In the autumn of 1946, a year after the end of the most deadly conflict in the history of our planet, football once again provided the essential escape from the concerns of working people everywhere.
“We must provide a little fun” declared an MP on the front page of the Newcastle Journal, as news of communal tensions in pre-partition India, heightened tensions at the United Nations, and failing relations between Russia and the West dominated the headlines.
Competitive football had officially returned in the 1945-46 season in the regionalised “War League” but the national game wasn’t properly up and running until the August bank holiday in 1946. The massive crowds were now back, football was reigniting the passions of the working people, and the race to be the first post-war league champions was already heating up.
Sunderland, one of the pre-war powerhouses, had started their top flight season pretty well, picking up six wins and two draws in the first eleven games to leave Tom Watson’s men in fifth, four points behind the early pace setters Blackpool with a game in hand.
While Manchester City were in the North East playing Newcastle at St James’ Park, their Maine Road home was the venue for Sunderland’s game against their city rivals Manchester United. Old Trafford had, like Roker Park, suffered at the hands of the Luftwaffe, although the damage there was much more extensive, meaning the Red Devils had to take up a temporary tenancy across town while a rebuild was underway.
It hadn’t stopped Matt Busby’s team from starting their campaign in great form, but a stutter left them only a point above the Lads in second position and ahead of both Wolves and Liverpool only on goal average.
So this game was a big occasion, and over 48,000 supporters packed into the East Manchester ground. The night before the game, the Manchester Evening News had declared the weekend the “Battle of the Giants”, with over 50,000 expected on Tyneside.
Sunderland were an all-or-nothing side, the previous game had been a 1-2 home loss to Grimsby Town, and before that we’d chalked up both a 4-1 home win over Everton and a 4-1 away loss to Portsmouth. So nobody was quite sure how this one was going to play out, although Eric Thornton in the MEN expected a game of cut and thrust from the outset as both teams were struggling for form.
Jackie Robinson, recently signed from Sheffield Wednesday, wasn’t included in the starting eleven but it didn't stop Sunderland from storming through the United defence right from the off and, when Allenby Chilton slipped, Cliff Whitelum was on hand to give the Lads the lead after only eight minutes.
Whitelum’s strike partner Willie Watson then hit the post with a wonderfully struck volley, and after the break he completed his hat trick with well-worked goals on 47 and 70 minutes. It was a performance that brought plaudits from the assembled pressmen.
Argus in the Sunderland Echo the following Monday was gushing in his praise for the style in which we’d gone about demolishing Man United’s defence, and the ease with which we’d kept their forwards quiet.
I have certainly seen nothing better this season than Sunderland’s second goal. Three kicks from the half way lose and is was in the back of the net - Housam to Burbanks in the inside position; the ball trapped and pushed into open space; a quick dark from Whitelum who sped on to deliver a beautifully placed shot. Goals made to look easy, but so perfectly planned s to leave the Manchester defence looking on and hoping for the best.
For in tough times, as the dark nights close in and the weather turns, there’s little better solace than watching attacking football played in the right way. Sunderland pulled in a crowd of over 57,000 when we welcomed Stanley Matthews to Roker Park a week later, and his Stoke City side left with a 0-1 win.
It wasn’t a glorious season for the Lads and it was played over the hardest and harshest of winters while a bombed out continent struggled with the consequences of war, but our beautiful game helped the good people of our region through then, as it will in the months ahead of us right now.