Since the resumption of the Football League after the interruption of the Second World War, Sunderland had failed to seriously trouble the top of the table until the 1949-50 season, when three defeats in the last five games meant the lads missed out on winning the title by two points.
Fast forward a few months, and Bill Murray’s side were once again looking down rather than upwards, the hangover of the previous season’s so-near-yet-so-far campaign.
Despite the addition of Everton’s Jack Hedley, Glentoran’s Billy Bingham and the Welsh striker Trevor Ford from Aston Villa to a team that already contained the likes of Ivor Broadis, Len Shackleton, Tommy Wright and Johnny Mapson, Sunderland travelled to Derby County’s Baseball Ground in 19th position, having only registered one win in the past ten games.
That win was a 5-1 home victory over Sheffield Wednesday – Ford, on his home debut, netting a hattrick, breaking his opponent’s jaw and smashing a goal post.
The following game was a 5-1 defeat at Highbury.
On their day, this was a Sunderland team capable of scoring goals. But 37 conceded in 20 fixtures showed the team was struggling to keep the opposition out.
Derby, meanwhile, had been involved in some seriously entertaining games – the Rams had scored 48 goals and conceded 24 in just 20 games, and all things pointed to an intriguing fixture that was the reverse of the season’s opener, which Sunderland had won 1-0 thanks to a Shackleton goal.
Shack, however, was missing through injury – indeed, between the end of September and mid-January he’d make only three appearances – as was Ivor Broadis. The line up showed two changes from the previous outing, a 3-1 defeat at West Brom; Tommy Wright coming in for Bingham while Hedley replaced the injured Stelling.
The match had been in serious doubt all week – snow and frost throwing the fixture into jeopardy – but a 10.30am pitch inspection, after braziers had been used to melt the snow in the goalmouths and sawdust used to mark the lines out, judged the surface playable. Newspaper reports describe a frozen pitch lay underneath the snow – it certainly wouldn’t have been played today – but the sub-16,000 crowd that braved the weather were treated to what the Derby Evening Telegraph described as ‘something more than a thriller’.
This game produced a brand of high-class football such as we rarely see on a normal ground.
After the game, it was considered Sunderland were the best team to have visited Derby that season – and the lads played their part in a stunning game that ended in a remarkable 6-5 scoreline in which the home side were never behind – and equalled the club record for the most goals in a league fixture.
Derby’s Jack Lee opened the scoring on nine minutes, pivoting on his right foot before hooking the ball around a wall of defenders in Mapson’s top corner. McLaren scored from underneath the bar to make it two on 28 minutes, before Dickie Davis pulled one back. Jack Lee scored a replica of his first goal to extend Derby’s lead, with both teams getting the ball forward as quickly as they could to take advantage of the conditions.
Trevor Ford scored before half time to make it 3-2 to the home team, and Davis scored just after the break to make it 3-3.
Sunderland were hampered by an injury to Willie Watson. Watson had made his England debut the year prior, and had been part of England’s 1950 World Cup squad – he would also make his England cricket debut during the following summer. Today, however, he was reduced to the role of bit-part – with no substitutes he battled on manfully but wasn’t able to contribute to his usual extent.
Jack Lee completed his hat-trick for the home team, McLaren again tapped in from close range to make it 5-3. Wright made it 5-4 to give Sunderland a shout, but Lee’s fourth of the game on 78 game Derby some breathing space.
Ford notched his second of the game two minutes from time – picking up a long ball and scoring with only the keeper to beat – but the two points were destined for the Baseball Ground.
Derby’s incredible goalscoring run kept going throughout the season – in 42 games they scored 134 goals – however, they also conceded 108.
The teams finished level on points come the season’s end – in 11th and 12th places – with Derby edging the position on goal average.
And, while it wasn’t a particularly good season for the lads, three consecutive wins followed – impressive given we had four in 21 including the Derby fixture.
There’s always a glimmer of hope, isn’t there?