Sunderland v Leeds, Boxing Day of the 1935/36 season. The game is poised at 1-1 with four minutes to go and with Sunderland’s one hundred percent home record at risk, up steps Mr. Robert ‘Bobby’ Gurney…
Just inside the penalty area one Robert Gurney had received the ball, and hooked it away into the right-hand side of the net. Albert McInroy stood speechless with disgust and annoyance, while one gentleman in the grandstand turned to throw his arms around the neck of his wife and kiss her… Once again Gurney had done the seemingly impossible.
The game ended in a 2-1 victory, leaving Sunderland five points clear at the top of Division One with their 100% home record firmly intact. Such was the importance of Gurney’s contribution, Argus in the Sunderland Echo stated that ‘There is only one Bobby Gurney’. Sunderland secure their sixth Division One title that season. Gurney finished joint top scorer with 31 goals alongside Raich Carter.
‘Wor Bobby’ was a Sunderland goal scoring phenomenon – a supremely talented local lad hailing from Silksworth. Gurney played as centre-forward scoring 227 goals in 390 appearances for his hometown club, top-scorer for seven consecutive seasons and scorer of Sunderland’s first ever Wembley goal.
Gurney’s playing style was unorthodox however, and his abilities saw him dubbed a ‘complete centre-forward’ by the Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail. Besides being remarkably quick, Gurney – ever the opportunist – lead opposition defences a merry dance with his constant wanderings, frequently beating goalkeepers with his splendid shot.
Despite still being Sunderland’s record goal-scorer, winning the First Division in 1936 and FA Cup in 1937, little has been written about Gurney’s exploits. Outside of the North-East he is largely unknown; no biography of Gurney exists, he does not even feature in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (a site profiling important British individuals who have shaped local and national history and culture).
To put this into perspective; Gurney’s Sunderland contemporary and close friend Raich Carter has received much attention, including an excellent biography and extensive description of his career in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. It is a real disgrace that even on SAFC.com Gurney is only afforded three of the shortest paragraphs imaginable in tribute to his glittering career.
Internationally, Gurney only made a single appearance for the England national team in his career – such was the disappointment on Wearside following Gurney’s constant omission, despite numerous trials, Argus in the Echo was left wondering ‘If International trials are held only to give members of the FA a day out’.
Raich Carter sacrificed his own talents while playing for England to service the ‘star individualist’ Stanley Matthews, illuminating a clear parallel between the industrial North-East existing to fuel London. If Carter’s England exploits represent ‘carboniferous capitalism’ then the constant omission of Gurney by the national team selectors – despite his outrageous goal scoring talents – demonstrates the beginning of a clear theme of rejection towards Sunderland players for international honours and more general political apathy shown towards the region.
Kevin Phillips, Brian Clough, Darren Bent and Jermain Defoe amongst others have been overlooked by England despite displaying prolific goal-scoring on Wearside. The case of Gurney’s rejection coupled with Sunderland’s past and present political situation causes one to wonder whether Sunderland have ever truly featured in the minds of policy makers and national team selectors.
The North-East was reported as being ‘naturally delighted’ when Gurney was finally picked to represent his country in his one and only appearance in 1935 by the Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail, poising the rather loaded question, ‘was there ever football honour more richly deserved?’, suggesting that Gurney had been for a long time wrongly overlooked due to a southern player bias.
Gurney was not underrated by Sunderland fans. Admiration and appreciation for Gurney’s footballing ability was consistently apparent amongst fans – they adored Gurney and the team in which he played.
Following the 1935/36 Division One win the Sunderland players attended a performance with runners-up Derby County at the Sunderland Empire Theatre on the 6th of May 1936. The gathering crowds desire to pay tribute to Gurney and his teammates meant that extra policemen were required to control them. Inside the Empire a informal stage gathering occurred. Local lad Bobby Gurney addressed the adoring public alongside captain Alex Hastings, illuminating his importance to the local community.
Gurney reciprocated the idolisation of the Sunderland fans, making the loving relationship between Gurney and Sunderland a definite two way street.
Having studied countless editions of the Sunderland Echo, one thing that initially stands out is how embedded Bobby Gurney seemed in the local community. In 1935, Gurney accepted an invitation to be guest in an event in Weardale, to which 1,000 people were expected. In the same year, Gurney acted as linesman in a benefit game for George Witwham, who had suffered a fractured leg playing against Murton Wanderers for Silksworth. In 1939, Gurney turned out at Ashbrooke Cricket Club in another benefit match for a professional cricketer named Hutchinson. Benefit matches tended to be played when then low-paid sportsmen retired or suffered a serious injury to help aid them financially.
Gurney mirrored the tough ideals and never-say-die culture of the Wearside people. Four minutes into an FA Cup tie in 1939, Gurney collided with the Blackburn goalkeeper and had to be carried from the field by ambulance men. Gurney suffered concussion, a fractured leg and torn achilles. Despite his horrific and no doubt painful injuries, Gurney bravely returned to the field of play before being withdrawn at half time. Such was the sympathy towards Gurney, many fans waited to greet him when he returned to Sunderland from Blackburn. The passionate scenes at Sunderland train station almost moved Gurney to tears. He stated in the Echo that the ‘enthusiasm which greeted me was most touching’. Gurney, like his team mate Carter, had a deep connection to Sunderland.
Gurney’s leg break, coupled with the advent of World War Two, meant that Blackburn was to be Gurney’s last Division One appearance. He remained at the club until 1946, starring in guest matches and friendlies during the war.
After leaving his beloved Sunderland, Gurney remained in football. In 1948 he was elected to the Council of Durham Football Association (DFA) before going on to manage the local teams of Hartlepool, Darlington and Horden Colliery FC.
Even when Gurney had retired he continued his activity in the local community, delivering a talk on football-tactics to members of the Sunderland Technical School Old Boys’ Association in 1946. His role in the DFA allowed Gurney to present another football-tactics lesson to the Boys Brigade at Grange Road Methodist Church Hall in 1949. Gurney even joined a team of writers at the Sunderland Echo Football Edition in 1946 – he was clearly a proud Sunderland man, involved passionately in every aspect of the city.
Above all else, Gurney was viewed by the people as a genuinely nice person. His community involvement and apparent pleasant personality confirm this; and this was backed up by Argus in the Sunderland Echo, who commented:
The man who cannot get along with Bobby Gurney would create a row in an empty house.
Bobby Gurney represents the truest of Sunderland legends, and his career deserves more remembrance than it has – or rather has not – received. Undoubtedly, the club and the supporters probably should pay more attention to the likes of Raich Carter and Bobby Gurney. They deserve to be celebrated just as much as legends like Jimmy Montgomery, Bobby Kerr and Ian Porterfield.
In a time of poor performances and potential relegation, the study of Bobby Gurney provides me with a fresh sense of pride, strengthening my love for our great football club and our resilient city.
Bobby Gurney passed away in April 1994, aged 86.