If Sunderland finally achieve promotion via the play-offs at the end of the season, there is no doubt that the current group of players will be fondly remembered as the squad that finally ended our Championship exile.
Looking back to the early 60’s, the members of the 1963/64 team that won promotion from Division Two, and are still shown appreciation to this day, are proof of that.
Anybody who remembers Sunderland’s team from that particular season will confirm that George Mulhall played a major role in that success.
George was born in May 1936, less than a month after Sunderland had been crowned top-flight league champions for a sixth time.
At that point in time, the idea of the club dropping out of Division One was unfathomable, but by the time he joined in 1962, they had endured four seasons of second-tier football, in the aftermath of their first ever relegation in 1958, and were desperate to get back to what they felt was their rightful place.
Joining from Aberdeen, for whom he had signed on his seventeenth birthday, having impressed at Kilsyth Rangers, Mulhall was already an established performer when he arrived on Wearside.
As a Scotland international, manager Alan Brown was allowed to spend £25,000 to bring him to Roker, and he soon established himself as a dependable first team regular. After making his debut, he didn’t miss another league match until April 1965, and would make a minimum of thirty appearances each season thereafter, until his departure in 1969.
A pacy and aggressive player, Mulhall was both a creator of goals and a regular scorer himself.
His first strike came during a 4-2 win at Southampton, in only his third appearance, and he followed that up with his goal at Roker Park in the following match, a 7-1 League Cup demolition of Oldham Athletic. The arrival of Johnny Crossan just a few weeks later would have a huge influence on his performances, and the pair soon struck up a formidable left-wing partnership that propelled the team to within a whisker of promotion during their debut season.
In Mulhall and Crossan, Brown had found two major pieces of the jigsaw, and whether they would have helped wrap up promotion in 1962-63 had they arrived a few games earlier remains an unknown, but the fact both players were ever present during the following campaign certainly played a major part in Sunderland’s success.
After enjoying a memorable FA Cup run and being promoted in second place, Mulhall scored the side’s first goal back in Division One and was key in helping the club reacclimatise to the top flight.
Following Crossan’s departure, Mulhall had spells combining with other forwards until the arrival of Neil Martin saw them finish as joint top scorers in the league during 1965-66.
Thanks to an effort in the League Cup during a win over Sheffield United, Mulhall finished as outright top scorer, and in the following season he managed to reach double figures with an impressive ratio of a goal for every 2.75 league games played.
To make things even better, his total of twelve league goals included strikes both home and away as Sunderland achieved a comfortable double over Newcastle United.
The subsequent reigns of George Hardwick and Ian McColl both saw Mulhall remain as first choice for the outside left berth, but after the return of Brown in 1968, there was a shift in emphasis towards youth.
Despite continuing to perform to a high standard, Mulhall was allowed to leave for Cape Town City following the 1968-69 campaign, and whilst a more inexperienced Sunderland were soon being relegated, he went on to win both the league and cup in South Africa.
After hanging up his boots, a varied career as a scout, coach and manager followed, one of the highlights of which was when he helped to oversee Halifax Town’s return to the Football League in 1998.
A year later, Peter Reid took his Sunderland team to The Shay for a testimonial match in Mulhall’s honour, and the former Roker stalwart remained in Yorkshire until he passed away in 2018. The Lads had been in action against Fulham on the same night as his death- a team George had scored against for Sunderland during a 3-0 victory in 1967.
Mulhall had been suffering from Alzheimer’s when he died, something he attributed to heading heavy footballs during his long and successful career. He had been a keen all-round sportsman, winning a British Army basketball championship during his National Service days, as well as taking part in a local ten-pin bowling league whilst at Sunderland, and also being a member of Boldon Golf Club.
He was an undoubted star of the sixties, and one whose contribution is still recognised now.
Falkirk, Scotland 8 May 1936
Rotherham United 4 (Kirkman 43, Bennett 75, 77, Houghton 87)
Sunderland 2 (Fogarty 70, 81)
Football League Division Two, Millmoor 11 September 1962
Final SAFC appearance:
Burnley 1 (Probert 43)
Sunderland 2 (Lowrey 32, Kerr 43)
Football League Division One, Turf Moor 23 April 1969
Total appearances/goals for SAFC:
284 (+ 5 as sub)/67