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On This Day (5 May 1928): SAFC stay up on a dramatic last day as Kyle departs after 23 years in charge

It was the season finale to end all seasons...

Aye, aye. We know you were probably expecting our On This Day for today to tell the story of the FA Cup Final win of 1973. And if you’re after some 73 action, my mate Kelvin’s done a cracking piece full of stuff you probably didn’t know about our last major honour.

But travel even further back in time and today also marks a stunning relegation battle coming to a head, and the end of an era on Wearside as manager 58-year-old Bob Kyle said goodbye to Roker Park after an astonishing 23 years in charge.

At a time when 23 months in charge of Sunderland would be incredibly good going, 23 years is unthinkable today.

The Northern Irishman managed the club in 817 games, winning the league in 1913, and getting to the FA Cup final during the same season; remarkably he’s still the only Irishman to win England’s top flight as manager.

But, despite his lengthy career with the club, his final game in charge didn’t allow for anything like the emotional send-off it richly deserved because, going into the final league game of the season, any two from five clubs could have gone down – including Sunderland.

It would have been the club’s first-ever relegation, and certainly not something that Kyle wanted to bring the curtain down on his near three-decade tenure, which had started with the following announcement.

Mr Robert Kyle of the Belfast Distillery Club has been appointed secretary of the Sunderland Association Football Club, in succession to Mr A Mackie, now of Middlesbrough, There were over seventy applicants for the post, Mr Kyle has been secretary of the Distillery Club for seven years, during which time the status of that organisation has been greatly raised.

Kyles’ spell in charge got off to the best of starts, beating Newcastle on the opening day of the 1905-06 season 3-2, Arthur Bridgett netting two and Jimmy Gemmell getting the other, however, things didn’t initially pan out as successfully at first as one might have expected.

Charles Buchan
Charlie Buchan was a star of Kyle’s team
Photo by Central Press/Getty Images

In the 15 years of league football prior to his arrival, Sunderland had only finished below seventh once.

In Kyle’s first three seasons we finished 14th, 10th and 16th. After that, however, the club only finished outside of the top ten twice until Kyle’s last season. The arrival of Charlie Buchan at the tail end of the 1910-11 season was a pivotal moment, and the club went on to secure the 1912-13 league title, finishing four points ahead of Aston Villa.

Of course, Kyle’s spell in charge was punctuated by the Great War, and Charlie Buchan was still pulling on the stripes when football resumed in 1919.

A second-place finish in 1922-23, and a third place in 1923-24, 1925-26, and 1926-27.

However, coming into the final game of the 1927-28 season, relegation was a real possibility.

It had been a season of ups and downs. Sitting top of the league early on, six consecutive defeats dropped the team to 18th. Kyle had announced his impending retirement, and although officially in charge, it was Billy Williams, the long-serving trainer, who was preparing the team.

Sunderland travelled to Ayresome Park, level on points with Middlesbrough after four consecutive defeats, knowing a win would keep either side up.

Sunderland FC
Sunderland’s 1926 team: McGorian, England, McInroy, Henderson, Creswell (captain), Andrews, Kelly, Marshall, Gurney, Coglin, Ellis.
Photo by Kirby/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

In front of a crowd of 41,997 (including, according to the excellent The Absolute Record, Kyle’s successor Johnny Cochrane and future skipper Raich Carter, who was in attendance as a boyhood fan) Sunderland lined up like this, welcoming back goalkeeper Albert McInroy after injury ruled him out the previous week:

McInroy, Murray, England, Clunas, Andrews, Robinson, Wright, Halliday, Hargreaves, Death.

Middlesbrough: Mathieson, Jarvis, Smith, Miller, Ferguson, Peacock, Pease, Carr, Camsell, Bruce, WIlliams.

It was Middlesbrough who started the game strongly, in ‘simply irresistible form’ – but completely against the run of play, Dave Wright opened the scoring for Sunderland on 12 minutes after a defensive mistake.

Even after that goal it was all Middlesbrough, but Sunderland posed the goal threat.

The match report in the ‘Journal and North Star’, written under the pseudonym Ironsides, said:

It was questionable whether the Sunderland forwards got into the Middlesbrough penalty area more than half-a-dozen times in the first half, but whenever they did their efforts invariably left one pulsating.

Brilliant defensive work by Ernie England and future Sunderland manager Bill Murray, complemented by superb goalkeeping from McInroy, kept ‘Borough’ (as they were known in more formal times) at bay. The home side, reports said, had more than enough chances to win the game – their propensity to try to walk the ball in combined with the excellent McInroy keeping the Sunderland goal unbreached.

Soccer - Football League Division One - Sunderland
Murray kept Borough at bay
Photo by Barratts/PA Images via Getty Images

They had the heartbreaking task of trying to beat a goalkeeper in McInroy who was positively brilliant, and to him, perhaps, more than any other player the Wearsiders owe a deep debt of gratitude, One of his saves just before the interval bordered on the miraculous. Carr had fired in from point-blank range, but McInroy flung himself at the ball, which he pushed on to the upright, The ball rebounded and rolled along the goal line, but again McInroy got to it, and although laid full length on the ground, was able to save the situation by conceding a corner.

In the second half, the action continued in much the same fashion. However, Halliday netted Sunderland’s second on 55 minutes, scoring at the second attempt after his first shot was charged down by keeper Mathieson, while five minutes later Death scored a superb solo effort to seal the game.

In the background, the game was played out under ‘tropical weather conditions’, with many people overcome by the heat and the excitement of the game – ‘the first-aid men were kept busy reviving them’ reported Ironsides, whose match report began.

“‘Tis not in mortals to command success, but we’ll do more – deserve it.” This quotation, coined from Addison, the philosopher, typifies Sunderland’s desperate effort to escape relegation, and although there is irony attached to their deserved success in that they plunged their neighbourly rivals into the lower realm from whence they emerged just a season ago, the fact remains that they well merited their triumph. Furthermore, the tens of thousands of Teesside supporters were the first to express their admiration of the Roker Park club’s escape, even though it will mean that for another season at least they will be debarred from witnessing those triangular contests which the followers of all three clubs looked forward to with pleasurable anticipation.

At the end of play, the league table (courtesy of the excellent Stat Cat) looked like this, remarkably only six points separating Derby in fourth and relegated Tottenham in 21st:

And so it was that Kyle avoided the ignominy of being the first manager to relegate Sunderland, and thankfully so. It would have been an unjust blot on his copybook.

Cochrane, who was watching on at Ayresome Park, took over the reins and despite a slow start – six defeats in the first nine games – took the club to a far-more-respectable fourth place.

Cochrane managed the club for 11 years until 1939, taking us to another league title in 1936 and the FA Cup, of course, the following season.

39 seasons, two managers. League titles. An FA Cup win.

It seems there’s a lot to be said for continuity.

Soccer - Football League Division One - Sunderland
Cochrane, Kyle’s successor
Photo by Barratts/PA Images via Getty Images

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