It is a cause of frustration that so little footage of Sunderland’s real glory years exists, but even if we just focus on the sheer statistics and anecdotal evidence it is clear that George Holley was some footballer.
The Football League was still three years away when George Holley was born, and yet he would go on to be one of its deadliest finishers after joining Sunderland during the 1904-05 season a day after his 19th birthday. Prior to moving to Roker Holley had been at three different teams in his hometown, and the side he had just left, Seaham White Star, would go on to win the Wearside League that campaign.
By the time his old club had completed their success, however, Holley had already established himself in the Sunderland side. In a sign of what was to come, he scored on his debut at Sheffield Wednesday and four days later followed that up with another as the Lads beat Preston North End on New Years Eve.
Although he only made 15 league appearances, he finished the season as joint top scorer alongside fellow new recruit Walter ‘Mark’ Watkins.
Despite his good start Watkins quickly departed and with Holley missing huge chunks of the following two seasons due to injury it was winger Arthur Bridgett that became the main goal threat. Fit and raring to go again in 1907-08 though, Holley was Sunderland’s highest appearance maker and top scorer outright with his final strike of the campaign setting his side on their way to an impressive 3-1 victory over Newcastle United - a repeat of the 1905 win by the same score in which he’d also scored.
In fact, Holley made his mark in several other Wear-Tyne derbies too. Sunderland’s record scorer against Newcastle with 15 league and cup goals, he bagged a hat-trick in the famous 9-1 triumph at St. James’ Park in December 1908 – one of three hat-tricks he scored that calendar year and part of a total of nine for the club.
Scoring on his 1909 birthday with a goal against Middlesbrough, Holley remained a key figure throughout the decade and into the 1910s. Manager Robert Kyle was carefully building what would be a league title-winning side and although they looked well off the pace during 1911-12 George still ended up as joint top scorer in Division One with 25 goals. There was more to him than just being able to finish though; he was a good pro and had excellent ball control. Vice-captain when Sunderland won the Football League the following season, he turned out in the 1913 FA Cup final despite missing the previous game due to injury.
With Walter Tinsley pulling out on the day of the match, Holley stepped up even after he had failed an earlier fitness test. This was Sunderland’s first appearance in the cup final and Holley had played a huge part in them getting there, scoring the winning goal in the semi-final replay against Burnley.
Effectively a man down, Sunderland lost the final to rivals Aston Villa 1-0 and when the sides met again in the league four days later Holley missed out altogether.
The Lads still secured a draw in Birmingham that all but guaranteed the title. It was confirmed following a win over Bolton Wanderers and in the final reckoning, Kyle’s men finished ahead of runners-up Villa by four points. It was a sterling turnaround, as after seven games the two sides were at opposite ends of the table, with Villa sitting joint top with Sunderland, without a victory at that point, languishing at second bottom.
Holley may have missed some of the run in, but his contribution before that had been vital – his first goal of the season helped Sunderland finally win at the eighth time of asking, and they then went on a run of five successive victories. The flurry included another Holley hattrick, this one at Bradford City, and three weeks after that he opened the scoring in another important match that saw the Lads beat Villa 3-1 at Roker Park.
The title defence in 1913-14 fell short, but George was still at the top of the appearance charts, this time alongside Charlie Buchan jointly. Teammate and football icon Buchan was a huge fan of Holley, who that season finished with 15 goals to become Sunderland’s top league scorer once again. That was to be his final season as a Football League regular for the club, although he did feature prominently in the 1918-19 Victory League before moving to Brighton and Hove Albion.
Holley returned to Wearside for a period to become a trainer in the early 1920s, a role he then fulfilled at Wolverhampton Wanderers and Barnsley. He died in 1942 whilst living back in Wolverhampton, and despite getting his final first-class competition goal for Sunderland 106 years ago he remains fourth on the list of all-time scorers for the club.
He also still holds the distinction of scoring more goals for England than anybody else whilst on the books at Sunderland. The final outing for his country came three days after that semi-final replay and he finished with a superb international record of 8 goals in 10 appearances – proof indeed that George Holley was one of the outstanding footballers of his generation.