Bill Murray’s expensively assembled Sunderland team was flying high for a large proportion of the 1954-55 campaign, with a win on this day pushing the side to second in the table. The title charge eventually fell short – too many draws at Roker Park proving to be a major problem – and even in this victory against Manchester City there were clues as to how it would eventually go wrong.
The boom times regularly brought big crowds through the gates, although on this occasion, there was a sharp drop in attendance compared to the last home fixture against Burnley. There were 9000 fewer supporters in the ground than there had been to see the Clarets two weeks earlier, although the venerable Argus in the Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette was of course able to provide a simple enough explanation.
He felt that a change to the kick-off time, meaning the match started 15 minutes earlier, was the cause for the huge gaps he had noted in the ‘popular ends’, but whatever the reason those that did make it were soon rewarded for their loyalty.
The game against Burnley had started at 14:30, but by 14:31 on this afternoon Sunderland were already 2-0 up having won the toss and elected to take advantage of the wind at their backs.
The overcast conditions meant that an orange ball was in play, but the pitch itself was said to be in good condition and so both sides were able to pass it around crisply. The Lads had a killer touch to go with their attractive play though, and Len Shackleton’s double put them in command.
The first came when he loudly called for the ball to George Aitken and the Scot obliged, Shack showing exactly why he had been so bullish by immediately beating three men and firing home from 12 yards out.
It was then Ken Chisholm that fed him for the second, pushing the ball into Shackleton’s path having seen his own route blocked and then watching on as a right foot effort deflected off Jimmy Meadows to leave Bert Trautmann helpless.
Moments before that at the opposite end of the pitch, Trautmann’s goalkeeping counterpart Willie Fraser had stopped a dangerous Billy McAdams header to maintain his side’s lead and ensure that they were then able to make it 2-0. His teammates then extended the advantage even further shortly after the break, but the second half was not nearly as comfortable as the first had been.
This time it was Chisholm getting on the scoresheet, who had been found in the centre by Billy Bingham. Shackleton, making his 250th league appearance for Sunderland, had just gone close to a hattrick seconds earlier when a touch of brilliance sent the entire City defence the wrong way, but the maestro’s desire to entertain was not always appropriate, and instead of now just seeing things out, his decision to start showboating helped pile on the pressure.
With City no longer playing into the wind and their chief tormentor trying to ball juggle in bad areas only to lose possession on several occasions, the visitors came close to pulling off an impressive comeback.
Johnny Hart scored twice for them, making it a tense final few minutes for the Lads and exposing the soft underbelly that would sometimes be seen when things were not going their way – his initial response coming after a lofted ball from Ken Branagan on the halfway line was allowed to sail into the box before he pounced for another goal when Billy McAdams challenged the back line for a cross and it broke loose.
Sunderland did hold on this time but they were not always as resolute – the game proving to be the perfect microcosm of a season in which they were at times irresistible but not quite hardnosed enough at others. The next three league games on Wearside were all drawn for example, and later on in the campaign they lost to City in the FA Cup semi-finals after a strong run that had perhaps caused an element of distraction.
In an era before rotation, the additional games did little for the energy levels. One man that may have helped was John McSeveney, who was in the side on this day in place of the injured Billy Elliott and drew praise for his performance. It turned out, however to be his outing for the club before leaving over the summer, but at least he signed off with a win at a point where the Lads were really in the hunt.
Saturday 4 December 1954
Football League Division One
Sunderland 3 (Shackleton 11, 16, Chisholm 50).
Manchester City 2 (Hart 55, 84)
Sunderland: Fraser; Hedley, McDonald; Anderson, Daniel, Aitken; Shackleton, Chisholm; Bingham, Purdon, McSeveney.
Roker Park, attendance 33,733