The ‘United Trinity’ of George Best, Denis Law and Bobby Charlton took some matching, and Sunderland’s trip to Old Trafford to take on the reigning Football League champions on this day in 1966 was made even more difficult thanks to an injury crisis that robbed them of four full internationals.
Fresh problems for Charlie Hurley, Jim Baxter and John Parke, plus the continued unavailability of recent signing Neil Martin with a troublesome back complaint, forced Ian McColl to tinker with his starting XI ahead of kick off in Manchester. Several of those retaining their place in a youthful looking team were asked to switch roles, whilst Cec Irwin and Mike Hellawell were both drafted in, but perhaps the biggest shock was the reintroduction of Jimmy McNab, who despite being named skipper would later be shipped out of the club amidst unsavoury rumours of the manager marginalising Catholic players.
A superb win over Newcastle United earlier in the week, the story of which was superbly told by Kelvin Beattie recently — On This Day (3rd Jan 1966): ‘The Toon’ are smashed by The Lads! - Roker Report (sbnation.com) — had snapped a miserable six game winless run and meant that despite the enforced changes and lack of some of the squad’s star men the Lads went in search of more points in decent spirits.
The 8th of January would usually be set aside for the FA Cup, but third round day was this year scheduled for later in the month and so the target for now was to try and pull further away from the bottom of Division One in McColl’s first season.
Delegates from Italy, Bulgaria and Portugal ahead of that summer’s World Cup in England witnessed a bright start from Matt Busby’s team, whilst also in the crowd was Bela Guttman, manager of Benfica who were due to meet them in the European Cup shortly.
Tony Dunne exchanged passes with Best, who hit a low shot past Jim Montgomery to give the Red Devils an early lead and they then looked to extend their advantage. Monty was able to deny Best a second with two wonderful saves however, and he followed up with another superb stop to block Charlton, with Law being flagged offside when he turned the rebound into the net.
Hellawell played in Gary Moore as Sunderland looked to respond, but after getting around Bill Foulkes the forward saw Harry Gregg race off his line and snuff him out. Law then fell in the penalty area and McNab was accused of handling as United pushed for a spot kick, but perhaps it was through desperation – Sunderland were coming into things more and more, with Gregg needing to be at his best to deal with shots from George Herd and Moore.
The side continued to show heart after the break and with just over an hour played, they got the equaliser their efforts warranted. Herd and Moore were involved again, and when the ball was crossed into the middle John O’Hare was able to head in.
It was then down to a determined rear guard led by the impressive Dave Elliott, and more fine work from Montgomery, to keep Manchester United at bay, but the draw was merited and brought Sunderland only their sixth point on the road of the season.
The following day’s Sunday papers credited the club with an interest in Middlesbrough’s Scotland Under 23 cap Ian Gibson and whilst nothing came of it, McColl’s options were strengthened over the coming days.
Hurley’s ankle strain would see him on the treatment table for a while longer, but Baxter and Parke soon came back into the fold and the snow enforced postponement of their scheduled fixture with Sheffield Wednesday meant that by the time Sunderland were next in action a fortnight later, Martin was also available.
Saturday 8 January 1966
Football League Division One
Manchester United 1 (Best 8’)
Sunderland 1 (O’Hare 62’)
Sunderland: Montgomery; Irwin, Ashurst; Harvey, McNab, Elliott; Hellawell, Herd, O’Hare, Moore, Mulhall. Unused: Sharkey
Old Trafford, attendance 39,410