cause of death as due to diabetes:
...accelerated by the rough usage he received in the game (against Chelsea at home on 1 February 1936) and that the referee was very lax in his control of the game.
Thorpe’s place in the starting line up had been taken by reserve ‘keeper Matt Middleton, who was to make a total of 58 Sunderland appearances between 1933 and 1939.
The lad from Boldon Colliery didn’t do too badly in the games that followed the Chelsea match. He played particularly impressively in the away draws at Blackburn Rovers and Sheffield Wednesday and in his nine games in goal Sunderland won three drew three and lost three. Significantly though the three wins had come in the first four matches in which Middleton played.
Sunderland’s scouting network had clearly spotted a rare talent and Cochrane picked Mapson for his debut against Portsmouth on 4 April 1936.
The game came a week after the League leaders had suffered a 6-0 trouncing at Middlesbrough. There were just seven games left of the season and Sunderland fans were desperate to see their side draw level with Aston Villa by winning the title for a record equaling sixth time. Success would also make it three times that the Championship had been won at Roker Park, equal with Newcastle Road, where Sunderland had won the title in 1891/92, 1892/93 and 1894/95.
Pompey were to be blown away 5-0 and Mapson was never seriously tested, although the Northern Mail did report:
His intelligent anticipation enabled him to nip in the bud several Portsmouth challenges and his safe handling inspired confidence in his colleagues.
Mapson was to stay at Roker Park until 1954 - he made his final first team appearance on 21 March 1953 - and his greatest strength was his positional sense. He also possessed a strong kick.
Victory against Portsmouth meant Sunderland required just four points - there were two points for a win - from the remaining fixtures.
Two more points were gathered on Easter Friday when Birmingham City lost 2-1 at Roker Park and it was the away ‘keeper who was the star of the show. Harry Hibbs was a fine number one and by the time he retired he had made 25 appearances for England. Patsy Gallacher scored both home goals. In the second half, Mapson made one great save when Joe Devine’s shot sent him the wrong way and he recovered to twist backwards and turn the ball round the post. This brought a great cheer from the 41,500 crowd.
A day later, Sunderland lost 2-1 at Burnden Park. Mapson was beaten by the only two efforts made at goal by Bolton but in both cases he had no chance of stopping the ball entering the net.
On Easter Monday, Sunderland travelled to St Andrews and clinched the title with a brilliant performance that saw Birmingham crushed 7-2 with Bobby Gurney scoring four. Frank Clack, deputising for Hibbs, kept the score down. The small band of away fans who had travelled overnight to witness this famous occasion were invited to join the players as they celebrated at a local hotel.
Sunderland’s final home game of the season saw them beat Huddersfield 4-3. The match was being lost until two goals in the final six minutes turned defeat into victory.
This being the 1930s, when footballers were seen by the employers as servants rather than employees, then after the game the Football League Championship Trophy was presented not to captain Alex Hastings by Mr C.A. Sutcliffe, acting president of the Football League, but to the Sunderland chairman Sir Alec Raine. Imagine today seeing the chairman of a club being presented with such a trophy!
Sunderland lost their final two matches of the season at Leeds and Derby. Mapson played in both and thus made seven League appearances for Sunderland in 1935/36. This meant that he did not get presented with a League Winners medal as the minimum figure of appearances at the time needed to get a medal was 12.
Mapson did collect a major medal in 1936/37 as Sunderland were to win the FA Cup for the first time ever. The teenager was to make the ‘keepers position his own during the season and on 28 October 1936 he was beaten just once as Sunderland overcame FA Cup winners Arsenal 2-1 to win the FA Charity Shield. The winning goal was controversial when Carter’s shot hit the bar and appeared to bounce down on the goal line but the linesman, Mr H Whitfield of Middlesbrough, decided the ball had crossed the line and the Gunners left Roker Park empty handed.
Sunderland then beat Manchester City 4-2 at Maine Road. However, it was to be City that were to go on and replace Sunderland at the top of Division One at the completion of the season with the Wearsiders back in eighth place.
Sunderland began their search for a first FA Cup success by beating Southampton 3-2 away. 300 fans travelled from Wearside to the game. In the fourth round, Sunderland were two down away to Luton Town of the Third Division South before quick goals from James Connor and Len Duns forced a replay that was won 3-1 at Roker Park. At Kenilworth Road, Mapson was the saviour of his side but even his considerable efforts would have proven in vain if The Hatters had taken their chances.
Mapson was rarely called upon when Swansea were beaten 3-0 at Roker Park in round 5. This victory set up a quarter final tie against Wolves and this was to prove a battle royale.
At Molineux the sides drew 1-1 on a mud bath. In the replay, Sunderland fell behind on 86 minutes only for Gurney to take the tie into extra-time with a great finish. Duns, who had earlier missed two gilt edged chances put the home side ahead on 95 minutes only for the Sunderland defence to switch off two minutes later to leave Sam Thompson unmarked. The Wolves striker had no problem in slotting the ball past Mapson to make the score 2-2 and this was how the match finished.
The second replay attracted a crowd of 48,900 at Hillsborough, most of those present being local people. Sheffield fans saw a brilliant performance by Sunderland and goals by Gurney, Carter, Gallacher and Charlie Thomson was to see Wolves leave the arena beaten 4-0. Mapson had little to do during the 90 minutes.
Next up was Third Division South opponents Millwall who took an early lead at Leeds Road, Huddersfield through a magnificent goal by Dave Mangnall, who with his back to the goal took down Jimmy McCartney’s cross before pivoting and shooting in one. Mapson had no chance but on the half hour mark the scores were level when Gurney scored a goal that was almost as good by hooking home the ball from an almost impossible angle after Duncan Yuill had pulled off a good save from Carter. Just before the break Mangnall should have put the Londoners ahead again and the interval arrived with the sides tied at 1-1.
The second half was all Sunderland and on only 3 occasions did the Lions have the ball in their opponents penalty box. Patsy Gallacher scored the winner when he headed home a Thomson free kick with Yuill, in probably his only mistake of the game, caught in no mans land.
When the final whistle was sounded thousands of Wearsiders clambered on to the pitch and Gurney, in particular, had to work hard to get to the dressing room as the celebrating fans mobbed the great man.
The following match, away to Grimsby in the League, saw Sunderland, playing only three of the XI that beat Millwall, hammered six nil with Pat Glover, the Lincolnshire club’s greatest ever forward, belting home five and being denied double figures by Mapson, without whom the Wearsiders would have suffered the indignity of their record defeat, which stood at 8-0 against Sheffield Wednesday on Boxing Day 1911. Glover had faced Sunderland four times in the 1935/36 and 1936/37 season and had scored ten times.
Sunderland faced PNE at Wembley on 1 May 1937 and they were to be distinctly second best in the first period and slightly fortunate to go off just a goal behind. Frank O’Donnell was sent clear on 38 minutes and with favourite right foot scored a beauty. A minute later came a key moment in the match when Bert Johnston brought the scorer down as he raced clear. Today it would have been a straight red but the Sunderland centre half escaped with a severe telling off by the referee Mr Rudd of Middlesex.
Mapson had played steadily in the first half but had also dropped a couple of crosses. These mistakes nevertheless did not seem to effect the youngsters confidence and he and the defence in front of him could be proud of the efforts as they walked off at the interval.
Now it was up to the forwards in the second and they didn’t fail to disappoint with Gurney converting when Carter got to an Eddie Burbanks corner on 58 minutes. Mapson then came out three times to collect a series of dangerous crosses. On 71 minutes the whole of Wearside rejoiced when Carter sent Gurney free of Preston’s offside and the man who has scored the most goals ever for Sunderland walloped the ball beyond Mick Burns to put his side ahead. Seven minutes later Gallacher and Gurney combined to set up Burbanks who hit a scorcher beyond the Preston ‘keeper to compete the scoring.
Sunderland had won the FA Cup for the first time ever and Mapson, who played in fifty of Sunderland’s fifty-one League and FA Cup games in his first full season, followed Carter, who received the Cup from the Queen, up the steps to collect his medal.
Mapson, who during the war played for Reading and helped the Royals to win the London War Cup in 1941, was to make a total of 382 first team appearances for Sunderland before he retired in May 1954. He also represented the FA on a tour to South Africa in the summer of 1939 and two years later was in goal for England in a wartime international against Wales.
Johnny was to die in Washington in August 1999. He was the last survivor of the 1937 FA Cup-winning side.