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Ten Sunderland Icons: Part One (The early days)

In the wake of Jermain Defoe’s retirement, Phil West looks back through the history books and chooses 10 SAFC players who certainly fall in the ‘legendary’ category. First up, the early years!

Photo by Dave Howarth/PA Images via Getty Images

‘Sunderland legend’.

A term that always makes for lively debates on Twitter, and in the wake of Jermain Defoe’s retirement, has reared its head once again, as the arguments for and against him being placed into the category have raged.

Trying to establish which players are worthy of such status is not easy. Do you judge it on numbers? Reputation? Skill and ability? Or is a strong and unbreakable bond with the club and its fans enough to ensure that you are never forgotten and always revered?

With that in mind, I’ve chosen five latter-day players, and five players from years gone by, who I would place into the bracket of Sunderland legends.

There were countless players with very, very strong cases who I’ve overlooked, but as someone noted on Twitter last week, it is often a personal choice and not an exact science.

Without further ado, let’s dive in, starting with five club icons from the early years……..


Raich Carter

Soccer - Football League Division One - Sunderland Photo by Barratts/PA Images via Getty Images

The last man, as of 2022, to skipper a top-flight winning Sunderland team (1935/36), Carter also lifted the FA Cup in 1937, scoring in the final, and was a classic example of a local lad who lived the dream. His professional football career took in spells at four clubs, but it was in the red and white stripes that he made his name.

Born in Hendon in 1913, Carter was both a vocal and hard-driving captain, as well as a prolific marksman in the old inside forward position, scoring a total of 128 goals in all competitions during his Sunderland career. At the age of just 22, at the end of the 1935/36 season, he was the youngest man to captain a top-flight winning team at that time.

An all-round sportsman, Carter also showed a talent for cricket, playing one first-class match for Derbyshire and two for Durham.

As well as his exploits at club level, Carter also gained recognition for his country, picking up 13 England caps and receiving high praise from no less an icon than Sir Stanley Matthews, who described his one-time England teammate as a ‘supreme entertainer’ and ‘bewilderingly clever, constructive, and lethal in front of goal’.

Carter’s post-playing career led him into management, with spells at Hull, Cork City, Leeds United, Mansfield and Middlesbrough.


Bobby Gurney

Any future Sunderland striker who wants to set themselves a daunting and ambitious target need only to take a glance at the numbers that the Silksworth-born centre forward put up during his years at Roker. In the early 2oth century, Sunderland had a ‘holy trinity’ of strikers, first in the shape of Charlie Buchan, then Dave Halliday, and finally, Gurney.

Simply put, Gurney was one of the most lethal goalscorers the club has ever had, and his final total of 228 goals in all competitions, a haul that included a staggering ten hat-tricks, is a record that has endured for more than three-quarters of a century.

Along the way, he picked up a league championship medal in 1936, as well as an FA Cup winner’s medal in 1937. He also finished as the club’s top scorer for six consecutive seasons.

Gurney spent his entire professional career at Roker Park, before retiring and venturing into management. Nowadays, a mural on the side of the Golden Fleece pub commemorates the great man and his iconic achievements in the red and white.


Len Shackleton

L Shackleton Photo by Evans/Three Lions/Getty Images

Something of an anomaly on this list, because Shack is the only player included who didn’t win a trophy in his time at the club. Legendary status, however, can be acquired in different ways, and very few players to wear the red and white have ever been anointed with a nickname as grandiose as ‘The Clown Prince of Soccer’, something that speaks volumes.

Bradford-born, Shackleton cut his teeth at Park Avenue in his hometown before switching to Newcastle for a brief flirtation with the enemy.

Shortly thereafter, an internal fallout resulted in him heading to Sunderland, with a suitably cutting ‘adios’ to our black and white cousins, and kicking off an eight-year spell that both entertained and frustrated in equal measure, as well as yielding exactly 100 goals for the club.

Tales of his showboating and of his supernatural skill on the ball are many, and his penchant for defying convention, turning the game into a form of entertainment, and often getting on the nerves of opponents and occasionally teammates (most notably Trevor Ford), all added up to something compelling during the early post-war years.

In his later years, Shackleton embarked upon a career as a journalist, and his book, ‘Return of the Clown Prince’, is a must-read. Irreverent and forthright, it could only have been written by a man whose views on the game were as cutting and as mesmeric as his ability to put backspin on a football.


Charlie Hurley

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Sunderland’s connection with the island of Ireland is well-known, as we have seen many players and managers make the short hop across the Irish Sea to ply their trade on Wearside, often with varying degrees of success,

Hurley, who was voted as Sunderland’s ‘player of the century’, was arguably the most iconic of them all. Joining us in 1957, Hurley became a rock at the heart of Sunderland’s defence for over a decade. In his memoir, Len Shackleton praised Hurley’s versatility, going as far as to suggest that Hurley could’ve forged a successful career as a centre forward.

Nowadays, the gates to the old Charlie Hurley training complex are located outside the Stadium of Light as a lasting monument to the ‘The King’.


Jimmy Montgomery

Soccer - Football League Division One - Sunderland Photo by Peter Robinson/EMPICS via Getty Images

The club’s all-time record appearance maker, with an astonishing 627 appearances over a 17-year spell (a figure that may never be challenged) Monty was the man between the sticks at Wembley in 1973 when Bob Stokoe led his unfancied Second Division team to victory over Don Revie’s Leeds United.

His double save, first from Trevor Cherry’s header and then Peter Lorimer’s powerful goal-bound shot, went down in history, and the sight of Bob Stokoe running onto the field to embrace his goalkeeper made for an image that has stood the test of time. Even now, whenever a stunning double save is pulled off in a game, Sunderland fans will refer to Montgomery’s heroics as the gold standard.

1973 aside, Montgomery led a long and distinguished career at his hometown club after joining in 1960, gaining a place in the Division Two team of the year for 1975/1976, and in latter years, he has been an ever-present at the club in various ambassadorial roles.

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