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The story of young Sunderland starlet John ‘Ralphy’ Goodchild – and what might have been

At face value, it seems incredible that such a young talent was allowed to leave Roker Park. So, what went on?

From ‘The Lads in the Sixties’ by Alan Brett and Philip Curtis

A chance encounter with the extended family of a former player and the anniversary of his debut for the club led me on an intriguing search for his back story – and left a question or two unanswered.

Maybe somebody reading this can provide a little more information.

John ‘Ralphy’ Goodchild was born in Sherburn Hill near Durham in 1939. He had already worked three and a half years down the pit when he was signed from Ludworth Juniors in September 1956 by Bill Murray.

The 5’ 8” forward made his debut on 04/09/57 against Leicester City at Roker Park in front of almost 40,000 fans in a thrilling 3-2 victory. The 18-year-old marked his debut with a ‘well-taken’ goal to add to a ‘promising’ performance.

Ralphy was generally described as an inside right but turned out on the left-wing on his debut. He would play on either wing or inside left throughout his career, as well as his preferred inside right position.

As many Sunderland fans know, 1957/58 was a disastrous season for the club, who were relegated for the first time in their history. This followed hot on the heels of the illegal payments scandal that came to a head in 1957 and resulted in the club being heavily fined, along with fines and suspension from football for at least four members of the board including the Chairman. Long-time manager and ex-player Bill Murray had resigned having also been censored and fined by the FA.

Goodchild in action
All the Lads by Garth Dykes and Doug Lamming

In comes ‘Bomber’

In the wake of the scandal and with a need to clean up its image, the club appointed Alan Winston Brown as manager.

His reputation for honesty, frankness and rigid discipline had been forged at Burnley where, as a player, he had led Burnley from the second division and skippered them to the FA Cup final. He had a reputation for building teams and for developing young players.

Brown is credited with being pivotal in the careers of a number of players, and the mercurial Brian Clough rated him as his most influential mentor. Brown was also credited with being a very imaginative and innovative coach and instigated coaching drills at Sunderland that were copied by numerous coaches such as Clough, Mourinho, Arsene Wenger and Malcolm Allison.

Not all his coaching methods were appreciated though, his heading golf ball drills did not catch on and his tendency to volunteer himself and players for manual labour at both Burnley and Sunderland as they built new training facilities was the stuff of legend.

Brown had an almost evangelical moral code, he neither drank alcohol nor gambled and was not noted for his sense of humour. Brown was a member of the Moral Re-armament league and tried to recruit players to this hard-line spiritual organisation.

Brown, nicknamed ‘Bomber’ was a complex Northumbrian. He was the manager who gave Ralphy Goodchild his debut and appears to have been pivotal in his strange playing career and eventual departure from Sunderland.

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

An inspiring – intimidating – dressing room

The teenager must have wondered what he had signed up to in that first season. As well as the ‘Bomber’ and his evangelical innovative coaching and behaviour, there was also some big names still in the dressing room, as well as some future legends.

The dressing room must have been both intimidating and inspiring – Len Shackleton was coming to the end of his career at Sunderland, Don Revie, Stan Anderson, Billy Bingham, George Aitken, Charlie “cannonball” Fleming and Don “Rhino” Kitchenbrand were all internationals for their respective countries and well-established senior players.

Brown had signed a 21-year-old centre half Charlie Hurley, who would go on to become a Sunderland legend but endured a torrid start to his career, and there was also the delightfully nicknamed ‘singing winger’ Colin Grainger, who was also an England international.

Grainger acquired his nickname having sung professionally and released a double A-side record in 1958 (“This I know/Are You”). He also sang at the London Palladium and remarkably played on the same bill as the Beatles in 1963 – in Stockport, of all places.

Whatever Ralphy was experiencing as an 18-year-old stepping into what some might call a cauldron of egos, distraction and rancour, he does not appear to have let it distract him as he played seven times and scored two goals that season, following up his goal against Leicester with a ‘peach’ of a goal in a 2-2 draw at Bolton a week later.

The following season, 1958/59, was Sunderland’s first in the Second Division. Ralphy made 27 appearances and scored a very credible 16 goals, bettered only by ‘Rhino’ Kitchenbrand who scored 21 goals.

His 16 goals included a hat-trick and two braces, and his contribution was appreciated by Hurley and Stan Anderson who both refer to his goals in their biographies as important in keeping the club from sliding through the trapdoor into the third division as they struggled to come to terms with life in division two.

Soccer - FA Cup - Fifth Round - Norwich City v Sunderland
Stan Anderson leads out the team
Photo by S&G/PA Images via Getty Images

Youthful promise – and a hat-trick at Leeds

The team might have been struggling but the future looked bright for ‘young Ralphy’ as Sunderland headed into 1959/60. Unfortunately, with the forward five being chopped and changed by manager Brown and younger players Ian Lowther and Nick Sharkey putting pressure on the established players such as Ernie Taylor, Ambrose Fogerty and Colin Grainger, Ralphy found game-time that season hard to come by, and managed only nine appearances and no goals – a disappointing return for the teenager given his performances of the previous season.

Season 1960/61 saw Sunderland have a good tilt at promotion, which was undone when five of the final nine games were lost.

The team was being moulded by Brown and taking a settled shape. Sunderland fielded the same starting eleven for ten successive games that season – Wakeham in goal and a back line of Hurley McNab and Anderson and plus backs Ashurst and Nelson, the defensive six proved consistently resolute.

The front five included the promising young Willie McPheat (who would see his career cruelly ended by a tackle from Leeds Bobby Collins in 1962), Ambrose Fogerty, Harry Hooper, Ian Lawther, Nick Sharkey, Jack Overfield and another promising youngster John Dillon all providing stiff competition.

It was no surprise that Ralphy would find it difficult to break back into the side. If he was going to make his mark again, he would have to take any chance offered!

An opportunity did not come his way until 25 February 1961 at Leeds United. McPheat had picked up an injury and Ralphy was drafted in – and boy did he grab the moment.

In a game where Stan Anderson was at his mercurial best and Sunderland were likened to ‘an unplayable continental team’ in the press, Ralphy scored a first-half hat-trick in an all-round dynamic display.

Many years later he recalled a conversation with Stan Anderson at the end of this game. Anderson, the club captain, had told him there was no way he could not be picked in the first eleven after such a display. The Northern Echo’s headline “Goodchild hat-trick sets cup selection problem” appeared to back this up, as they looked forward to an epic FA Cup tie against runaway leaders of the first division, the all-star Tottenham Hotspur.

Reminiscing to local press many years later, Ralphy said, “I remember thinking to myself that if I could not get into the team after scoring a hat-trick away from home, I will be on the transfer list at the end of the season... and that was exactly what happened.”

McPheat, who had played for most of the season, was bought back into the starting eleven for the big game in place of Goodchild and in front of 61,326 baying Roker fans he scored the equaliser in a pulsating cup tie that took the game to a replay at White Hart Lane.

In keeping with the character he appears to have been, Ralphy was generous regarding McPheat, recalling in the same interview with local press, “He had been injured and had not trained for two weeks but he was a nice lad and I made nothing of it... I was just starting out, you did not do anything aggressive in those days”.

And suddenly, that was it

Following his hat-trick at Leeds in February 1961, Ralphy Goodchild never played again for Sunderland. He played 45 times for the club and scored a very credible 21 goals, most as a teenager.

Looking at his record and considering his performance in what would ultimately be his last game at Leeds, it seems a tad harsh (to say the least) that he was placed on the transfer list at the end of the 60/61 season by a manager with a reputation for developing young players.

Was there more to this? Had there been some kind of fallout with the manager? Were there disciplinary or injury issues?

There is no record of any of these that I have been able to unearth.

Goodchild joined second division Brighton for whom he scored 44 goals in 163 appearances between 1961 and 1965 and is remembered fondly on the south coast. Ralphy then signed for York City and scored 6 goals in 29 appearances in the 66/67 season, had a very brief spell at Darlington before dropping out of the professional game with Goole Town in 1968.

Always a keen cricketer, Ralphy appeared for the Durham 2nd eleven in 1959 and played many years for Ushaw Moor CC in the Durham County League.

John Ralphy Goodchild’s story may sound similar to a few other local lads who had a chance, got a start and then fade. I bet not too many of these will have scored a hat-trick in a game, never to play again that season and then be transferred.

John Goodchild died in 2011 aged 72. He was still living in the Durham region he had been born in.

I for one am sorry I did not see him play – his record of 21 goals in 45 appearances, most of these as a teenager, hinted at more to come and a young player there to be developed.

Sadly, this was not to be at Sunderland.

The last word goes to Ralphy, who in typically honest and generous fashion reflected on his career in 2005. “That sort of thing happens… I don’t mean I wanted it to happen, but it does. I am still very proud to have played football for Sunderland.”


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