A league winner at Roker in his playing days, in 1949-50 manager Bill Murray went agonisingly close to making it an impressible double. In the end the team missed out on the title by a single point, but a trip to St. James’ exactly 73 years ago had already left the football world in no doubt as to their credentials.
Neighbours Newcastle United were another of the country’s strongest sides at that point and so the latest Tyne-Wear derby was a clash of even more epic proportions than usual. The hosts looked to be on course for a famous win too, but after coming out of the blocks and enjoying a man advantage for a large part of the match they still found themselves having to share the spoils with a visiting side full of both talent and fighting spirit – the same attributes that then took them within a whisker of winning the Football League.
Goals from George Robledo and Tommy Walker had put the Mags 2-0 up, and if that wasn’t bad enough for the Black Cats they had to come to terms with the loss of key figure Arthur Wright who in the days before substitutes battled on gamely until half time after pulling a thigh muscle but was then unable to return for the second half. A fantastic servant to Sunderland over the course of three and a half decades as both a player and then trainer, Wright was a huge loss – but at least his namesake Tommy had given those remaining a huge boost just before the break.
Tommy Wright’s second of the season had brought the Lads back into things and, within 15 minutes of the restart, they were level. The leveller was controversial – some members of the home team claimed the ball had not fully crossed the line – but after Ivor Broadis had put the groundwork in Dickie Davis’ impudent backheel was good enough for referee Holt. Davis would end the campaign as Division One’s top scorer with 25 goals, and it was moments like that which would set him apart.
As you would expect, Newcastle then tried to push their numerical advantage and began to throw the kitchen sink at their nearest and dearest, but in his ‘Viewpoint’ piece in the following day’s Sunday Sun, writer Ken McKenzie suggested that they lost patience too quickly and resorted instead to direct and poorly thought out tactics. His counterpart Sam Brooks made it clear however that Sunderland were still keen to make a game of it and that they too had chances as things wore on.
Although feeling he was perhaps at fault for the first goal of the afternoon, Brooks was otherwise hugely impressed by Johnny Mapson, the legendary goalkeeper whose first three games for the club also happened to be the final three of his now manager. Murray had been a classy operator during his playing days and so too was the man he’d made his captain, Willie Watson – another player to now be singled out by Brooks.
Suggesting the skipper “had not a superior”, there were words of encouragement too for the attacking unit that battled on in Arthur Wright’s absence with Tommy Wright “ever dangerous”, Broadis “a good general” and Tommy Reynolds “a powerful left wing raider”.
Not only were they having to do things on the hoof though, but they’d also started without talisman Len Shackleton and the extra special performance he seemed to reserve for some of his former clubs as well; nevertheless, his deputy, young harry Kirtley, also contributed greatly to the effort. According to Brooks the 19-year-old played like an “old head” and “never gave up trying”.
The work rate put in by Kirtley and co. moved Sunderland’s unbeaten record in the league on to four matches and come the new year they shifted through the gears. A longer stretch of nine wins and four draws put the Lads top of the table in spring but despite the tantalising prospect of a title-chasing run-in, which in the end proved unsuccessful thanks to three shock defeats on the bounce, the biggest Roker Park crowd of the season had already been and gone.
Under Murray fans got to witness several big names and with a post-war boom increasing attendance even further 1949-50 attracted a phenomenal aggregate gate of over one million supporters. The highest individual crowd for a game that term (68,004), and the second highest ever for a home Sunderland game, was for the return match with Newcastle in March 1950, swelled perhaps by those that would otherwise have been unable to travel to an away game or liked to watch both sides.
Both Wear-Tyne derbies that season posted huge gates in fact, and both finished 2-2. Honours even then for the two fierce rivals, although on this day ten-man Sunderland had the satisfaction of doing it the hard way and coming from behind.
Saturday 15 October 1949, Football League Division One
Newcastle United 2 (Robledo 37, Walker 30)
Sunderland 2 (Wright 45, Davis 60)
Sunderland: Mapson, Stelling, Hudgell, Watson, Walsh, A. Wright, T. Wright, Broadis, Davis, Kirtley, Reynolds.
St. James’ Park, attendance 57,999