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On This Day (14 April 1994): Sunderland loses all-time great Bobby Gurney

Roker Report pays tribute once again to the legendary striker of the 1920s and 1930s, who passed away 28 years ago today. His goalscoring record will likely never be surpassed.

Photo by Barratts/PA Images via Getty Images

Clubs all have their great figures from the past, Sunderland perhaps more than most, but Bobby Gurney stands above them all in the scoring charts for our club.

No man or woman has surpassed his achievements, and it's very unlikely anyone ever will. His name should be revered by all who love Sunderland AFC as, when it comes to hometown heroes, there have been very few to rival him.

In a 1992 interview with historian Rob Mason, he described how he exploded onto the Roker Park scene as a youngster in the reserves before making his mark on the first team:

My first competitive game at Roker Park was against Hartlepools United reserves. We won 14-0 and I scored nine goals. It used to cost about sixpence to watch the reserves and you got a lot of people coming to watch the reserves because we had a good reserve side. If I remember rightly between 1925 to1928 we won the North East League three years in succession. I remember a midweek reserve game at Roker Park where we won 9-1 and our outside left Billy Death scored seven. I can remember him cutting in from the wing at the Roker End, running along the by line and hitting a ferocious shot which the goalkeeper jumped out of the road of as it might have hurt him. He really had a ferocious shot!

In those days you always played a practise game between the reserves and the first team at Roker Park a week or two before the start of the season. I always remember playing for the reserves and leading the first team 4-1! We got stuck into them but eventually they beat us 5-4.

Sunderland FC
Gurney (front & centre) in his first season as a professional in 1926
Photo by Kirby/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

Davie Halliday was signed about a fortnight before me. I got into the first team as inside left towards the back end of the ‘25-26 season. My first game was against West Ham in London. We lost 3-2 but I played alongside Davie Halliday and scored my first league goal.

My home debut was against Arsenal. It was the first time Charlie Buchan had been back to Sunderland since his transfer. I believe Charlie Parker was our centre half that day. That was the first time Charlie Buchan was booed at Roker Park because he fouled Charlie.

I scored the two goals and we won 2-1. Davie Halliday and the Arsenal goalkeeper were ordered off and it was very rare to get sent off back then.

Born in Stewart Street in Silksworth on 13th October 1907, he played for his hometown club for his entire professional career and netted 228 times in 390 games in all competitions, but never quite got the national recognition he so richly deserved.

He made one solitary appearance for England against Scotland on 6th Arpil 1935, the announcement of which made the front page of the Sunderland Echo. England’s teams at that point were selected by an FA Committee rather than an individual manager, meaning that familiarity and loyalty to the game’s establishment were very much the order of the day.

Sunderland Echo & Shipping Gazzette, 1/4/35

Legendary Echo columnist “Argus”, commenting on his inclusion, was quick to point out that it would have been better if his clubmate Raich Carter ahead of “individualist” Cliff Bastin of our 1930s rivals Arsenal:

The selection of Bobby Gurney to lead the England attack against Scotland on Saturday will be hailed with joy on Wearside. No honour has been more deserved because of an honourable association with the game lasting nearly ten years with the Sunderland club.

Many will regret that Carter is not to partnership in the English team and is merely selected as a reserve. It seems to me that the English selectors had to have Bastin in no matter where he went.

The Duke of York was on hand to start the match in front of a record crowd of 129,693 people at Hampden Park in Glasgow, in the home nations International Championship, and there were reports that the “ambulance men were hard worked” due to the enclosures being so packed. It was also the first time in history that a member of the Windsor dynasty had ventured north of the border to watch a game football.

Scotland won the game comfortably 2-0, with a goal in each half. Gurney had a couple of chances but was let down by poor passes from his new teammates, he set up one opportunity for Bolton’s Raymond Westwood, heading down into his path, but that shot was saved.

The Mirror, 7/4/35

The Sports Argus of the day and the headlines in the Sunday papers give us a clue to perhaps why Gurney wasn’t selected again:

England lacked unity. Gurney, was well held by Simpson, failing to get the front line moving with precision... Gurney roved about more [in the second half], striving to throw off Simpson, but England could not strike a cohesive game, and were just ordinary as individuals. It all boiled down to a question of ball control.

With the difficulty clearly being one of cohesion and understanding amongst the England forwards, one wonders if there may have been a very different outcome to this game and Gurney’s international career had he been joined in the attack by Carter.

It was the 59th international meeting between the auld enemies, with this victory being the Scots’ 26th, eight more than England had managed by that point. The victory also meant that Scotland shared that season’s international trophy with their visitors.

Bobby Gurney (far left) during his single appearance for England on 6 April 1935 - Dundee Courier, 8/4/35

However, despite disappointment on the international stage, Gurney went on to win the Football League title with Sunderland the following year and list the FA Cup the year after that. He played on through the Second World War, picking up a runners-up medal in the 1941 War Cup with the Lads too, eventually hanging up his boots in 1944.

Back in 2020, Paddy Hollis spoke to Silksworth resident and Sunderland supporter Gavin Wills, who raised the money to put the wonderful Frank Style’s mural on the wall of the Golden Fleece pub on Silksworth. For him, it was all about preserving the memory of a local hero, one that had been floating around for a while:

The idea for the mural is a new one, but the idea for something to commemorate Bobby isn’t. It was hatched by a friend and me around 20 years ago. There was an exhibition in Silksworth about famous people from the area and there were some things there for Bobby.

His championship winning medals were there and his FA Cup winning medal was on display too. It got us thinking that ‘yeah we knew the guy, but we bet that there are a lot of Sunderland fans that haven’t.’

So we talked about lobbying the club, to talk about getting some sort of memorial to him. We did that, but all we got back was that the club had named a bar after him. It’s all well and good but it could be better. We decided what we wanted to do, but of course life happens and other things come up.

It was during the lockdown period where I was working from home and someone had said about the display at Donkins, so that’s when I got in touch with Frank Styles. We managed to get in touch and that’s where the idea for the mural came from.

It’s richly deserved recognition from a local lad made very good indeed. Gurney was truly one of our own. Willis has a website called BobbyGurney.com, where he pays tribute to the great man, and it’s well worth a visit. There he explains why he’s such a special figure for him:

My late father, also a Silksworth man, used to tell me the stories of Gurney’s goal scoring feats. “He scored some impossible goals!” he would say, and he told me how, as an 8-year old that he would stare in awe at Bobby as he rode on the same tram as my Dad, alongside all the other Sunderland fans, on their way to Roker Park to go to the match. Everyone I’ve spoken to over the course of this project who had ever met Bobby all say the same thing, “He was a very modest and down-to-earth man.”

Bobby is the very symbol of what can be achieved by hard work and determination. From his humble beginnings in a pit village in County Durham to legendary status and local superstar. Had it not been for the outbreak of World War II, his status and goals tally, would of no doubt been considerably higher.

Some might say that, unfortunately for Bobby, he played football in the same era as some of the greatest goalscorers of all-time. With the likes of Dixie Dean, Cliff Bastin and Tommy Lawton to name but three, all around during Bobby’s time. This is undoubtedly why he isn’t as ‘well known.’ If he’d played in the modern-day era, and scored the goals he did for Sunderland, then it’s extremely likely the entire stadium would be named after him by now.

All this aside, Bobby is special to me. He should be special to every Sunderland supporter and every Sunderland supporter who doesn’t know about him needs to know about him and his achievements. He is a man that deserves to be honoured and commemorated in a special way.

We concur entirely.

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