1954/1955 was a season of near misses on Wearside.
Despite the club spending big money and their manager Bill Murray having been a player the last time we were regularly in the hunt for major honours, we suffered a narrow FA Cup semi-final defeat to Manchester City and even though we topped the league table at several points during the campaign, the title also proved out of reach – leaving a nagging sense of ‘what might’ve been’ whenever this period is remembered.
However, although ultimate glory evaded us, it shouldn’t be forgotten that the Lads were still one of the strongest sides of the era and boasted several extremely talented players.
Entertaining football attracted big crowds and brought several highlights, with a league double against Newcastle United being an undoubted standout.
The story had started with a 4-2 scoreline at Roker Park in October and it was completed on this day with the return match on Tyneside.
The first victory had been relatively straightforward, with Ted Purdon, a brace from Billy Bingham and then a strike from Ken Chisholm killing the game off with time to spare.
Whilst a comfortable win will always go down well, there’s nothing quite like a last-minute goal in a derby to get the blood pumping and so, sixty eight years on, the dramatic ending is still up there on the list of the greatest Tyne-Wear derby moments for those of a red and white persuasion.
We’d gone into the fixture in good spirits having continued our cup run with a 1-0 fifth round replay success against Swansea Town.
Charlie Fleming, a recent arrival from East Fife, had been the match winner and would prove to be the difference again at St. James’ Park, although for long periods it was the hosts who seemed to be getting the upper hand.
George Aitken’s efforts in defence helped to keep the scores level however, and after spending most of the opening exchanges being penned back, we sprung a surprise raid on the Newcastle goal just before the break.
The move lead to Billy Elliott playing the ball into the box, where Sam Kemp cleverly knocked it back into the path of Fleming for the forward to calmly chest it down and fire a shot past Ronnie Simpson.
The opener came as a huge shock to the home crowd but they were celebrating a leveller less than a minute into the second half when Jackie Milburn struck a low shot into the net.
One of the all-time greats at Newcastle, Milburn had represented Sunderland during the Second World War but was not the only member of the side with Roker connections. Teammate Ivor Broadis was a former player whilst Bob Stokoe, who was the son of a Sunderland fan, would go on to manage the club.
Milburn had followed the Lads as a youngster and retained an affection thereafter, but was no doubt unhappy at how things panned out following his equaliser.
Rather than letting their heads drop at finally being breached and throwing away their lead, Murray’s charges were much bolder from this point.
Elliott, a fantastic servant who would later work alongside Stokoe on Wearside and then oversaw another famous February derby victory at Newcastle whilst caretaker boss in 1979, was having a fine game and forced a superb stop from Simpson - with more chances coming.
At the other end, Willie Fraser had to be alert to stop a Vic Keeble header but after a spell of end-to-end action, it seemed as though the sides were both happy with a draw, until Fleming popped up again.
The one-time Scottish international glanced home Jack Hedley’s free kick after Purdon had been fouled, nudging Sunderland back in front and handing us the bragging rights at the death.
Even more significant was that the victory kept the Rokermen second in the table, and we stayed there until a cup quarter-final victory against Wolverhampton Wanderers the following month, at which point, having to battle it out on two fronts started to catch up with us.
These were the days before deep squads and rotation, and without the luxury of being able to rest weary legs, the team slipped to four costly consecutive defeats - including one at the neutral Villa Park against City.
They were bitter blows indeed, and although Sunderland had to make do with finishing fourth, on a personal level Fleming was up and running in the wake of his Newcastle double.
He enjoyed a strong end to the season and finished top scorer for the next two years running, and his first two league strikes for the club, the anniversary of which we celebrate now, are still savoured by fans on one half of the rivalry.
Saturday 26 February 1955
Football League Division One
St. James’ Park,
Newcastle United 1 (Milburn 46’)
Sunderland 2 (Fleming 43’, 89’)
Sunderland: Fraser, Hedley, McDonald; Anderson, Daniel, Aitken; Kemp, Fleming, Purdon; Chisholm, Elliott.