World War II was mercifully over by 1946, but it would still be a while before the peacetime football calendar was fully back to normal. 1945-46 was to see the continuation of a regional league format without the threat of relegation, meaning that an FA Cup fixture against Grimsby Town staged on this day was to be the first major competitive game to be played at Roker Park since hostilities had formally begun in 1939.
Even then though, things were still not quite the same as before – previous FA Cup winners Eddie Burbanks and Len Duns were only available to start for Sunderland once they’d arrived back from their units in time, and some rounds of the competition were to be decided over two legs. Indeed, this was the second game of the tie with the Mariners, with goals four days earlier from Cyril Brown, Alex Hastings, and Arthur Housam during a 3-1 victory at Blundell Park giving the now hosts an advantage.
Joe Rodi had replied for Grimsby first time out, but it was still a case of the Lads just needing to make sure back on Wearside, where a strong coastal breeze was to have an impact on the performance. After winning the toss the visitors opted to play with the wind at their backs in the first half, and their early intention was clearly to try and come out firing on all cylinders; Housam needed treatment for a facial injury after a full-blooded challenge and whilst he was able to continue his team remained under pressure.
Johnny Mapson was the busiest of the two goalkeepers, and there was a slight sense of surprise therefore when Cliff Whitelum put Sunderland ahead after 12 minutes. Hastings had created the opening when he swerved a couple of tackles and cut the defence in half with a teasing through ball, and with both Brown and Whitelum closing in, the former got in first only for his effort to rebound kindly off stopper George Moulson and fall into the path of the latter to turn over the line.
The aggregate lead had been extended but the Cleethorpes club remained undeterred, and levelled things up on the afternoon soon after through Norman Moore. Hetton-le-Hole native Billy Wardle had crossed the ball into the box for the strike, the winger still being stationed with the Houghton RAF regiment at the time. He remained a threat throughout the match, giving another local lad in Jack Stelling a thorough examination throughout.
Alec Lockie typified Sunderland’s commitment when making a vital headed clearance with his team hemmed in, and with a bit more finesse Grimsby may have made more of their momentum. As it was, Bill Murray’s team were able to score against the run of play once again, Hastings hooking in superbly from an extremely tight angle after Duns’ centre bounced off a defender.
The goal was just before the break but in the second half the Lads found the wind to be less beneficial, Argus in his column in the Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette the following day suggesting the side were now worn out from playing into it and having to repel Grimsby’s keenness. The squad was still yet to reach full match fitness after the conflict seemingly, and the writer mused in his piece whether Burbanks and Duns were being impacted by the amount of travelling they were having to do. He concluded that once demobbed and back in full time training, they would both see an improvement in their sharpness.
Everybody was trying to readjust to the natural routine understandably, but interest in the Lads was still apparent; in addition to his thoughts, Argus provided a full match report alongside them to go with the updates that had been seen in the later editions of the Echo on the day itself. He felt that Grimsby had generally put up more of a fight in the second leg, which was witnessed by a relatively healthy midweek daytime crowd – quipping that ‘a few grandmothers may have been buried’ given the number of absentees from essential work he’d spotted on the terraces.
It would be a while before some things were completely back to how they had been, but the desire to follow Sunderland had not changed obviously…
Wednesday 9 January 1946
FA Cup third round, second leg
Sunderland 2 (Whitelum 12’, Hastings 43’)
Grimsby Town (Moore 17’)
Sunderland win 5-2 on aggregate
Sunderland: Mapson; Stelling, Jones; Willingham, Lockie, Housam; Duns, Whitelum, Brown, Hastings, Burbanks.
Roker Park, attendance 19,500