As on many other days throughout the history of our football club, on this day 53 years ago, Sunderland Association Football Club was plunged into turmoil as we lost our manager and top scorer on the same day.
The day’s events had been the outcome of a period of upheaval, which had begun as Sunderland achieved their first ever promotion in May 1964. Finishing as runners-up to Don Revie’s Leeds United, Alan Brown had finally managed to return the club back to Division One (after being our first manager to suffer relegation, in 1958) at the sixth time of asking.
However, as fans were looking forward to once again hosting the best clubs in the land, a dispute broke out between the board and manager over whether or not he was entitled to buy his club house. The result of the dispute was the resignation of Alan Brown, which enabled him to take up the role at Sheffield Wednesday, as we entered the new season with the club’s directors handling the football management at Roker.
George Hardwick was brought in to steady the ship in December to oversee a late rally to finish a respectable 15th. Despite the salvage job from the ex-Netherlands national team and PSV Eindhoven manager, he wasn’t the long-term choice of the Sunderland board.
A month after the season had finished, on the 21st May 1965, the Scotland national team manager Ian McColl was appointed as the new Sunderland manager, signing a three-year contract at Roker Park. Immediately he went to work, spending money on players from North of the border such as Neil Martin from Hibernian for £50,000, and of course Jim Baxter from Glasgow Rangers for £72,000.
Although the new manager was backed in the transfer market, Sunderland finished closer to the relegation zone than the previous season under Hardwick, as we finished 19th in a First Division of 22 teams.
McColl continued to strengthen the side the following season, but reports of unrest in the squad were beginning to emerge, including rumours of a split between the new players and the more established ranks preceding the current manager’s appointment.
Revelations in later years from some of the players of the time revealed that Catholic players were often overlooked by the ex-Rangers legend, and the tension between club captain Charlie Hurley and star player Jim Baxter always threatened to boil over at any time.
A slightly improved league position was achieved in McColl’s second full season as Sunderland finished 17th, with striker Neil Martin ending the season on 20 goals in Division One and 26 in all competitions.
The 1967-68 season was groundhog day, and by the end of January 1968, Sunderland were hovering dangerously above the relegation zone, as well as being knocked out of the FA Cup by Norwich City who were mid-table in Division Two.
The first fixture of February saw Ian McColl win his final game in charge that ended a run of 13 without a win. The writing was on the wall as his side travelled to Hillsborough to meet mid-table Sheffield Wednesday that were managed by former Sunderland manager Alan Brown.
The three points that came via the only goal of the game wasn’t enough to save Ian McColl’s job and he was called to Roker Park at 10am on the 8th February to meet with club chairman Syd Collings and vice-chairman Jack Cooke.
McColl didn’t have any immediate comment to make on the proceedings to the press but Mrs McColl described:
It’s good news rather than bad news to me. I hope Ian will finish with football after this.
Maybe on instruction of Mrs McColl, he did exactly that, and spent the rest of his working life as a civil engineer.
Later in the day, the outgoing manager would release a statement that maybe inadvertently dropped the second bombshell of the day:
I am relieved of my duties from this moment, and Alan Brown will be my successor
Immediately, the attention turned to Sheffield and Sunderland’s previous opponents, where the Sheffield Wednesday Chairman, Dr. Andrew Stephen, was forced to release a statement on the gathering rumours:
I can’t make any comment on this matter. We shall be holding our normal weekly board meeting tonight. I have not seen Mr. Alan Brown today.
The now much sought after Alan Brown could not be traced in Sheffield and it was rumoured he was already on his way to Wearside.
Despite nobody officially in place to manage football matters at Roker Park, a deal that was described by Len Hetherington in the Evening Chronicle as “one of the most unusual transfer deals in soccer history” was taking place.
Sunderland’s top scorer Neil Martin, who was maybe ironically Ian McColl’s first signing as manager of Sunderland, joined fellow relegation strugglers Coventry City for £90,000. Martin’s departure followed that of Jim Baxter, who had joined Nottingham Forest in a deal worth £100,000 two months earlier in December 1967.
Brown steadied the ship for the rest of the season, finishing 15th in Division One, five points clear of the relegation zone.
Two years later however, Sunderland would be relegated for a second time in the club’s history, both having come under the management of Alan Brown.