1957 saw Sunderland AFC falling to its knees. Reports had begun to emerge in early January that the club had been making illegal payments, and as the story rumbled on beyond the end of the season it resulted in long-serving manager Billy Murray resigning 65 years ago today.
Even now, nobody is sure who originally alerted the Football League to the possibility that something was afoot. What is known is that a letter from somebody signing themselves off simply as ‘Smith’ got the ball rolling, and that once the claims were investigated Sunderland’s operation was quickly blown wide open.
By April a series of hefty fines, bans and suspensions had been dished out, and with the matter bringing great shame to Roker Park Murray for his part fell on his sword.
It was a sad end to his time at a club he had served so well over the course of nearly three decades. Born in Aberdeen, Murray was a fine right-back who played over 300 times for the Lads and was part of the 1935-36 league-winning team before returning as manager in 1939. He remained in the post for 18 years, and whilst the side were never quite able to repeat the feats of his predecessor Johnny Cochrane, there were some exciting times to be had following the ‘Bank of England’ club.
Although they fell just short of glory on several occasions, Murray’s expensively assembled team were unplayable on their day. Funded by a boom in attendances, several star names were brought to Wearside, but the maximum wage meant that the players themselves often missed out on a share of the spoils – officially that this, at least. Reputedly though, what Sunderland did to get round this was to hand out a series of under-the-table sweeteners that would eventually come back to haunt them.
Their scheme was simple enough. The club were said to have made several payments to local suppliers that could be recorded on the books, but as these were deliberately high Sunderland received refunds in the form of credit notes that could be cashed in, thereby leaving them with monies that could be passed on to the squad. It all went unnoticed until ‘Smith’ intervened, yet despite the strong suggestion that several others were at it too, the authorities came down on Sunderland like a ton of bricks.
The whole saga left Roker reeling. Amidst the furore the team finished 1956-57 one place above the drop zone, and whilst some of the sanctions would be reduced on appeal, things would only get worse after Murray’s departure. His replacement Alan Brown was to be a new broom, but the hangover proved hard to shift and a first-ever relegation followed.
The once-proud boast of having never played outside the top flight was gone forever and the dark clouds that the scandal brought about, it has been argued, stifled the club for generations, possibly forever even. Murray had been part of some iconic moments at Sunderland, but sadly he died just four years after leaving.
Aberdeen, 10 March 1901
Aberdeen, 15 December 1961
First game in charge of SAFC:
Preston North End 2 (Mutch 23, Dougal 66)
Sunderland 1 (Robinson 72)
Football League Division One: Deepdale, 25 March 1939
Final game in charge of SAFC:
Portsmouth 3 (Henderson 28, 34 Weddle 60)
Sunderland 2 (O’Neill 11, 46)
Football League Division One: Fratton Park, 1 May 1957
Stats whilst in charge of SAFC:
Won 185, Drawn 140, Lost 185 (510 games in total)