There used to be an old saying that all you needed to do was whistle down a North East pit shaft and a good team would appear. Sunderland manager Bill Murray whistled up a good’un when he signed Jack Stelling in 1944.
The Colliery plumber had been spotted playing full back for Usworth High Grange and was signed for Sunderland on a contract worth £12.10p a week.
The second world war was in its closing stages and there had been no full league programme for five seasons. In its place Sunderland had competed in the “War League North” and the “War League North Cup”, which involved the three big North-eastern teams and the likes of Bradford Park Avenue, Huddersfield, Grimsby, York and Gateshead. In the last season of this competition (1944/45), Jack Stelling made his debut on November 18th 1944 against York City in a 5-3 victory at Bootham Crescent. It would be the start of a career where he would become a permanent fixture at right back for the best part of seven seasons.
He made a total of 272 appearances for Sunderland in the league and cup and scored a total of eight goals, seven of them penalties in a playing career that spanned the period from 1944 to 1956. Playing for most of his career through the period when Sunderland were known as “The Bank of England Club” and the team packed with international players and superstars, he remarkably continued to work at Usworth Colliery in his role as a plumber and always caught the service bus to Roker park on match days.
Jack was a hard no-nonsense defender, whose tackling was both feared and renowned. He quickly became a terrace favourite, as his positional play and stamina became apparent to the Roker crowd.
He cemented his place at right back in season 1945/46 when an enlarged League North competition saw the likes of Manchester United and City, Everton and Liverpool, Blackburn and Preston join the big guns from War League North. The increase in competition seems to have suited the re-enforced steel toe-cap booted full back as he stamped his authority on his position and opposition wingers. Never referred to as dirty, invariably always described as hard, he seems to have been hewn out of the “Black Granite” he worked in Monday to Friday!
On a November morning in 1947 he married his childhood sweetheart Esther, in the afternoon of the same day, he turned out for Sunderland and played as well as any of his team-mates. It would not surprise me if this wonderfully grounded full-back, caught the bus to Roker Park in his wedding suite!
The post-war period saw massive crowds across the country returning to watch football. Roker Park was considered one of the best venues at the time to play on and to watch , with average gates of 40,000 and many more packing in for the big games. Despite his humble football origins, Jack seems to have taken to playing in front of big crowds like a proverbial duck to water.
It was not all high’s though, Jack played right back in the shock exit from the FA Cup in season 1948/49 at the hands of Yeovil Town. At the time this was one of the biggest ever upsets in cup football. Jack himself, many many years later commented on his feelings right after the result and not wanting to go outside in public. He also said that he was still being ribbed about it at the gardening club he attended, but was able to counter the offending Newcastle fans with references to Hereford.
Jack Stelling was a very reliable penalty taker scoring seven in his career (not always being the first choice taker). In what should have been a championship winning campaign he had a twice taken penalty saved by Bert Trautman of Man City at Roker Park in 1949/50 season. The record books show that had Sunderland won this game, they would have won the much-coveted league title. Stelling had already scored one penalty in a game where nothing went right for Sunderland. They lost 2-1 and finished the season a disappointing third.
Jack Stelling came from humble football origins but was good enough to have played with some of the great Sunderland players of a generation. Len Shackleton, Ivor Broadis, Willie Watson, Dickie Davis, Trevor Ford, Stan Anderson, Billy Bingham, Ted Purdon, Eddie Burbanks, Johnny Mapson, Len Duns, Billy Elliott, Ray “Bebe” Daniel, George Aitken, Charlie “Cannonball” Fleming, Bill Holden and Jack Hedleyto name but a few.
He played many games with Arthur Hudgell, who was a blonde haired, stylish, ball playing defender who had cost Sunderland a then record fee for a full-back of £10,000. There probably could not have been a sharper contrast in style and appearancebetween these two, yet it seemed to work and was most definitely appreciated by the Roker crowd.
Johnny Mapson played many games in goal, alongside Stelling and said of him, “Jack was a hard grafter, a tough boy and a typical pitman with plenty of gut… he was a good lad”.
Jack Stelling retired at the age of thirty-two. He played his last game at Bramall Lane against Sheffield United in a 3-2 victory on 21st of April 1956. He was one-club man and went on to have a career in construction as a ganger. He retired early owing to an accident at work and lived out his life in Sunderland.
The heartfelt popular chant “He’s one of our own” was not around in the post-war era, had it been I have little doubt it would have been resounding around the stadium for Jack Stelling, most definitely one of our own!