Out of the FA Cup and bobbing around mid-table in Division 1, Sunderland came into the final stages of the 1951 season with little if nothing to play for. Although they’d claimed the local bragging rights with a 2-1 win over Newcastle, we were beaten 2-0 by Arsenal at home on the last day of March in a game described as an “exhibition” for the Gunners by The Echo.
And so it was probably a welcome distraction for the Roker Park side when they hopped on a plane from Ouston Aerodrome for an exhibition match in the Netherlands against a representative Dutch “A” XI, that was in reality the full Dutch national side.
Sunderland have always had fans around the world, and ahead of the friendly match-up, and our manager Bill Murray had received a letter from an exiled supporter out in the Netherlands that Middlesbrough were bitterly disappointing in a 4-1 defeat to the Dutch:
The Dutch come out fighting. If they can hold them for the first quarter of an hour then they should be able to win.
The Netherlands were still largely an amateur set-up, with professionalism not coming to the country until 1954, but they lived up to the exile’s scouting report and took the lead through Groeneveld on 35 minutes.
However, Sunderland’s Welsh superstar forward Trevor Ford showed his quality six minutes later, scoring with a great strike, and not long after the break, Len Shackleton gave the Lads the lead with a penalty he won himself.
Shackleton, ever the showman, reveled in the “carefree” nature of the friendly game, demonstrating his not inconsiderable skill to the home support. When he took the penalty, he fooled the Dutch number one Piet Kraak by slicing the ball with the outside of his right foot, sending the keeper the wrong way as the ball slowly went into the opposite corner.
This was only a few short years after the end of the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, and the game was played in front of 50,000 people at Feyenoord’s ground, where Richard “Dombi” Kohn was then in his second spell as trainer.
As we discovered in an On This Day from last May, Dombi - who is revered as the man who made Bayern Munich great - was part of the first-ever Austrian side to beat an English team when his Vienna AC played a touring Sunderland team in 1909. He then disappeared during the war, escaping the Holocaust and reappearing in Rotterdam to take charge of the side he was instrumental in training either side of the Second World War.
Building cordial relations between Britain and our traditional allies was important at this time when European reconstruction was deemed vital to securing the peace of our continent, and regular delegations from Britain were also engaged at this period in visiting war graves in their country.
Indeed, their most famous forward to have faced Sunderland that day, Abe Lenstra (after whom Heerenveen’s stadium is now named) made goodwill visit later in the decade to British troops.
Sunderland returned to the Netherlands the following May, beating a “B” side 7-3 and then the “A” side 1-0, and these visits from the English elite teams have contributed significantly to the development of Dutch football, breading a vibrant football culture that went on to reshape the game as we know it today.