The Sunderland board were taking a bit of a hammering in the local press on this day in 1964.
After a dispute with the board had seen Alan Brown resign as manager three weeks before the start of the season, coach Arthur Wright was placed in temporary control of team affairs, with assistant coach Jack Jones as his assistant. Neither could have imagined that they would still be in situ’ approaching the nineteenth league game of a season that was not going well and the team precariously placed third bottom of the division.
(Arthur Wright was a former Sunderland player, who had graced the turf between 1937 – 1955. Jack Jones was a long-time assistant coach with a career spanning 1947-1969 at Sunderland).
Following yet another away defeat (there were sixteen that season), an abject 3-0 defeat at Spurs, the local press were going to town on the Sunderland board, whom they held responsible for the parlous situation.
Writing in the Sunday Sun, Charles Close described the situation with the board as “a kremlin-like silence, understandable perhaps given the confusion of recent weeks.”
Alan Sleeman was less diplomatic writing in the same publication he proclaimed, “What in the blazes do Collings and co think they are playing at?”
He went on, “Let them kick me out again - who cares? I shall not be the only absent friend if Roker’s wretchedly unhappy rulers continue on their own sweet way.”
He concluded “Sunderland are doomed – even perhaps to the third division within three years if the Sunderland board are not jerked out of their stagnating confusion and bewilderment.”
It was strong stuff, both barrels aimed fair and square at the board. Expectations and anticipation had been so high after the glorious promotion of the previous season, the club seemed vibrant, with a manager who appeared to have the skills and strategy to build not just a team to be proud of, but a club. He also had an eye to the future as he nurtured and brought through an array of exciting young talent.
The directors with Collings at their head had shot themselves in the foot in the pre-season dispute with Brown and followed it up by gerrymandering and flip flopping over a replacement. Fans were already beginning to vote with their feet as attendances dropped and anticipation turned to anger and frustration.
It is difficult to say whether Alan Sleeman did “jerk” the board, but six days later following the victory over Burnley at Roker George Hardwick was appointed as manager for the rest of the season. By all accounts, this appointment was a complete surprise to all bar the “very inner sanctum” at Roker Park.
I can remember a few years later, my dad (a Newcastle fan) gently teasing me that “Sunderland were once so desperate for a manager they appointed a fella who worked at ICI and had only gone to the ground to report on the game that day.” I thought he was joking but this was indeed George Hardwick, a supervisor at ICI, who had gone to Roker Park to report on the Sunderland v Burnley game and left with the manager's job till the end of the season!
It was a brave appointment to say the least. Hardwick had a distinguished career as a defender at Middlesborough and post-war England captain. His management career was less distinguished. He had been player/manager at Oldham for five years and then had a six-month spell as manager of the Dutch national side in 1957, followed by a season (1957/58) as the PSV Eindhoven manager.
Brave or not, it was successful to a degree as he led Sunderland to fifteenth and safety by the end of the season.
Despite describing the Sunderland board as “kremlin-like” in their silence on this day in 1964, Charles Close also went on to give a breath-taking insight into the thoughts of the chairman Syd Collings who had shared his views on the way forward for the club with him at the helm.
The chairman revealed that he believed “the lack of experienced and stylish reserves had been a notable weakness in recent seasons.” He wanted “reserves of the highest quality and the rest of the playing strength would comprise of juniors of exceptional promise like Malcolm Keenan who is regarded as a left half of exceptional promise.” He went on to say, “These youngsters will be nursed and encouraged to make the grade, should they fail then Sunderland’s directors must be ruthless.”
Collings also laid his cards somewhat on the table for all to see by declaring “The way to run a club successfully is by having a bigger than usual nucleus of class players on top wages, each breathing down each other’s neck for a first team place.”
To add fuel to the fire of the chairman’s words it was hotly rumoured that Alan Gilzean of Dundee and Scotland and one of the most talked about centre forwards in the country was about to sign for Sunderland. Correspondingly youngsters Colin Nelson, Martin Harvey, Nick Sharkey, and John O’Hare were rumoured to be on the way out of the club, presumably judged as not good enough by the board!
History as they say can be a cruel judge and Collings words will stand as part of the record of his time as chairman.
History can also be a potent learning tool as we consider our current situation and direction at Sunderland Football Club.