It had been a long time coming. Widely regarded as one of the leading clubs in football, Sunderland had enjoyed many successes but the prize they really wanted was the iconic FA Cup. After a few near misses – they were finalists in 1913 and had reached the semi-finals on a further four occasions, they finally made the breakthrough in 1937 and after a grueling run to Wembley that included three replays, they proved to be worthy winners of one of the most prestigious competitions in the world.
As they would have expected given their previous travails, the final was no cakewalk. Johnny Cochrane’s men were capable of devastating football on their day and had been league champions a year before, but they were clearly suffering from stage fright in the first half and struggled against a Preston side that had already beaten them in the league four months earlier.
Prior to kick off, the teams had been presented to King George VI and the big occasion was knocking the Lads off their stride. They were unable to get into any sort of rhythm in the opening exchanges, with the original ‘Argus’, Captain Jack Anderson, stating in his Football Echo match report that it was “as plain as a pikestaff…that the players were suffering from the nervous strain, and passes were going astray more through that than any lack of judgement.”
Preston’s somewhat direct tactics did little to help the pattern of play and Sunderland had to fight hard to establish themselves in the match. They were up for the scrap but snatched at any opportunities that came to them, unlike Frank O’Donnell who when fed by his brother Hugh struck a fierce shot past Johnny Mapson to put the Lilywhites ahead on 38 minutes.
Cochrane had won the Scottish Cup with St. Mirren a decade earlier and that experience proved vital with his halftime team talk seeming to do the trick. Sunderland began looking much more like their old selves in the second half and they were soon level when Raich Carter connected with an Eddie Burbanks corner – the ball went towards goal but it needed a decisive touch by Bobby Gurney to send it past Mick Burns in the Preston goal.
After that, the Lads were in the ascendency. Several players went close and there were two strong penalty shouts, one after what looked like a hand ball and the other coming following a strong challenge on Patsy Gallacher. Preston had their moments too, but the class of Sunderland’s forwards began to tell. Carter put his side ahead with a low shot after Gurney had crossed from out wide, and five minutes later came the crucial third as Gallacher put the ball through for Burbanks to run onto and finish.
The goals were welcomed by jubilant scenes in the stands. There had been a bus strike in the capital on the day of the final, but the Sunderland fans that had made it from Wearside to Wembley had waited long enough to see the cup being lifted and were not to be denied. Backed magnificently by a vociferous support throughout, the players had overcome a sticky start and saw the game out to succeed in their long-held aim.
This was the first time the FA Cup final had been held in May, and it was also the first instance of the trophy being given out by the Queen. Captain Carter had got married earlier in the week and Her Majesty famously quipped that it made for a wonderful wedding present when handing it over, but this was now to be enjoyed by every member of the side.
Burbanks had a massive influence over the result and of course both Gurney and Carter are two of the club’s all-time greats, but as Argus’ report confirmed “every man in the team played his part”. All 11 remain Sunderland legends to this day; over 50 years since their first tie in the competition in 1884, they had finally done it.
Saturday 1 May 1937, Wembley Stadium
FA Cup final
Sunderland 3 (Gurney 52, Carter 73, Burbanks 78)
Preston North End 1 (F McDonnell 38)
Sunderland: Mapson; Gorman, Hall; Thomson, Johnston, McNab; Duns, Carter, Gurney, Gallacher, Burbanks.