Falling at the final hurdle has become part of our folklore. Swansea in 1962, Chelsea in 1963, Everton in 1978, Norwich in 1985, Manchester City in 1991, Wimbledon in 1997 and of course, Charlton in 1998, are familiar milestones. But the most painful stumble for me was Sunderland’s failure, by a single point, to win the most glittering prize of all – the top League Championship.
In season 1949/50 Sunderland were an ambitious club who bought lavishly and were probably playing the best attacking football in the country – scoring 83 goals, the highest total in the First Division. Two of the games imprinted in the memory are a Cup victory of 6-0 against Huddersfield (then a First Division side) followed by a 6-1 win a fortnight later against Derby County, both games at Roker Park and with attendances of 55,097 and 62,413. My ribs remember it well.
Outstanding was the midfield: two polished attacking wing halves, Willie Watson and Arthur Wright and two brilliantly incisive ball-playing inside forwards, Ivor Broadis and the incomparable Len Shackleton. There were the obligatory two wingers, Tommy Wright and Tommy Reynolds – different in style, but complementary in effect. In front of the marvellous Mapson was a solid three-man defence who never crossed the half-way line (they didn’t need to) and finally a centre forward few people ever heard of.
Towards the end of the war, as we began to look forward to the restart of League Football, talk was going around about a promising young man from Birmingham who was scoring lots of goals in the Midlands. As a 17-year-old he had signed for Sunderland way back in 1939, but no one up here had ever seen him. His name was Dicky Davis.
Come the restart, he didn’t find it too easy to break into the side. Cliff Whitelum was the man in possession and after his transfer to Sheffield United, Davis had to share the number nine shirt with new signing Ron Turnbull who started off brilliantly with four goals against Portsmouth, but never really reached those heights again.
By the 1949/50 season, Dicky Davis was our main striker. Tall, fair headed and thick-set, he fitted perfectly the stereotype of the ‘big bustling centre forward': brave, direct, good with his head, a powerful shot, but not a lot of subtlety. Jammed up near the corner flag, I looked with amazement as he rushed in to head a ball with his eyes closed. He scored a lot of goals that way and non more frequently than in that season when, with only six games to go, he was the leading scorer (26 League and Cup goals out of 35 matches) in a Sunderland team riding on top and well on course for the title.
Then he was injured. In his absence, we lost three games in a row, including what looked a home banker – against bottom of the table Manchester City, already relegated and without an away win all season. That was probably the game that lost us the Championship, Bert Trautman twice saving a penalty – which didn’t help. Davis returned for the final fixture to score a brace and become the League’s leading goal-scorer; but it was all too late and we finished third, a point behind Portsmouth who shaded Wolves on goal average.
Still, there was always next season – and Sunderland showed they meant business by signing Trevor Ford from Aston Villa for a record £30,000. At the time, this was the equivalent of buying Shearer. I travelled 150 miles to see his home start against Sheffield Wednesday as he signed himself in with three goals and a dislodged Fulwell End goalpost. Such feats were not often to be repeated. Although Ford himself maintained a good personal record, he did not seem to gel with Shackleton. Team results suffered, while Dicky Davis sat and watched. Our former leading scorer stuck with the club for another three seasons, but never had a sustained run and at the end of 1953 he left the big-time for Darlington (co-incidentally, Ford also left at the same time – for Cardiff).
Sometimes gilding the lilly works. In this case it didn’t. One is perhaps reminded of Asprilla in recent years or might view with some caution the ever-present calls for ‘a big name signing.’ However, with substitution and the squad system, times have changed and present day ambitious clubs do use duplication. After all, suppose Trevor Ford had been able to come in for that Manchester City game?