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Portrait of John Hughes, Crystal Palace F.C.

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On This Day (27 Jan 1973): Legendary Celtic striker makes Sunderland debut vs Millwall!

Bob Stokoe had been after a striker since he took on the manager’s role – and had landed John Hughes, brother of Billy, to lead the attack.

Think ‘Hughes’ and ‘1973’, and it’s Billy that springs immediately to mind.

Having come through the ranks at Roker Park, the Scotsman made his debut as an 18-year-old against Liverpool in 1968, and by the time 1973 and Bob Stokoe ticked around he was firmly established as a mainstay in the Sunderland side.

Since Stokoe’s first game in charge almost two months earlier, Sunderland had enjoyed a bit of a revival. After suffering a defeat in his opener against Burnley, the new manager had overseen two wins – including a 4-0 win over Brighton, in which Hughes scored twice – and two draws in a league fixture list that was decimated by a flu epidemic that had smashed the Sunderland squad. A replay win over Notts County, meanwhile, had set up an FA Cup Fourth Round tie at home to Charlie Hurley’s Reading.

It had quickly been identified that the team needed a new striker – and while the likes of John O’Hare and Wyn Davies had been linked, it was a 29-year-old former European Cup winner who arrived through the door to take over the number 9 shirt.

Billy’s older brother, John.

Soccer - European Cup - Semi Final Second Leg - Celtic v Leeds United
Hughes takes on Norman Hunter in the 1970 European Cup Semi Final
Photo by PA Images via Getty Images

29-year-old John ‘Yogi’ Hughes was almost six years his brother’s senior, and had enjoyed a glittering career at Celtic – winning the European Cup in 1967 (although missing the final through injury, he had played enough games to claim a medal) and getting a runners up medal in 1970.

After scoring 197 goals in 435 games – a record which to this day sees him as Celtic’s eighth highest-ever goalscorer – he left Glasgow in October 1971, heading south to join Crystal Palace in a £30,000 deal, which included teammate Willie Wallace.

Eighteen months later, and after scoring just four in 20 games for The Eagles, Hughes traded South London for Sunderland, in a £35,000 deal – a good profit for Palace for a player who’d not quite made the impact he’d have been expected to have.

John Hughes
Hughes had a spell at Palace before joining the lads
Photo by Dove/Daily Express/Getty Images

Maybe it spoke of Stokoe’s desperation to get a striker in – maybe it spoke of Hughes’ track record. Either way, he arrived at Roker Park looking forward to what lay ahead.

I understand this is a young team, which perhaps needs a bit of experience. Well, I hope I can supply that.

I’m looking forward to the responsibility, I felt I needed a fresh challenge.

Stokoe, who’d spent more than two hours in talks with Hughes to persuade him to sign, said:

John will wear number nine, and I’m delighted with the signing. John has the experience we need.

John Hughes did, indeed, wear the number nine shirt 50 years ago today, as Sunderland took on Millwall at Roker.

A crowd of 22,781 – the largest for over a year – flocked to the game; a testament to the momentum that Stokoe was gradually building as much as Hughes signing.

In a tight game, Hughes played a part in Sunderland’s opener just after half time. His neat square ball 20 yards out was missed by Bobby Kerr, but fell to Dennis Tueart, who put a ferocious left footer into the corner of the net.

Tueart had a chance to double the lead, but his header was straight at keeper Bryan King, and Sunderland got lucky shortly after Alan Dorney surged forward and blasted a 22-yard drive past Jimmy Montgomery. To the crowd’s astonishment – and delight – referee Colin Fallon spotted Millwall’s Eamonn Dunphy in an offside position on the edge of the box, and duly disallowed the goal.

Eamon Dunphy
Millwall’s Eamon Dunphy, Roy Keane’s mate
Photo by Norman Quicke/Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Bobby Kerr settled the game nine minutes before the end, slotting home after being played through by Tueart, and that was that – a gritty, 2-0 win to continue Stokoe’s Sunderland revival – although the manager admitted after the game ‘it may not have been particularly nice to watch’.

John Hughes, however, had turned in a rather quiet performance – although ‘incredibly dainty and full of control in possession’.

The Sunday Sun reported:

It was a quiet debut for 14 stone John Hughes up front. Perhaps quieter than quiet.

Judgement is reserved, however, after having it explained that he played for all but five minutes of the match with a twisted knee.

Unfortunately, it was rather more serious than that and, a couple of months later, Hughes was forced to retire through injury, with that game against Millwall being his one and only appearance for Sunderland.

Stokoe said:

John can run well, but he can’t jink and turn the way he used to, His knee puffs up continually to draw fluid away.

It’s a terrific blow to the player, and it will be difficult for him to accept, It’s also sad for the game. He’s one of football’s big characters.


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