The year 1937 saw change in current affairs, politics and pop culture on both sides of the Atlantic. Franklin D. Roosevelt is President to seven million unemployed in the United States, an enquiry begins into the Hindenburg Disaster and John Steinbeck’s ‘Of Mice and Men’ is published. In Great Britain; Wimbledon is broadcast by the BBC for the first time and King George IV ascends to the throne. But, most important of all worldly affairs is the fact that Sunderland AFC are victorious in their pursuit of the Football Association Cup for the first time in the club’s history.
1937 was a funny old year in the North-East too. Plans for a £55,000 revamp of the Sunderland Town hall were announced. Binn’s Limited had stores in Sunderland, Newcastle and South Shields. Coxgreen Council School finally closed its doors with its few remaining pupils transferring to a new £10,000 school at Penshaw. West Herrington based workmen unearthed a pair of skeletons sparking a dramatic police investigation into potential murder – until it was found that the bones were a century old.
The fact that Sunderland had never won the Cup was a terrible thing for the North. Every year was to be Sunderland’s Cup year and there was always great disappointment when they were knocked out.
It was a real vintage and skilled Sunderland team that won the Cup in ‘37 and remembrance has not been as forthcoming as that experienced by the FA Cup winning team of 1973. This is partly due to time, and the astounding underdog story of Stokoe & Co’s victory from the old Second Division.
The road to Wembley back in 1937 saw Sunderland come out 3-2 winners against Southampton at The Dell in third round – a long and by no means easy trip. Sunderland also came from 2-0 down on a frosty afternoon to force a fourth-round replay with Luton. 52,000 spectators at Roker Park then witnessed Sunderland see off Luton with goals from Len Duns, Jimmy Connor and Raich Carter cancelling out a strike from Luton’s Payne.
Jimmy Connor suffered an injury against Luton which has been compared to the injury Brian Clough sustained on the same ground 25 years later. Like Clough, Connor’s career was over. Connor was a brilliant forward with a fantastic shot and tremendous dribbling ability; a tragic and most unfortunate sacrifice in Sunderland’s quest for FA Cup glory.
Sunderland disposed of Swansea in the fifth-round, beating the Jacks 3-0 at Roker Park. In the quarter-finals, Sunderland were drawn away to First Division Wolves, a formidable outfit led by the superb centre-half Stan Cullis. Sunderland managed to hold out for a replay with another goal from Len Duns making the score 1-1. The Roker Park replay is the stuff of legend. Raich Carter commenting in 1950 that the tie “gave me a heart attack.” The tie saw no goals until the 86th minute despite Sunderland’s pressure. Then, as is the “Sunderland way”, disaster struck Wearside. Completely against the run of play Tom Galley silenced 61,800 spectators and put Wolves in front with barely any time remaining. Some Sunderland fans even headed for the exit, convinced Sunderland had blown their Cup campaign once again.
Up again steps Mr. Robert Gurney…
A Thompson throw in was received by Carter who returned the ball; Thompson, the wing-half, found Bobby Gurney who had managed to escape the clutches of Cullis. Gurney controlled the ball, turned and hit a low weak shot. With the Wolves keeper unsighted the ball found its way into the net. To extra time! Sunderland took the lead with a goal from Duns only for Wolves to equalise within two minutes, meaning a second Cup replay after what must go down as one of the most thrilling matches ever to have been played at the old Roker Park.
The third Sunderland-Wolves tie took place in Sheffield. Raich Carter was reported as being only 75% fit, yet he played as if his life depended on it. Well, he was from Hendon after all. Carter, with his leg heavily strapped, scored the second in a 3-0 victory. The young captain had inspired Sunderland into the semi-finals in what he described as a “marathon tussle.”
Third-Division South’s Millwall were to be Sunderland’s opponents in the semi’s, yet Sunderland took little comfort in the superior league standing. Millwall were the 1936/37 FA Cup giant killers having gained three First Division scalps on their way to the semi-final. Millwall threatened to cause another major upset by scoring in the first ten minutes of the semi-final at Huddersfield’s Leeds Road ground. Gurney equalised for Sunderland and Patsy Gallacher scored the winner, he later described it as “the greatest and most important goal I ever scored.” Sunderland were at last through to the final! The excitement on Wearside really was something to behold, reports even state that police were drafted in to control a crowd of 5,000 excited Sunderland folk who had had gathered outside the Sunderland Echo office eager for news of the tie.
The final at Wembley was a thoroughly Anglo-Scottish affair. Sunderland fielded five Scotsmen including Alex Hall and Patsy Gallacher with legendary manager Johnny Cochrane also hailing from north of the border. Sunderland’s opponents in the final, Preston North End, also employed a Scottish manager in Tommy Muirhead. Muirhead started seven Scotsmen for the final with the most notable being the prolific number nine Frank O’Donnell and future Liverpool manager, Bill Shankly.
The Sunderland line up at Wembley in full was as follows: Mapson (GK), Gorman, Hall, Thompson, Johnston, McNab, Duns, Carter (C), Gurney, Gallacher and Burbanks. Sunderland faced a formidable Preston team of Burns (GK), Gallimore, Beattie, Shankly, Tremelling (C), Milne, Dougal, Beresford, F. O’Donnell, Fagan and H. O’Donnell. Testament to Sunderland’s achievement in 1937 is that Preston proceeded to win the FA Cup in 1938, for they were a superb footballing side in their own right.
But the Sunderland public travelling en masse to London from the North-East needn’t have worried. Sunderland had two local goal scorers in the team both hell bent on returning to Wearside with the Cup. In the dressing room Hendon born Carter stirred his Sunderland teammates and attempted to settle their nerves:
We have to be more in the game. We have got to make the ball work more, find the man more. Don’t be nervous. Let’s play football as we can play it and we shall be all right.
Hailing from Silksworth, former miner Bobby Gurney equalised on 52 minutes – a commentator exclaiming: “that’s a goal that will give them something to talk about in the shipyards” – the most important goal of Gurney’s long and illustrious Sunderland career. Game on! Gurney was best man to Raich Carter at Carter’s wedding in the days before the final. Always confident, full of self-belief and cocksure, captain Carter fired Sunderland in front on 72 minutes. Carter was mobbed by his teammates and the Roker Roar lasted for several minutes afterwards with choruses of the song ‘Blaydon Races’ sung with gusto. Roared on by a huge Wearside presence at Wembley, the superb Eddie Burbank’s killed Preston’s hopes by scoring in the last ten minutes.
After 53 years and 140 cup-ties, Sunderland had finally captured the most coveted prize in English football after years of failed attempts and near misses.
The significance of Sunderland’s FA Cup was recognised throughout the country. On May 3rd, the returning Sunderland party left King’s Cross to an enthusiastic send off in a pullman train that was covered in red and white colours. As the train drew North, crowds cheered, waved and packed full the station platforms of Grantham, Doncaster, York and Darlington. The locomotive also stopped at Newcastle train station and were cheered by a large crowd and congratulated by Newcastle’s Lord Mayor, John Grantham.
The train left Newcastle for Monkwearmouth station where a huge crowd waited for a glimpse of the victorious heroes. Carter commenting:
The crowds at Wembley, the crowds at King’s Cross, the crowds en route – they all paled into insignificance against the tumultuous reception as we drew into Sunderland…By comparison it had been quiet in the station. Stepping outside was like stepping on to an alarm signal. Suddenly everything went off. The tugs and ships in the river were hooting and blowing their sirens, railway engineers shrilled their whistles, bells rang and rattles crackled, there was shouting and cheering. It was like a thick concrete wall of deafening din. Then the cheering resolved itself into a Sunderland roar: ‘Ha’way The Lads!’ And the cry was taken up and surged round, echoing and re-echoing through the crowd who spread further than the eye could see. ‘Ha’way, ha’way, ha’way!’ cried half a million throats.
The Sunderland team toured the town in an open top bus to wild, continuous cheers of “Ha’way the Lads”. Roker Park opened to the public and 30,000 turned up to catch a glimpse of Carter, Gurney and co. A crate of beer which had been taken to the unsuccessful 1913 final and not drank following a disappointing loss was consumed with renewed vigour!
The previously mentioned Bill Shankly became a footballing behemoth. As player and manager Shankly won the FA Cup and First Division three times each, the Charity Shield four times and the UEFA Cup once – making him a God in footballing terms. Yet, with all his knowledge and experience he still held the Sunderland team of the 1930’s in the highest regard. Shankly once explained:
In many ways, the Sunderland team of 1937 played the same brand of Total Football as the great Holland team of the 1970s. It was a frightening experience to visit Roker Park during the 1930s because Sunderland were such a terrific outfit.
A fitting tribute to the skilled technical football exhibited Sunderland team of 1937. The club would do well to further remember the heroes of the 1930’s, the fact there is no statue for manager Cochrane or the local lads Carter and Gurney is a source of embarrassment; especially given that the trio also won the Division One Championship and Charity Shield. Goalkeeper Johnny Mapson played over 385 times for Sunderland yet receives little attention despite having refused a transfer to Manchester City due to his admiration for the club. Likewise, Patsy Gallacher scored goals for fun: 100 in 273 appearances. They deserved to be remembered properly, and their gaping omissions prove that the club could do so much more to remember our terrific past.
This article is dedicated to Jarrow born goalkeeper, James Horatio Thorpe. Jimmy Thorpe would’ve undoubtedly kept goal for Sunderland at Wembley had he not passed away mid-way through the title winning season of 1935/36, due to injuries sustained in a match against Chelsea at Roker Park. Jimmy Thorpe just 22 years of age when he died.
I must also pay tribute to Paul Days, Mark Metcalf and Frank Garrick who make remembrance of the 1936/37 team possible with their research and writings – and to the brilliance of those local lads Carter and Gurney, without them Sunderland’s history would be far less rich.
This was my home town; these were my own folk. I was the local boy who had led the team to victory and brought home the Cup for which they had been waiting for fifty years. What more could any man ask? My happiness could never be more complete. It was worth winning the cup just for this.