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Football - Millwall v Sunderland�, SR poster, 1937.

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On This Day (10th April 1937): Sunderland reach first Wembley final!

It might have been our sixth FA Cup semi-final, but we had only made the final once before and this was the first time a reward of a Wembley was on offer on this day back in 1937.

Photo by SSPL/Getty Images

On this day back in 1937, Sunderland and a travelling army in red and white descended on Leeds Road in Huddersfield to battle it out with Millwall in what would be our sixth FA Cup semi-final appearance.

To put this into perspective, we had reached the semi-final stage six times in our first 49 attempts, in the 74 appearances in FA Cup since 1937, we have had the same number occasions where we were within one victory of a final appearance.

This was a period of the club’s history where John Cochrane had turned the club into one that regularly finished mid-table at the beginning of his reign that began in 1928, to one that challenged for silverware. After finishing as runners-up in Division One to Arsenal in 1934-35, Sunderland followed that up with becoming Football League champions the following year and then the Charity Shield in October 1936.

At the end of 1936, it seemed like another title challenge could be on the cards as we sat 2nd behind Arsenal on goal difference as the top four were all locked on 28 points. As 1937 and our FA Cup campaign got underway, our league form took a turn for the worse.

Soccer - Football League Division One - Sunderland
John Cochrane
Photo by S&G/PA Images via Getty Images

In the third round we successfully navigated a potential banana skin by beating Southampton from Division Two away from home, but in the fourth round we required a replay at Roker Park to get past Third Division Luton Town.

Second Division Swansea Town produced a routine 3-0 victory at Roker Park to progress to the quarter-final and to be in the hat for the semi-final, we had to beat Wolverhampton Wanderers in a second replay at Hillsborough - where you can read about just a portion of those epic cup games here.

By the time the semi-final clash had arrived on the 10th April 1937, Sunderland had dropped to 8th in Division One, but were still huge favourites to reach our second FA Cup final in our history against Millwall, who sat 7th in Division Three (South).

The journey to the semi-final for Millwall had captured the imagination of the country and there was huge national interest to see if Sunderland would join Fulham, Chelsea, Derbey County and Manchester City as victims of the London club’s exploits in the competition, as described in the Hull Daily Mail in the build-up:

Easily the more intriguing tie is that in the provinces, where Sunderland, “crack” First Division team, and Millwall, representatives of the Third Division and the “Cinderella” side of this year’s competition, will fight for soccer’s highest honour.

Neither club has yet annexed the elusive trophy, and this affair between North and South has aroused such interest that the Leeds Road enclosure is sure to be packed to capacity. The tie is one which cannot fail to capture the imagination.

Football - Millwall v Sunderland�, SR poster, 1937.
Poster produced for Southern Railway (SR) to promote an excursion to Huddersfield on 10 April 1937 for the FA Cup Semi-Final between Millwall and Sunderland
Photo by SSPL/Getty Images

Set in an era where winning the FA Cup eclipsed league exploits, cup fever was taking hold as described in the Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette:

The cup-tie spirit was rampant. Bells were rung, rattles were prominent, and paper streamers were thrown at random to give colourful effect to the occasion. We arrived at the ground at 1.30 by road, and as we approached the ground every spare piece of ground on either side of the Leeds-Huddersfield road was packed with motor-cars and buses.

Sunderland came out of the blocks quickly and Bobby Gurney was unlucky not to give the Lads the lead in the opening minute after good work from Len Duns. But Millwall were causing problems by “booting the ball at every opportunity” meaning they turned defence into attack quickly and after ten minutes, took a shock lead.

Tommy Inns smashed the ball downfield that landed at the feet of Dave Mangnall after a Jimmy McCartney header, and with quick movement gave Millwall an early lead. Once behind, Sunderland struggled to get a foothold in the game as described in the Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette:

Millwall were faster on the ball than Sunderland, because they were going in for it, and it seemed to run for them. Sunderland were not finding their feet quickly, even though they were having most of the game.

At this stage the crowd was on the track and the police were having to keep them back.

Soccer - Football League Division One - Sunderland
Raich Carter
Photo by Barratts/PA Images via Getty Images

But on the half hour mark, Sunderland were level. Duncan Yuill in the Millwall goal saved from Raich Carter and Bobby Gurney reached the ball before it went out of play for a corner and scored what was described as “one of his impossible - looking angle shots”.

The sides went in level at the break and in the second period, although reports described Sunderland as playing below par, the First Division side were always on top and on 67 minutes Patsy Gallacher put the Lads in front for the first time.

Although the score remained tight, Johnny Mapson’s second half contribution included one punch and one goal kick to demonstrate Sunderland’s dominance and the emotion at the final whistle was summed up in the Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette once again:

Some of us who have followed the fortunes of Sunderland for more years than we care to remember may find it difficult to convince ourselves that Sunderland are actually to play at Wembley.

On my way from Huddersfield to Sheffield I tried to smother the elation which was in my blood and calmly think over events of the day. I had sat those dying minutes of the game with my tongue almost glued to the roof of my mouth, for as I watched and wrote I had smoked- or chewed - cigarette after cigarette.

Sunderland for Wembley! Almost too good to be true - yet it is true! Men and women whose average decorum is perfect were intoxicated by the excitement of that moment - all because of a fight for that, to Sunderland for over 50 years, elusive tin pot.

In the other semi-final, Preston North End defeated West Bromwich Albion at Highbury to book a date with Sunderland at Wembley in the FA Cup final on 1st May 1937, which was just eleven days before the coronation of George VI.

Cup Final At Wembley
An aerial view of Wembley Stadium, London, during the FA Cup Final between Sunderland and Preston North End, 1st May 1937
Photo by Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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