Today we look at two events in Sunderland AFC history – one that seems like a bit of pre-season fun, and another that marks the contribution of a dearly loved figure from behind the scenes…
On this day in 1953...
You were often more likely in the 1950s to see a friendly take place during the season than in the build-up to a new campaign. Free evenings or spare weekends after elimination from the cup would often be used to keep the squad in shape or let the manager tinker with his system, and while you might get the odd exotic team from the continent popping up for an intriguing exhibition, preseason warmups were often kept in house and were played behind closed doors or on the training ground.
A practise match on this day in 1953 broke that mould slightly though, when Roker Park was opened up and around 15,000 supporters filed in for a football fix. Bill Murray had splashed the cash over the summer and the fans were keen to get a feel for how new boys Ray Daniel and Billy Elliott were shaping up, with both featuring in a match between the ‘whites’ (Sunderland’s first-team attack and reserve team defence, and the ‘stripes’ (reserve attack and first-team defence).
There was to be an emphasis on shape and organisation, with Murray instructing both teams to take it easy in terms of tackling and to allow opponents to take a shot when in range of the target. It meant that goalkeeper Jimmy Cowan, another recent transfer purchase, was to be kept busy, and while he shipped several goals, the nature of things meant there was little blame heading in his direction.
Of more concern were injuries to both Daniel and Elliott, who were both taken off during an entertaining victory for the whites. The scoreline finished 8-6, with Trevor Ford, John McSeveney, Billy Bingham, Dickie Davis, Derek Weddle and Len Shackleton all scoring at various points.
Seven days later, the real stuff started with a trip to Charlton Athletic, and while Daniel and Elliott had both recovered, the fixture still ended with a 5-3 loss – the high-scoring affair proving to be a precursor to a season that regularly saw goals going in at both ends as the Lads struggled towards the bottom of Division One.
On this day in 2012...
Billy Elliott had established himself as a crowd favourite by the time Sunderland appointed a new physio in November 1956, and would then enjoy two stints as caretaker manager working alongside the very same man: Johnny Watters.
One of the most popular members of backroom staff ever seen at the club, Watters was an integral part of SAFC who sadly passed away on this day in 2012 aged 92. He had looked after several generations of players amid rapidly changing medical knowledge and did so with a level of humour that made him a key part of the 1964 promotion and 1973 FA Cup winning successes, helped no doubt by his own previous experiences as a player in his native Scotland.
Although mainly a reserve at Celtic, he famously appeared in front of what was then Britain’s record ever crowd of 118,567 in an Old Firm clash at Ibrox in 1939. Remaining on a part-time contract so that he could continue studying physiotherapy at college, he later became a Member of the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy and was a sick berth Petty Officer during the Second World War. Serving on HMS Warspite for a period, he was part of the D-Day landings before returning to civilian life in 1946.
Watters had represented Glasgow Secondary Schools as a boy and then turned out for St. Rochs, who were affiliated with Celtic, but he suffered with cartilage problems once entering senior football and, once he’d hung up his boots, began working in healthcare full-time. After being appointed a superintendent for three Yorkshire hospitals he was living in Yorkshire when he was offered a position at Roker, where in addition to looking after those on the club’s books, he was said to have often helped out local non-league and youth players with treatment and advice.
That caring aspect of his personality was one of many great traits. Watters would be contacted by the football authorities and asked for guidance around various trends and concerns in the game, and after 25 years of loyal service, he was presented by chairman Tom Cowie with a Tantalus as a token of the club’s appreciation. He then retired in February 1983, having worked under eight different full-time managers and several more caretakers. A mass was held in his memory at St. Hilda’s Catholic Church in Southwick shortly after his passing.