Sunderland’s first game back in the top flight after winning promotion in 1964 was against Leicester City – however we took on our Midlands opponents without two hugely influential components of that successful side.
Manager Alan Brown had left for Sheffield Wednesday in acrimonious circumstances, while regular keeper Jimmy Montgomery was to miss the start of the campaign through a hairline fracture of his left hand.
Brown had been replaced by a ‘selection committee’ of club officials. Optimism had been replaced by concern.
And, perhaps most surprisingly of all, Monty was replaced by 15-and-a-half-year-old Derek Forster.
Forster, who hailed from Walker, had only signed amateur forms with the club in May, and became an apprentice professional only a few weeks earlier.
The 5ft 9in keeper was an England schoolboys international – he’d actually played against Germany in front of 100,000 at Wembley – but was still as surprised as anyone when told it would be he, and not 20-year-old reserve keeper Derek Kirby, that would face the Foxes in the season’s opener.
He’d been called into the office of club secretary George Crow to be told he’d be starting on the Thursday morning, and was evidently taken aback by the decision.
This is the greatest moment of my life. I had no idea that I would get my chance so soon, even after Monty’s unfortunate injury.
I only hope I will justify the confidence shown in me and don’t let anyone down.
I expect I shall be a little bit nervous, but it will be wonderful – and inspiring – playing behind Charlie Hurley and company.
At 15 years and 185 days, Forster became the top flight’s youngest player, beating Cecil Irwin’s record as Sunderland’s youngest-ever player by 12 months.
At the other end of the field on Forster’s debut was 26-year-old England’s regular keeper Gordon Banks – you couldn’t have had a starker contrast of experience.
Still, it was Banks who was the busier of the two keepers – with Forster turning in what the papers described as a ‘truly remarkable performance’ in an entertaining 3-3 draw.
The Journal’s Alf Greenley reported:
The crowd were with him to a man, even, I suspect, the not inconsiderable contingent of Leicester followers who had made the trip, and the reception accorded to him when he turned out was only exceeded by that at the end.
It was a truly remarkable performance for one so young.
He handled the ball in the swirling wind with the confidence of a veteran, positioned well and stood up to the onslaught of the Leicester forwards like one far in advance of his years.
With Johnny Crossan in fine form, and Nick Sharkey and George Herd featuring well, Sunderland marked their return to the top flight with a good performance; George Mulhall opening the scoring after only three minutes with a shot into the top left hand corner.
On the quarter hour, after Forster had made a couple of saves from Riley at close range, but from the resultant corner Leicester equalised, while a couple of minutes later Stringfellow put the Foxes in front.
Herd equalised just after half-time after Crossan hit the woodwork, and Mulhall put Sunderland in the lead ten minutes from time, with a great cross shot that beat Banks all ends up.
It looked like it would be a dream debut for the young Sunderland keeper – and a dream return to the First Division for the team – but Keyworth managed to get his toe to a ball across a Sunderland defence marshalled by the ‘strangely hesitant’ Charlie Hurley, and the game ended all square.
Forster was awarded an ‘8’ in the post-match reports; however, after conceding four in the next game at West Brom, and another three away to Chelsea, reinforcements were sought – with Scottish keeper Sandy McLaughlan arriving from Kilmarnock.
Forster stayed with the club for eight years, making 19 appearances all up – Monty was racking up the appearances during those years, anyway – before brief spells at Charlton and Brighton.
However, he’d always have those unbelievable memories of being thrown in the top flight deep-end – and giving a pretty good account of himself, all things told.