Strictly speaking, Alan Brown was the manager responsible for the first two relegations Sunderland ever suffered. To lay the blame solely at his door would be grossly unfair, however, with the Northumbrian battling against internal chaos on both occasions.
Brought to the club in 1957 in the wake of the illegal payments scandal and having spent time as a police officer in his early 20s, it was hoped that his firm character was exactly what the club needed to get back on track. When previously in charge of Burnley, with whom he had won promotion and reached an FA Cup final while still a player, Brown had shown an ability to spot and nurture young talent and his remit at Roker was to do the same.
Unfortunately, it took time for this to bear fruit. With Brown being seen as a sometimes fierce and uncompromising figure, Len Shackleton chose to retire after just one game under him and several more of the old guard moved on too. In turn ten players, including a certain Charlie Hurley, all made their debuts in Brown’s first season but it was not enough to stave off the drop – Sunderland had narrowly escaped relegation the season before when a series of under the counter payments had come to light but demotion could no longer be avoided and by virtue of goal average the club lost their proud boast of being the only Football League side never to have played outside of the top-flight.
During a period of intense change at Roker, Sunderland took time to gets to grips with Division Two and it was not until the 1960-61 season that Brown’s methods and trust in youth started to pay dividends. The Lads were in the promotion mix until the final weeks of the season and went even closer the following year with new arrival Brian Clough scoring 29 goals in just 34 league appearances.
Clough’s infamous injury on Boxing Day 1962 was one of the main factors in Brown’s side then missing out on promotion for a third season running, with goal average again doing for the Lads following a loss against Chelsea in their final game when even just a point would have been enough.
The 1962-63 campaign also saw Sunderland go close in the League Cup, where they reached the semi-final stage, but a stirring run in the following season’s FA Cup gave the Lads the final impetus to win promotion.
With Brown’s energetic and supremely talented squad now settled, only 17 players were called upon in the league during 1963-64. Mainstays like Cec Irwin, Len Ashurst and Jimmy McNabb had all got their roles to a tee under the manager and the side only lost five league games all season – with only one of those defeats coming in the final run in after Sunderland had eventually bowed out of an epic three-match FA Cup tie with holders Manchester United.
A first-ever promotion was confirmed with a game to spare and Brown was expected to lead his young charges into Division One, only for him to resign on the 31st of July after an alleged dispute over whether he was entitled to buy his club house. Brown took over at Sheffield Wednesday. and Sunderland’s revenge came in the form of a 3-0 win over the Owls on the final day of 1964-65, with the side finishing well clear of relegation upon their top-flight return.
In 1968, Brown was brought back for a second spell as Sunderland manager, after Ian McColl’s problematic spell in charge. Despite bringing some stability to the club, he was forced to sell some of its prized assets in order to balance the books and Sunderland were consigned to another relegation in 1969-70.
This time, Brown’s stint in charge was to last four years and instead of walking he was pushed – sacked in November 1972 after some indifferent results. The story of the man that replaced him, Bob Stokoe, is well known but several of his stars had already been given their Sunderland debut by Brown.
Some had felt restricted by Brown’s style of play, but conversely accepted his training sessions and methods were light years ahead of those at other clubs. Brown reportedly put the players to work around Roker Park and the club’s new training facilities in between games and as well as encouraging youth he inspired the new breed of manager – Clough no less acknowledging the influence ‘Bomber’ had over his own managerial successes.
57 years after his first departure from the club, Alan Brown remains a huge part of Sunderland’s history.