“Worst defeat ever.”
Sounds like the Comic Store Guy from The Simpsons, doesn’t it?
What constitutes worst ever, anyway?
Some argued our FA Cup exit this season at home to Mansfield was a game that deserved that unwanted accolade. Symbolically, they may have been right. Others will say the Halloween horror show at St James (Steve Bruce has never been so popular north of the Tyne) was far, far, worse.
There are plenty of other games that could come into the equation – Bradford in the cup under Poyet, almost every game managed by David Moyes. However all of these are ‘worst’ because of the context, of emotion, of what was at stake.
“Worst” is very subjective.
Technically, however, in terms of the gap between Sunderland and our ultimate victors in a major game, our worst defeat came 72 years ago today at the hands of non-league Yeovil Town.
Back then, we hadn’t yet fallen asleep. We still wide awake; giants of the game. The Bank of England Club.
We'd never been relegated since joining the league in 1890. In the 59 years that followed we'd won the FA Cup, we’d won the league six times and had the likes of British record transfer holder Len Shackleton and Johnny Mapson – still Sunderland legends – in the team.
We’d seen off Crewe Alexandra at Gresty Road in the Third Round – two goals from Ronnie Turnbull sealing the win. A Fourth Road tie at southern league Yeovil Town – who’d overcome Bury in the Third Round – seemed like a safe passage to Round Five, for the first time since the 1938-39 season.
The previous two seasons – 46-47 and 47-48 – had seen the club knocked out in the Third Round, first by Chesterfield and then by Southampton. The seven seasons before that had been lost to the War.
The game was much anticipated, with the Yeovil public greatly looking forward to it.
Sunderland headed to The Huish Athletic Ground 10th in the First Division, and lined up like this.
Sunderland: Mapson, Stelling, Ramsden, Watson, Hall, Wright, Duns, Robinson, Turnball, Shackleton, Reynolds.
In the days leading up to the game, the Yeovil player/manager Alec Stock had over-exaggerated the slope of the pitch, and had not allowed Sunderland to train on it.
And it was Stock himself who got the first goal of the game on 28 minutes, turning in the the box to fire high past Mapson.
Jackie Robinson equalised for Sunderland on the hour, one of 33 competitive goals he notched for the club, and the scores remained level at the end of 90 minutes.
Usually, that would have been that – hands shaken, jolly good game chaps, see you at Roker on Tuesday.
But, in this immediate post-war era, there were no replays to cut down on travel – fuel shortages were still affecting the country – so the game headed into extra time.
Thick fog drew in, almost causing the game to be abandoned – but that wasn’t responsible for Len Shackleton’s misplaced pass that put Bryant through to score what would turn out to be the winner.
Yeovil withstood Sunderland pressure and, amid a couple of pitch invasions – one when the crowd mistook the referee’s signal for a free kick for the full time whistle – the southern league side hung on to what is still a very famous victory.
After the game, the Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette was scathing in its criticism of the team.
Sunderland were certainly humiliated... but whatever Yeovil were, they were not giantkiller on Saturday – for there were no giants to kill.
If Sunderland could play worse, then I should not like to see them...
As for Len Shackleton, it must have been his worst game ever, for he was the poorest forward on the field on Saturday.
Yeovil went on to face Manchester United in the Fifth Round, going down 8-0 at Maine Road, however the game at The Huish remains one of the FA Cup’s greatest ever upsets.