On a bitterly cold but clear March afternoon on the east coast of England in 1928 the tides of football history began to turn. Football pioneer Herbert Chapman, perhaps the country’s first manager in the modern sense of the word, took his Arsenal side up to Sunderland to take on long-serving Bob Kyle’s Sunderland, who had been a ever-present force in the upper echelons of Division 1 for decades.
The game was remarkable for a few reasons beyond the scoreline. It was 21-year-old Silksworth lad Bobby ‘Boy’ Gurney’s first appearance for Sunderland just under a year following injury, and it was he who took the plaudits with a hat-trick as Sunderland ran out 5-1 winners. This was a time well before the use of floodlights and the game took place during the working day, hence the match proceeded in front of a midweek crowd of less than 10,000 spectators. By way of context, over 40,000 would attend the Saturday fixture against local rivals Newcastle United three days later.
Gurney’s goalscoring started in the second minute and completed in the 80th. Sunderland went into the break 2-0 ahead, Dave Halliday adding to Gurney’s opener on 30 minutes. The second half was frantic, with the Gunners striking back on 54 minutes through star-striker Jack Lambert, only for the ‘Boy’ to restore the home side’s two goal lead a minute later. Arsenal were certainly no push overs, but the Lads continued to push forward and, after Gurney’s third, Alwyn Wilks completed the rout on 83 minutes to secure what would ultimately prove to be a vital two points.
This game also would mark Charlie Buchan’s final appearance at Roker Park, as he retired from the game at the end of the season aged 36. The Londoner had scored almost a goal every two games for Arsenal since his transfer from Wearside three years earlier, and Buchan was at the time Sunderland’s all-time record goalscorer; his tally of 209 goal would only ever be surpassed by the hat-trick hero of the day, Bobby Gurney.
But this changing of the goalscoring guard would be a footnote when compared to the seismic shift that was to follow in the wake of the game. The next day, 15th March 1928, 58-year-old Kyle, the man who had embodied the steadiest of hands at Sunderland AFC as Secretary-Manager for 23 years since his appointment in the midst of a financial scandal at the club 1905, the man who had brought Buchan to the club and finished third in the league for the previous three seasons, shocked English football by deciding that this victory was to be his final game in charge at Roker Park.
There had been rumours of tension between Kyle and the club’s owners for a little while, and at a meeting on the Thursday he tendered his resignation, which had been accepted by the Sunderland board. The Irishman had led the club to the League title and FA Cup Final in 1913 and is - and very likely will forever remain - the longest serving manager in our club’s illustrious history; an almost incomprehensible 817 games, with 371 victories along the way.
Perhaps he felt secure that, with Gurney back and scoring goals alongside Dave Halliday, the time was right to pass on the button to the next generation of manager. But without Kyle to guide them, things began to fall apart for the Black Cats and they almost lost their ever-present status in the division.
The season would end up going right down to the wire; with trainer Billy Williams temporarily at the helm the team dropped down the table, ending in the most dramatic way possible in a final game relegation shoot-out against Middlesbrough. The top flight that season was quite unbelievably tight, only four points (two wins back then) separating the bottom 12 sides at the end of the season, and you can read the the story of that final match on Teeside in the article below.
Sunderland: McInroy, Murray, Thomson, Clunas, Parker, Whelan, Wilks, Gurney, Halliday, Wright, Hargreaves
Arsenal: Lewis, Parker, John, Baker, Butler, Blyth, Hulme, Buchan, Hoar, Lambert, Peel