There was a point, in the mid-1930s, when it was Sunderland AFC that shaped the way football was played, influencing the future of tactics and patterns of play in a way that in the modern era the likes of Dortmund, Barcelona, Liverpool, and Manchester City have.
And when the Lads rolled into London to play the league’s new boys, Brentford, the national press were out in force to catch a glimpse of the country’s finest side in action.
Sunderland had finished four points behind Arsenal in 1934-35, but this season they’d hit the top of the table with a 4-2 home win over Preston North End and would stay there for the rest of the season. And the goals had flowed like water, 44 scored in 15 games in all competitions to this point.
However, it wasn’t a foregone conclusion that we’d emerge with the points. Then as now, the Bees were capable of humbling the top flight’s elite, having dispatched reigning league champions the week before this meeting with Johnny Cochrane’s side.
And the conditions were hardly conducive to the kind of free-flowing football for which we were famed, and a modest 24,000 were in attendance as a result. November rain had turned the Griffin Park pitch into a mudbath. But, according to the report in the following Monday’s Yorkshire Post, it made little difference:
...it is a long time since football of the class that Sunderland played has been seen in a First Division match. The ball had become almost a dead weight but Sunderland trapped it and passed with amazing certainty, while the Brentford players merely floundered about. The fine understanding on the left flank between Hastings, Gallacher and Connor was the outstanding feature of a fine match.
Sunderland’s lineup contained some legendary names - Patsy Gallacher, Raich Carter, and Bobby Gurney - but the star of the show that day was Len Duns, according to the Sunderland Echo.
The Lads got off to a flying start, Gurney putting them one nil ahead within the first few minutes, poking out a boot to convert Connor’s back-header from a Duns cross. Duns himself grabbed a second on the quarter-hour mark, Connor providing once more before his opposite number curled the ball home. The home side pulled one back through Dai Hopkins on 25 minutes, and the margin between the two remained the same for the remainder of the first half.
In the second, however, we accelerated, with Gurney getting his brace - Gallacher providing a through ball for the Silksworth lad to run onto - and then both Carter and Gallacher getting on the scoresheet before the final whistle. Connor got a hattrick of assists, and Sunderland were, according to one report in the West Midlands Gazette:
...twice as quick on the ball as any Brentford man, their halves and forwards combined and outpaced the home defenders in a manner one imagined was only possible on a hard dry ground.
The game finished 5-1. It was, the headline claimed, a “Lesson for Brentford”. They wouldn’t be the only opposition to receive a footballing lesson from us that season, Blackburn, Bolton, and Birmingham were all on the receiving end of 7-2 scorelines as Sunderland romped home to a sixth league title, the most of any club to that point in history.
Then only Arsenal could really rival us in the trophy cabinet, but there was a new name on the famous old piece of silverware a season later - Manchester City. The way that Pep’s team plays today can, with some justification, be traced back to the way that Herbert Chapman’s Gunners and Johnny Cochrane’s Black Cats changed football in the interwar period.
It’s a tradition of playing fluid football on the floor, the beautiful game, the passing game - or the Whirl - that we inherited from our Scottish founders, that we’re only now seeming to rediscover as part of our true identity.
Eleven technically capable, tactically astute, physically drilled footballers who are able to mesmerise their opponents with their interplay and speed. As the great Bill Shankly said:
In many ways, the Sunderland team of this era played the same brand of Total Football as the great Holland team of the 1970s.
It is that lineage that the likes of Dan Neil, Jack Clarke, and Amad Diallo now find themselves. This is a great, historic club, that is heading back to where we belong playing the game as it should be played.