Alan Brown had returned for a second spell at Sunderland a season earlier, but after four years away had found the place a different proposition.
A number of the team he’d built in his first spell in charge had moved on, while those who’d stayed had naturally aged. Charlie Hurley, for example, was now 32 years old, and time was catching up with him. Hurley, incidentally, was doubling up as the Republic of Ireland’s player/manager at this point, too. As it turned out, this was to be his last season with the club.
However, Jimmy Montgomery still had plenty of fuel in the tank, of course, and the likes of Bobby Kerr, Ritchie Pitt, Billy Hughes, Ian Porterfield and Dennis Tueart – who would all go on to figure prominently for the club – were making in-roads into the first team.
Another homegrown youngster who’d cemented a place in the Sunderland side was Colin Todd. Todd had played a key role in the club’s FA Youth Cup win of 1967, and had pretty much been a regular in the side from late 1966.
Todd had only missed three league games since New Years Eve 1966 – sitting out three consecutive matches towards the end of 1966-67, and being an ever present in 1967-68 as the club finished 15th in the top flight.
The following season started indifferently – four wins, five draws and five defeats in the opening 14 league games, however a couple of those defeats had given cause for concern; four goals conceded at both Anfield and Maine Road highlighted defensive frailties.
As 10th-placed Sunderland prepared to take on West Ham at the Boleyn Ground, they were rocked with the news Todd would be missing from the line up to take on the Hammers, who of course had famously won the World Cup only two years before.
Martin Peters, Geoff Hurst and Bobby Moore all started for the bubble blowers, along with the likes of Billy Bonds, Trevor Brooking and Harry Redknapp.
For Sunderland, Calvin Palmer took Todd’s place in the line up.
Sunderland: Montgomery, Irwin, Palmer, Hurley, Harvey, Porterfield, Herd, Harris, Brand, Suggett, Mulhall. Sub: Ashurst
West Ham: Ferguson. Bonds, Charles, Peters, Stephenson, Moore, Redknapp, Boyce, Brooking, Hurst, Sissons. Sub: Llewellyn
Of course, the game went down in the record books as our joint worst ever – equalling an 8-0 defeat by Sheffield Wednesday in 1911, and subsequently equalled against Watford in 1982 and Southampton in 2014.
Geoff Hurst, the World Cup winning hat-trick hero, got six goals alone – although the one that opened the scoring on 20 minutes had more than a touch of controversy, with Hurst handling the ball over the goal line from close range, which the referee failed to spot.
After the game, Hurst said:
As I dived for the ball I missed it and palmed it in with my hand. The referee must have been unsighted.
Bobby Moore, playing in a more attacking role to ‘counter Sunderland’s defensive set up’ added a second for West Ham five minutes later, direct from a central free kick, before Hurst completed his hat-trick with a double before half time.
The second half brought more of the same. Hurst notching a further two goals, his fourth a spectacular strike from the edge of the box.
Brooking drove a low one across Montgomery and into the bottom corner, before Hurst completed the rout with his sixth, tapping in from close range.
With 18 minutes remaining, and having conceded three in the previous 11, Sunderland were fearing double figures, but fortunately there was no further addition to the scoreline. 8-0, and we were lucky to get nil, as they say.
After the match, Charlie Hurley described Hurst as ‘the sharpest striker I’ve ever played against,’ while Jimmy Montgomery said:
I’ve never felt so helpless. It was just non-stop. The shots were raining in from all angles.
Alan Brown, meanwhile, focused on the quality of the opposition, rather than his team’s deficiencies, telling The Journal’s Bob Cass:
It was an unfortunate experience and it is bound to leave some sort of mark, But it will not be permanent. We’ll bounce back.
This was not the sort of game where you could even criticise our performance. We kept on trying up to the end, but once a side scores quick goals like West Ham did, it’s very difficult to get back into the game.
Ive never seen a side play so well all round and have everything go right for them. Every move came off. They just could not fo anything wrong.
We are not a tough side in the rough sense of the word, andy maybe we allowed them to play football. But against the harder sides in the league they would not have things quite so much their own way.
Sunderland did bounce back the following week, beating Coventry 3-0 at Roker, but the goals continued to leak in away from home – five were conceded at Chelsea and Spurs, and four at Manchester United, as Sunderland avoided relegation by four points, winning two of our final three games.