With little to play for as the 1948-49 campaign wound down, supporters might have expected Sunderland to take it easy. An embarrassing cup exit at non-league Yeovil Town earlier in the year had bruised the club’s pride however and having looked at one point like they were about to slip into relegation trouble, the side was now trying to end on a high having slowly but surely turned things around.
The FA Cup loss was followed by four league defeats, and whilst the Lads broke the sequence with victory at Preston North End the number of goals being shipped was a concern. A club record run of six consecutive draws followed as manager Bill Murray attempted to introduce more solidity at the back, and once the balance was found the final weeks saw a welcome return to winning ways.
Successes against Manchester United and Charlton Athletic set Sunderland up for a trip to Chelsea on this day, although a late withdrawal did impact their plans. Len Shackleton had been forced to outside left against Charlton after picking up an injury and was a passenger almost during the final stages, but whilst initially expected to be fit for Stamford Bridge he eventually had to stand down.
In his place came Harry Kirtley for just his second appearance – the former apprentice electrician at Fatfield Colliery had made his debut earlier in the month but still looked assured as he slotted in at short notice. His performance was even more impressive given he was playing with stitches above his eye following a clash during a Durham Senior Cup tie in midweek. Originally ruled out due to his wound, Kirtley agreed to play through the pain.
That desire became apparent throughout the rest of the team as well when Ivor Broadis had to go off with a broken collarbone after barely ten minutes. Shawn of two of their main attacking threats and now down to ten men, Sunderland could have easily succumbed, but they knuckled down and showed plenty of spirit. Their reward came with a late Ronnie Turnbull winner but even that was a sore one, the scorer getting smacked in the mouth after his shot cannoned off goalkeeper Harry Medhurst and rebounded in off his face.
Having undergone surgery at a nearby hospital whilst still in his kit, Broadis re-joined the party 30 minutes after full time. The bulk of the group were due to remain in the capital for a testimonial on behalf of Crystal Palace’s Jack Lewis, but Shackleton and Arthur Wright were headed for Dublin instead having been selected to represent the Football League. By the Wednesday Shackleton was fit enough to feature against the League of Ireland and scored twice in a 5-0 win.
Although this was to be his last goal for the club ahead of joining Manchester City, Turnbull had impressed against Chelsea and was one of several praised in the Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette afterwards. In a separate column earlier in the month though, ‘Argus’ had already highlighted a possible clue as to how they managed to overcome the numerical disadvantage. Commenting on the role of South Hylton born trainer George Gray, a former professional who had volunteered at Roker during the Second World War before being given a permanent job, he was highly complementary of the recovery work done with injured players and the recent improvement in general fitness.
This looks to have been a factor in the end of season upturn but ultimately it was a period of transition. Pulling away from the bottom of the table to finish in a comfortable 8th place was a vast improvement on 1947-48, and with Broadis successfully recuperating over the summer Sunderland were about to push for the title.
Saturday 30 April 1949
Football League Division One
Sunderland 1 (Turnbull 87)
Sunderland: Robinson; Stelling, Hudgell; Scotson, Hall, A. Wright; T. Wright, Broadis, Turnbull, Kirtley, Reynolds.
Stamford Bridge, attendance 32,003