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On This Day (18 May 1963): Agony as Sunderland miss out on promotion on goal average!

For a second season in a row, Sunderland miss out on returning to the top flight by the narrowest of margins.

Photo by Palmer/Mirrorpix/Getty Images

It was the fifth season since Sunderland’s first relegation in the clubs history and we still hadn’t fully recovered.

Alan Brown was the man in charge as we were relegated from the First Division on that fateful day at Portsmouth in April 1958, and amazingly, considering what followed in the proceeding years, was still the manager of the club.

It took Brown a couple of years to really halt the slide as we finished 15th and then 16th in our first two seasons as we adjusted to life outside the top flight for the first time down in Division Two. But it becomes more understandable when you consider how much the club under the focus of the manager, turned to blooding through young players during those early years of Brown’s reign.

In those first two seasons, the Roker faithful witnessed the debuts of Jimmy McNab, Len Ashurst, Cec Irwin, Martin Harvey, Nicky Sharkey and Ian Lawther, who in total between the six players, went on to make 1,690 appearances for the Lads.

Soccer - Football League Division One - Sunderland Photocall
Alan Brown
Photo by PA Images via Getty Images

By the time our third season in the second tier came around, these young players were beginning to get into their stride and in 1960-61, tangible results were being seen on the pitch.

A much improved side eventually finished 6th and threw in a run to the FA Cup quarter-final in for good measure where we forced a 1-1 draw at Roker Park against Bill Nicholson’s Tottenham Hotspur who went on to win the double that year, before losing the replay.

More pieces of the jigsaw were added during the following season at both ends of the pitch. Brian Clough was signed from Middlesbrough for £48,000 to get the goals and he certainly didn’t fail on that front. The Middlesbrough-born striker set a post war record of 34 goals in all competitions.

In the second half of 1961-62, at the other end of the pitch between the sticks, we saw the debut of none other than Jimmy Montgomery. A club legend in every sense of the word who stayed until 1980 having left with a club record 627 appearances.

Sunderland legend Jimmy Montgomery

With Clough and Montgomery in the side we came close, but not close enough. On the final day of the season we could only manage a 1-1 draw at Swansea Town after the Welsh side equalised with 25 minutes left on the clock. Had we held out and won, we’d have been promoted. As it was, we finished a point behind Leyton Orient who sailed off into Division One.

With the backdrop of this heartbreaking end to the season, Alan Brown once again went to work on his young squad, where from an average starting line-up over the season more than half came through the ranks, and he would once again put his faith in youth.

New additions came in the form of George Mulhall who signed from Aberdeen for £25,000, and Johnny Crossan who joined from Standard Liege for £26,700 and we began the campaign once again looking for that return to Division One.

As Christmas approached we were on a good run of 2 defeats in 15 games and then on Boxing Day, disaster struck. Bury were the visitors to Roker Park on a freezing cold day where the rain lashed down on the near frozen pitch and the players breath immediately froze on contact with the cold air.

Brian Clough’s record up until that Boxing Day fixture was 24 goals in 28 games for the 1962-63 season - and there were still 18 league games of the season left.

As he chased down a long ball from Len Ashurst, Clough collided with the Bury goalkeeper and ended up in a heap on the frozen ground. Bob Stokoe leaned over him to tell Clough in no uncertain terms that he should stop cheating and get up as he writhed around in agony.

Brian Clough after colliding with Bury goalkeeper Chris Harker on Boxing Day 1962 - a challenge that effectively finished his playing career

Brain Clough had torn his cruciate and medial ligaments in his knee and although he attempted a comeback almost two years later - his career as a player was over.

We then went four without a win before finding other sources for goals such as Nicky Sharkey and Johnny Crossan to find our form once again. A good run to the League Cup semi-final also had an impact on our league form during the second half of the season, along with the worst winter in decades that meant clubs were always playing catch up to fulfill fixtures.

As a sign of how bad the winter got in the early part of 1963, our first leg of the League Cup semi-final against Aston Villa was played on the 12th January, the second leg wasn’t able to be scheduled until the 23rd April - resulting in almost 15 weeks between the two legs.

By the time our final game of the season arrived we were top of Division Two. As it was two points for a win at that time, only Stoke City and Chelsea were in contention, and because Chelsea were the visitors to Roker Park for our final fixture, all we needed was a draw and we were promoted.

It was blowing a gale at Roker Park on the day and although the club had to comply with a maximum of 48,000 due to fears of over crowding - despite over 60,000 being in attendance to witness Sunderland take on Newcastle only two months prior - reports suggest many more entered the ground than was planned.

Tommy Docherty was in charge at Stamford Bridge in his first managerial appointment after finishing as a player the year before, and the famous manager who went on to take the reigns at the likes of Aston Villa, Porto, Manchester United as well the national side of his native Scotland, came with a plan.

In an age of no substitutes and a time when a player had to produce a weapon and cause serious damage to a player to receive a card of any colour, Chelsea, who included a 20-year-old Terry Venables, took full advantage and battered Sunderland all over the pitch.

Even when Chelsea took the lead after 25 minutes it had a physical edge to it with the ball being bundled over the line from a wind-assisted corner. We almost overcame the Blues physicality but were thwarted by future England international Peter Bonetti.

Chelsea held on and gained the two points which meant they were now two points behind Sunderland - but as we’d finished our season, Chelsea had one more remaining.

Back in the early 1960’s teams who finished on the same points were split by goal average rather than goal difference as we do now, and Chelsea went into their last fixture with a better goal average than us, which meant they knew a win over mid-table Portsmouth would be enough to see them up.

We were praying for Pompey to do us a favour and take something off Chelsea in that final fixture, but it wasn’t to be. Chelsea won the game - 7-0.

For a second season in a row we’d come within spitting distance of returning to the First Division - surely we’d do it the following season?!

Sunderland: Montgomery, Nelson, Ashurst, Anderson, Hurley, McNab, Davison, Herd, Sharkey, Crossan, Mulhall

Chelsea: Bonetti, Shellito, McCreadie, Venables, Mortimore, Harris, Blunstone, Kevan, Upton, Harmer, Tambling


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