Beaten FA Cup semi-finalists the season before, top-flight Sunderland set off down the road to Wembley once more in 1956. Third Division South club Norwich City were the visitors to Roker Park for their latest third round clash, and despite the gap between the two sides in terms of league places, the Canaries were still able to put up a decent fight.
The two teams had met in the same competition earlier in the decade, when in 1951 John Gavin scored a late consolation on Wearside as Norwich were beaten 3-1. Things were not quite so clear cut on this occasion though, even after Charlie Fleming’s opener for the Lads in front of the Roker End. The goal came via a long ball into the box by Billy Elliott, who aimed for the far post and saw Fleming racing in to connect.
It was a rare moment of early precision, with Sunderland’s attack otherwise looking disjointed in the opening exchanges. Manager Bill Murray had tinkered slightly with his forward line and the switches saw Ted Purdon being asked to play wider than usual, but it was only after the half time break that things clicked. It was just as well that they did too, as by that stage the Lads were in danger of falling victim to a giant killing.
There was a healthy away following backing Norwich and their fans were ecstatic to see Roy McCrohan blast his team level. The returning Gavin was involved again, taking a short free kick to set up the opportunity, and he also had a hand in the visitors gaining a shock lead – playing the ball on for Peter Gordon, whose effort took a wicked deflection off Stan Anderson to completely wrong foot Willie Fraser in goal.
Sunderland were starting to look a little sorry for themselves but everything fell into place as soon as the game recommenced following the break. Elliott and Anderson teamed up on the right hand side, and when the ball was swung across Fleming was there to head in off the inside of the post and make it 2-2. It was quickly built on too, and with the tempo rising more chances soon followed.
It felt as if another goal was coming and sure enough, it arrived shortly before the hour. George Aitken won possession cleanly when he made a solid tackle on Don Pickwick, and once he’d knocked the ball forward Elliott pulled it down and fired home, again via the inside of the post. Norwich were now under the cosh and were grateful to have goalkeeper Ken Oxford at his best, but the tie was still able to be wrapped up when after a long throw in from Purdon, Fleming turned his marker Reg Foulkes sharply and completed his hattrick with his right foot.
The centre forward was unlucky to add to his tally further after that, but the damage had been done during that initial second half surge and he was now well on his way to ending the season as Sunderland’s top scorer. Fleming had already opened up his account for the new calendar year in a league match against Wolverhampton Wanderers on the Monday, pouncing late to snatch a point, and his good form would continue the following weekend as he set the Lads on their way to a victory at Chelsea.
It wasn’t just ‘Cannonball’ who was looking good at this stage however, the whole team were shaping up well. Comfortably placed in the top half of Division One and with a side packed with star names, Sunderland were to reach the semi-finals again having seen off Norwich but alas, things behind the scenes were already conspiring to derail progress and unbeknown to almost everybody, the club was heading for a disaster.
Exactly one year after the Canaries tie, on the 7th of January 1957, came the expose in newspapers that additional payments were being made to players in order to circumnavigate the maximum wage restrictions – such practises were commonplace in the game but the Roker board was later made an example of and in the fall out SAFC suffered a first ever relegation. It was a painful episode for a hugely proud institution, and arguably things have never been the same since.
Saturday 7 January 1956
FA Cup third round
Sunderland 4 (Fleming 15’, 46’, 62’, Elliott 55’)
Norwich City 2 (McCrohan 31’, Gordon 37’)
Sunderland: Fraser; Hedley, McDonald; Anderson, Daniel, Aitken; Kemp, Elliott, Fleming, Chisholm, Purdon.
Roker Park, attendance 46,380