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On This Day (26 July 1954): The death of a Sunderland icon - Arthur Bridgett

This day in 1954 marks the death of a Sunderland icon that many fans may not have heard of.

The football league was still six years from forming and many famous teams were in their infancy when George Arthur Bridgett was born on 11th of October 1882 near Cheadle in Staffordshire.

Arthur’s stonemason father and furniture dealer mother could no more of imagined back then that their third child (of five) would go on to forge such a highly regarded career in the game of football as believe humankind would land on the moon within a hundred years of their son’s birth!

Stoke were one of the founding teams of the football league in 1888 and it was here that Arthur first emerged as a professional player, having played for Burslem Park and the Trentham before joining his local professional team in October 1902.

He would only play seven games for Stoke before being transferred to Sunderland in January 1903. It's hard not to imagine the young Staffordshire lad being at least a tad intimidated by the dressing room at Roker Park, which contained a veritable array of turn-of-the-century superstars. Doig, McCombie, Watson, McAllister, Jackson, Hogg R, Hogg W, Gemmell and Millar were established league winners and internationalists.

The club had won four of the last ten league championships and finished runners-up on three occasions in that preceding decade.

Bridgett however was a strong character despite his tender years. He was a young man of very strong faith. He played his game the way he lived his life and was noted for his unselfish play and hard graft, as well as pacey left-wing play and accurate crossing.

Throughout his career he would not play on Christmas day or Good Friday on religious grounds. He embodied fair play throughout his career and as a lay preacher, he once delivered a sermon on the ethics of good sportsmanship.

By all accounts, Bridgett appears to have settled quickly into life at the then-current league champions Sunderland, making fifteen appearances and scoring three goals before the end of season 1902/03. Sunderland finished third on the same points as Aston Villa and only one point behind champions “The Wednesday”, a 1-0 loss at near neighbours Newcastle on the last day of that season in a game they dominated and should have won denied them back-to-back championships.

The following season 1903/04 would see Sunderland start like a run-away train scoring fifteen goals in the first four games (Bridgett scoring two with five “assists). He went on to make thirty-three appearances in all competitions that season, scoring ten goals. His goals were always welcomed, but his crossing and build-up play, alongside his graft and youthful leadership were getting him noticed.

Ten defeats away from Roker cost the team dearly, despite only two other teams in the league scoring more than Sunderland that season, who finished a disappointing sixth. Despite this Bridgett finished the season as one of the first names on manager Alex Mackie’s team sheet and regarded as one of the leaders in the dressing room and on the pitch.

Season 1904/05 saw Newcastle win the league and Sunderland finish fifth, despite two 3-1 victories over our nearest rivals. In retrospect it was a hardly noticed signing from Seaham White Star in November of that season that would eventually reverberate.

George Holley was signed and though he played initially, and scored a lot of goals in the reserves it only took one game together for fans and management alike to see that Holley and Bridgett could be potent for Sunderland.

Alf Common’s transfer to Middlesborough for £1,000 (the first ever £1,000 transfer), created the gap that allowed Holley to get game time in the first team and for the Bridgett/Holley partnership to flourish. Holley was being played as a centre forward but could play inside-left, Bridgett was ostensibly a left-winger who could also play inside-left and knew his way to goal. Their natural game seemed to suit each other and they both won many plaudits for their work together.

It was not only Alex Mackie and Sunderland fans who had eyes on this pair. In 1905 Bridgett was called up to the England squad for a game against Scotland which was won 1-0. Sadly, it would be another three years before a second cap would come along.

In 1908 Bridgett got the call for a game against Scotland in Glasgow which ended in a 1-1 draw. He was then selected for England’s first-ever overseas tour to Austria and Hungary scheduled for June 1908. Bridgett scored a goal in each of the games against Austria as England ran out 6-1 then 11-1 winners. He then played a creative role in the 7-0 defeat of Hungary and the 4-0 defeat of Bohemia in Prague.

In 1909 (and whilst club captain) five more caps came his way, four of these with centre forward colleague George Holley on a second Austria/Hungary tour. A 4-2 victory against Hungary saw Bridgett get a goal, the next two games saw Holley score two against Hungary playing alongside Bridgett in an 8-2 victory and, another two with Bridgett’s assistance against Austria which was won 8-1. Both Sunderland players had acquitted themselves well on the tour, but for some reason that proved to be Bridgett’s last cap.

Season 1905/06 would be a disappointing season for the Black Cats with Sunderland finishing 14th in the table as new manager Bob Kyle attempted the rebuild of the team. Despite the disappointment, Bridgett finished the season as top scorer with eighteen valuable goals, which ostensibly kept Sunderland away from the relegation zone. The following season, as the rebuild went on, he would top his goal-scoring efforts with twenty-five goals from left-wing/inside left.

Season 1907/08 saw Bridgett rewarded for his leadership on and off the pitch, with the club captaincy. Holley and Bridgett scored 37 goals between them in a season that saw the team finish 16th in the league, with a 3-1 mauling of Newcastle on their patch in the penultimate game of the season as good as it got, goals from Bridgett and Holley and new forward Harry Low from Aberdeen helped secure the win and a bit of pride for team and fans.

The following season almost saw Bob Kyle’s rebuild bear fruit as Sunderland finished third, with Holley and Bridgett scoring 30 goals between them. The highlight of this season was a 9-1 thrashing of Newcastle at St James. Holley scored a hat-trick and Bridgett got two in a performance that saw him alongside several of his colleagues put in a five-star performance.

Frustratingly Kyle’s rebuild did see a better defensive performance the following season 1909/10. However, the goals dried up a bit with Bridgett scoring eight and Holley scoring nineteen as they finished eighth falling away in the last third of the season.

Sunderland topped the table at Christmas time in 1910/11, as the prolific John “Tim” Coleman played his only season for Sunderland alongside Holley and Bridgett. They scored forty-five goals between them and although the team once again fell away in last six games of the season, it had been a season of much promise that saw Sunderland finish in third position only two points behind Aston Villa in second and five points behind Manchester United in first position. Halfway through this season another new arrival would go on to write his own fantastic story at Sunderland, Charles Buchan arrived from Leyton, to join what was beginning to look like a squad that could go places!

Season 1911/12 would prove to be Arthur Bridgett’s last season. He finished the season with 33 appearances and seven goals in all competitions as Sunderland once again flattered to deceive and found themselves in eighth position at season's end.

Arthur Bridgett played his first game for Sunderland against Sheffield United in a 0-0 draw at Roker Park on 17/01/1903 and he played his last game at Maine Road against Manchester City on 30/03/1912 in a 2-0 defeat.

His left-wing play throughout his career at Roker Park was characterised by an unselfish, hard-working attitude, pacey wing play and accurate crossing, he was often described in terms of a dream for centre forwards to play with.

His 347 appearances in all competitions yielded 116 goals ranking him eighth in the all-time scorer’s list and he was one of only three wingers to score more than 100 goals between 1888 and 1923.

Arthur Bridgett was capped eleven times by England scoring three goals, between 1905 - 1909. This was a record for a Sunderland/England player, until 1974 – 1975 when Dave Watson managed fourteen caps as a Sunderland player (and sixty-five caps in total).

Bridgett was transferred to South Shields in May 1912 for a fee of £175 and scored thirty goals in forty-seven matches. He spent some time as manager of North Shields and Gateshead before returning remarkably to play for Port Vale (whom he had guested for during the Great War) in 1923/24 season at the age of forty-one. He played fifteen games and scored seven goals before finally hanging his up his boots to work as a fish salesman and car/lorry contract driver.

He passed away on the 26th of July 1954 in Ashley, Staffordshire and should be remembered as a halcyon player of a bye-gone era, an outstanding character who gave his all in a spirit of fairness and good sportsmanship for the team.

RIP Arthur Bridgett.

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