Sunderland: Heywood, Gorman, Eves, Housam, Hewison, Hastings, Suppler, Stubbins (Guest), Whitelum, Carter, G Robinson (Guest)
Wolverhampton Wanderers: Sidlow, E Robinson, Dowen (Guest), Thornhill, Galley, Dorsett, Broome (Guest), McIntosh, Westcott, Stevenson, Mullen
On this day 79 years ago, the Battle of Kharkov raged in Ukraine as a million-strong division of the Red Army sought to repel the invading Nazis, German U-boats sank British, US and Panamanian ships in the Atlantic and Caribbean, Chinese troops faced defeat to the Japanese in the Battle of the Hsipaw-Mogok Highway northern Burma, and on the Home Front, Sunderland faced Wolverhampton Wanderers in the first leg of the Final of the 1942 War Cup at Roker Park.
Football was considered to be important to the maintenance of public morale and continued throughout the 1939-45 war, with a regionalised Football League incorporating teams as diverse as Liverpool and Gateshead being played in the autumn, and a special League War Cup competition was instituted for the winter and spring months for the clubs in the Football League’s northern and midlands heartlands, with the London War Cup providing for the southern sides.
As many professional footballers had signed up for military service at the outbreak of hostilities, the various Cups allowed “guest players” to be drafted in from other sides to make up the numbers, providing a level of novelty and interest in games that extended beyond the local fanbases.
Sunderland had seen off Oldham Athletic, Bradford City, Bradford Park Avenue and then Grimsby Town in the Semi-Finals, after emerging from a qualifying group including Newcastle, Gateshead, York and Bradford Park Avenue, to secure their place in the final against the Midlands side. Our guest players for this game were former Black Cat George Robinson, who had played at Roker Park from 1927-31 before moving to Charlton Athletic, and Newcastle United forward Albert Stubbins.
Despite the “friendly” nature of the War Cup competitions, commitment and physicality remained at the forefront of the approach of both teams, and an excited and expectant crowd of almost 35,000 were vocal from the start. It was an all-action first half, with the visitors taking the initiative with their power and pace, and heavy tackles (and a few elbows) flying in from both sides.
Dennis Westcote was perhaps fortunately to give Wolves the lead on 11 minutes when he charged down a clearance by the Sunderland ‘keeper Albert Heywood and the ball broke favourably to him, his shot wasn’t the best but despite Heywood’s scrambling efforts, the ball trickled over the line.
It was end-to-end stuff after that, with Sunderland coming close when the ball was crossed into the centre but both Cliff Whitelum and Raich Carter both failed to connect and the Magpie Stubbins showing his talents to the Wearside crowd with flicks, tricks and long range shots. One-nil down at half time, and the homes side had it all to do in the remaining three quarters of the tie.
The second half saw Sunderland come back strongly; the combination of the two best forwards in north-eastern football - Carter and Stubbins - proving effective as the Hendon hero equalised on 54 minutes and his black and white counterpart gave us the lead on 77 minutes. However, Sunderland conspired to give away another goal with only five minute left on the clock, Westcott getting his second to leave the tie poised at 2-2 ahead of the return leg at Molineux a week later.
This was the first and only time that the final was contested over two legs, but Wolves’ eventual 6-3 aggregate victory was soon to be overshadowed by tragedy, as their defender Eric Robinson, returning to military service after the end of the football season, was killed during a training exercise. The following year, as the Blitz intensified, 90 per cent of Sunderland’s buildings would be damaged - including Roker Park - and hundreds of civilians would be killed across the city.
Wolves would emerge from the war as one of the leading lights in English and European club football, before their light faded only to be truly rekindled in the last half decade, whilst Sunderland would never quite regain their post-war status as one of the game’s leading lights. Yet this game and the War Cup competitions serve as a reminder both of the social value of football to working people in the face of global catastrophes, and how the game has never been able to divorce itself from the wider struggle against fascism that each generation faces afresh.