Leicester City v SAFC: managerless, no adult as goalie but one point

Monsieur Salut asked Pete Sixsmith for a slice of nostalgia and it doesn’t come much better than this, a lovely piece that brings back to life an opening game played between Sunderland and Leicester City – ie the other way round from this coming Saturday – more than 50 years ago. We were both there, as was the youngest player to turn out in what was then the top flight …

Pete Sixsmith: 'where did those 51 years go?'
Pete Sixsmith: ‘where did those 51 years go?’

This is the fourth time
in my lifetime of supporting Sunderland that we have opened the season with Leicester City, but the first time we have visited the burial place of Richard III for the starter.

The other three games were at Roker Park, where the Foxes have been far too cunning for us, drawing two and winning the other.

Two of them came in successive seasons, the last being a dreary 0-0 draw that marked Niall Quinn’s debut as we returned to the Premier League, albeit for one season. The previous year it had ended in a 2-1 win for the visitors, with Steve Agnew levelling after Steve Korica had put the Blues ahead. Alas, the bald one lost the ball in midfield in the second half and Julian Joachim (always a thorn in our side), sped away to cross it for current Scunthorpe United boss Mark Robins to fire home.

That game took place at a crumbling Roker Park, the teams were sponsored by recognisable local firms (Vaux Samson and Walkers Crisps respectively) and the players were numbered 1-11, with no names on their backs. And the sun shone as it always did in the dim and distant past.

The other game took place at Roker Park on August 22 1964. The season started later then, despite there being two more clubs in the league, but there were no “international weekends” so that pointless friendlies could be played or small nations put ruthlessly to the sword. Nor were there players jetting off to all corners of the world to represent their countries.

Leicester were a well-established First Division club and boasted a pair of internationals in their team in Gordon Banks and Scottish cap Frank McLintock. On top of that they had a clutch of good British players in their team – Graham Cross, who played cricket for the county, Colin Appleton from Scarborough and Richie Norman, a full back who had learned his trade at Horden CW and was, until recently, involved on the physio side with Nuneaton Town.

We had the promotion team of the previous season minus two. One of them was Jimmy Montgomery who had broken his arm in training a week before the season started. The other was the manager Alan Brown, who had left over the club’s refusal to pay him a bonus.

So off we went with a new manager and new goalkeeper for the start of the season. Wrong.

The Board of Directors, in its infinite wisdom, decided that there was no need to appoint a new boss and they decided to pick the team and sign players, referring to trainer Arthur Wright and physio John Watters if felt they needed any professional advice.

It was an amazing situation as a laundry owner, builder, fish and chip shop owner and sundry other local businessmen took a club into a top-flight season. Folly on this scale makes me appreciate Bob Murray and Ellis Short who at least appoint managers and, as far as I know, never meddle in team selection.

Moreover, the board never quite got round to signing another goalkeeper before this game. There were two reserves, Derek Kirby, who was 18, and Derek Forster, who was 15 and had just left school (as they could in those days). The younger Derek was an England Schoolboy international and he was given the green jersey on that day 51 years ago to become the youngest player to have played in the top division.

He would have been two years older than me and younger than Monsieur Salut [not by much – Ed], a topic for discussion as we set off on the King Willie bus to the game. We were going by bus for the first time as Dr Beeching had done for the Shildon to Sunderland rail link via Durham, so Colin’s dad, Ernie, had obtained places for us on the bus that started out at Close House and picked up at Shildon.

This was my introduction to the core of Sunderland support that makes it such a great club. Most of those on the Central Coaches flyer worked at Shildon BR Workshops and had come straight from a morning’s work. It was my introduction to Bill Reilly, Kenny Snowdon, George Michael Thompson and Vernon from Close House, probably the nicest man I have ever met.

The bus had loaded up with (wooden) crates of Brown Ale at the Royal Hotel in Close House and most of it was drunk by Jasper Jones, a legend in the town for his prodigious drinking feats and a man of considerable girth.

Jake was only a bairn
Jake was only a bairn when Sixer saw the 3-3 game
have a go at Guessing Saturday;s SCore .. https://safc.blog/2015/08/leicester-city-vs-sunderland-guess-the-score-or-maybe-guess-the-team/

We travelled with this bus for three years until I moved to the OK from Bishop to go with school mates.

The game was a dramatic one. After two minutes, Mike Stringfellow, a winger whose name echoed his build, took advantage of slack defending to fire home past young Forster. Our tyro keeper then made a string of excellent saves before Frank McLintock took advantage of a mix up between Martin Harvey and Johnny Crossan to set up Tom Sweenie for the second.

Doom and gloom around Roker Park as the 45,000 crowd contemplated a disastrous return to what older fans regarded as their natural home.

Johnny Crossan then took matters into his own hands and set George Mulhall up for a goal just before half time and, early in the second half, George Herd pounced to level after Crossan’s shot had hit the bar. When Nicky Sharkey set up George Mulhall for the third, we cheered and waved our rattles and threw our hats into the air – only for Cec Irwin to lose the ball and allow Ken Keyworth to run through and score seconds after Mulhall’s fine effort. Hats were retrieved and rattles stayed firmly unwaved.

It ended 3-3, a good game but a disappointing result. Under Matt Giliies, City ended up below Sunderland that year, with us reaching the heady heights of 15th out of 22. The board signed a goalkeeper after Forster conceded four at West Brom and three at Chelsea and for a while Sandy McLaughlin (for it was he) kept a fit Monty out of the team – until he had a “difficult” game against West Brom on New Year’s Day 1966.

George Hardwick was eventually appointed in November and he steered us away from the relegation zone before he was sacked and replaced by Ian McColl at the end of the season.

Looking back, it was an opportunity wasted. We came up with Leeds United and, despite having a bigger and better ground and a (far) bigger and better fan base, we never pushed on. Travelling back on that bus, I am sure that the older men on it were beginning to realise that this club found it difficult to do things right. Some things hardly change.

* YouTube’s archive of long-ago Match of the Day editions includes these snippets from one of the “difficult” games for Derek Forster mentioned by Sixer ….

Fifty years of Sunderland openers: (1) Leicester City and six goals

Derek Forster: a young with a very grown-up up role
Derek Forster: a young kid with a very grown-up up role

On a day when I caught (via Facebook) my old pal Barry Emmerson “listening on Spotify to Billy Fury (not Halfway to Paradise but Jealousy) – it seems right that Pete Sixsmith should launch a new series on opening games of Sunderland seasons. He’s seen quite enough, but has magnificent power of recall that enables him to bring to life the detail of August encounters of his and SAFC’s past …

Read moreFifty years of Sunderland openers: (1) Leicester City and six goals