Sunderland’s form in the early stages of the 1971-72 season had been indifferent at best, but the visit of newly-promoted Preston North End turned out to be hugely encouraging.
Division Three champions North End had former Sunderland favourite Jimmy McNab lining up in defence for them, but it was a new name that supporters went home talking about come the final whistle following Jimmy ‘Chico’ Hamilton’s last gasp intervention.
The match was an entertaining affair, starting with an early Richie Pitt strike before Bobby Ham levelled for the visitors. Two quickfire goals from Dennis Tueart just before half-time put Sunderland in control. But after they were pegged back by a Hugh McIlmoyle penalty and Ham’s second of the afternoon it seemed as if the Lads would have to settle for a point.
That was before the introduction of Hamilton, however, who was brought on for Brian Chambers in the final stages and scored the winner with five minutes to go. Although aged only 16 and physically slight, he appeared to be well suited to senior football and his opportunistic finish was later likened by manager Alan Brown to those scored by Hamilton’s Scottish compatriot Denis Law.
Coming 103 days after his 16th birthday, as well as securing a much-needed win his efforts saw Hamilton become Sunderland’s youngest ever goalscorer and youngest-ever outfield debutant. Whilst his achievements are still to be bettered, he was soon brought back down to earth; an unassuming character who didn’t even turn professional until the following summer, Hamilton later recounted to Rob Mason in his superb match day programme feature ‘Looking for the Lads’ how he still had to get the bus home after the game.
To make matters worse, when the driver asked Hamilton if he’d been to the match, he wouldn’t believe him when he explained he’d scored the winner!
Hamilton may have become a more recognisable figure had things continued to go his way, but after that initial breakthrough, he ended the campaign only on the fringes of the first team. Despite having never even been named on the bench for the first team before the Preston game, he started the next two matches as Sunderland recorded three wins on the bounce for the first time since 1967. It seemed then as if Sunderland’s fortunes were turning, but the optimism was short-lived; next came a seven-game winless run and the season never really got fully going.
This was in part down to Sunderland being in a state of transition. Hamilton was one of seven players from within the club to be given a debut during 1971-72, with others bowing out to make way. Stalwarts like Gordon Harris, Cec Irwin and Martin Harvey all played their final games for the club and at the same time Hamilton was beginning his Sunderland career Paddy Lowrey’s was coming to an end – the Preston game was his last outing for the Lads.
Brown was well known for his long-term planning and willingness to give youth a chance, but his hand may have been forced somewhat by the financial situation at Roker Park; amid pay disputes and an eventual miners strike this was the second season in a row where crowds only averaged around 15,000, and not a single new player was bought during the campaign.
Following the manager’s departure during 1972-73 things certainly picked up though, and although some of the foundations laid by Brown helped towards the 1973 FA Cup success Hamilton was not a major player in the story. After a pre-season goal at Berwick Rangers he had started the season back in the first team, and in October he scored his second goal for the club in an away defeat at Queens Park Rangers. That was to be Brown’s penultimate game in charge, but Hamilton was to only feature once under the incoming Bob Stokoe – and that was during the following campaign in a 2-1 win at Aston Villa.
The opposition for Jimmy’s last Sunderland appearance was ironic – the nickname ‘Chico’ having come from Aston Villa midfielder Ian ‘Chico’ Hamilton, itself a nod to an American jazz musician. Selected to play on the wing in that game, it was over a year until he eventually moved to Plymouth Argyle in 1975.
Jimmy Hamilton also spent time with Bristol Rovers, Carlisle United and Hartlepool United, as well as having spells in Australia and his native Scotland in a well-travelled career that started with a bang 50 years ago today.