Sixer recalls: The first time he ever saw Sheffield United

Malcolm Dawson writes….I’m amazed that Pete Sixsmith has such good recollections of individual football matches that he goes to as he sees so many. I think he had a day off on Sunday but he’s seen two more since he went to the Flamingo Land Stadium, where unfortunately the home side didn’t play in pink nor spend the entire game moving in unison or standing on one leg. Last night The Minstermen grabbed the points at the Brewery Field in Spenny and Monday saw him watching some youth football at Willington. No doubt he’ll be off to a game tonight – the Bishop v West battle of the Aucklands possibly. In between times he looks back at the first time he recalls seeing our forthcoming opponents. Today he thinks back to a time when both Sunderland and Sheffield were the centres of heavy industry and when the Red and Whites of South Yorkshire came to Roker.


Pete Sixsmith – pre-weight loss days

The Blades; a name synonymous with the steel city of Sheffield and that which it produced in huge amounts, where a knife with a Sheffield blade or a pair of scissors stamped “Made in Sheffield” were passed down as family heirlooms and only brought out for special occasions. My second viewing of Sheffield United was one of those. I saw them at Roker twice within four months in 1965.

The first time was on the 3rd April, as the season was winding towards its end and both teams were in danger of relegation. In the previous home game, we had beaten a Tottenham side that had included Jimmy Greaves, Alan Gilzean (one of my all-time favourite players) and Cliff Jones with goals by Nick Sharkey and George Herd and had then lost at Blackburn and drawn at Burnley as we went on a tour of the East Lancashire mill towns.

United arrived below us in the league. They had beaten us 3-0 at Bramall Lane in November as we struggled on without a manager, the team being selected by “A Selection Committee.” The aforementioned committee even signed players, notably Sandy McLaughlan, John Parke and Harry Hood from Kilmarnock, Hibernian and Clyde respectively.

By April, George Hardwick had established some of what passes for normality at Sunderland and we were playing some decent football. The Blades arrived with hopes of a double and left with a stinging 3-1 defeat thanks to goals from Dickie Rooks (pen), Harry Hood and George Mulhall, with young centre forward Mick Jones replying in the last minute.

The teams that day, in front of 36,573 were;

Sandy McLaughlan; John Parke, Len Ashurst; Martin Harvey, Dickie Rooks, Jimmy McNab; Mike Hellawell, George Herd, Nicky Sharkey, Harry Hood and George Mulhall.

Alan Hodgkinson; Len Badger, Bernard Shaw; Brian Richardson, Ken Mallender, Keith Kettleborough; Alan Woodward, Len Allchurch, Mick Jones, Tony Wagstaff and Barry Hartle.

Not the right date but the right opponents at least.

In truth, I don’t remember a great deal about that game, but four months later, it was a different matter….

This was the day that Jim Baxter played his first league game at Roker Park. He had been signed for the then huge sum of £72,000 from Rangers as what is now known as a marquee signing. And we had a new manager. Gentleman George Hardwick, a man for whom the word suave could have been invented, had been sent on his way and former Rangers and Scotland manager Ian McColl was appointed. His brief from Chairman Syd Collings, was to sign Baxter and this he duly did. “Slim Jim” wasn’t any more but he had a terrific reputation and it looked as if the club was on the up. We dreamt of winning titles and cups and of European nights at Roker as Baxter and Hurley and co. led us to where we had been 30 years previously. Poor deluded fools……

The first two games had been away at Leeds, where we suffered a narrow 1-0 defeat and where I smoked my first and last cigarette and at West Ham, where a George Herd goal rescued a point for us.

And so it was that The Blades pitched up on a sunny afternoon at Roker in front of a crowd of 42,127 who were all ready to worship at the altar of the Great Man. And they did for a while at least as he scored two wonderful goals in the first half to cancel out Mick Jones’s early opener.

The first one was a shot across England keeper Alan Hodgkinson as Slim Jim glided through the Blades defence. The second was a stunner; a hooked shot from 20 yards that crashed in underneath the crossbar at The Roker End, leaving Hodgkinson (admittedly, a bit of a short a***) clutching at thin air.

The by now not so slim Jim

The chant of “Baxter, Baxter” went up from the newly covered Fulwell End, while those in the Roker basked in the sun with the whole crowd feeling that, like the US journalist Lincoln Steffens after his visit to Communist Russia in 1919, they “had seen the future and it works.” Both were to be sadly disillusioned.

George Herd put one into the Fulwell goal in the 48th minute and Jimmy McNab, squeezed out to inside left to accommodate Slim Jim, wrapped it up in the 70th minute.

Billy Reilly’s bus was a hubbub of conversation on the way home. Baxter was compared with Raich Carter and Len Shackleton and the younger riders on the Central Coaches flyer were adamant that the Scot was far better than anyone those old fogies had ever seen. Eamonn Andrews on Sports Report told us that were now in tenth position and we got home to await the arrival of the Football Echo at Bill Clarkson’s paper shop on Byerley Road.

Of course, it was a false dawn, one of many that I have seen over both Roker and The Stadium of Light. But for one afternoon at least, we had a genuine superstar in our team, a man who, had it not been for a broken leg and a propensity for Bacardi and Coke, could have been one of the greatest players in the world and who could have dragged Sunderland up into the higher echelons of English football. Alas, it was not to be and he departed to Nottingham Forest, a drink sodden wreck two years later.

The teams were; McLaughlin; Cec Irwin, Parke; Harvey, Hurley Baxter; Hellawell, Herd, O’Hare, McNab, Mulhall sub; Tommy Mitchinson

Blades and England stopper

Hodgkinson; Badger, Mallender; David Munks, Joe Shaw, Reg Matthewson; Wagstaff(T), Kettleborough, Jones, Alan Birchenall, Gil Reece.

Some “interesting” points about players;

Mike Hellawell had been signed by Hardwick from Birmingham City. As well as being a flying winger, he was a good cricketer and played one game for Warwickshire when he was at Walsall

Tommy Mitchinson was a Sunderland lad who signed for the club in 1960. He never quite lost that “promising” tag, making 20 appearances between 1962 and 1966, after which he moved to Mansfield Town and subsequently Aston Villa, Torquay United and Bournemouth.

There’s a statue of Joe Shaw at Bramall Lane to commemorate his 714 appearances for the Blades. But he wasn’t a “local hero” in the strictest sense of the word. He was born in Murton so was more than likely a Sunderland supporter. In fact, I remember him whooping with delight as Baxter scored those two goals…..

Alan Birchenall had just broken into the United team. Born in London, his family moved to Nottinghamshire when he was four and he signed for United in 1963. After he left the Blades he had a peripatetic career taking in Chelsea, Crystal Palace, Leicester City, Memphis Rogues and Trowbridge Town before he ended up as the supremely irritating “Match Day Host” at Filbert Street and The King Power Stadium. Let’s face it, we’ve all wanted to poke him with those irritating clappers that City still persist with. Must mean something in Thai.

Finally, Keith Kettleborough was the most unlikely looking footballer I have ever seen. Small, wiry and as bald as the proverbial coot, he spent most of his extensive career in the area around Sheffield, starting out at Rotherham United before moving to Bramall Lane. After five seasons there he went to Newcastle United where he and Jim Iley formed the least hirsute midfield in footballing history. Then it was on to Doncaster Rovers before finishing his career at Chesterfield.

The other game with the Blades that springs to mind is the play off semi in 1998 when a Nicky Marker o.g. and a Kevin Phillips goal took us through – although most of us remember a stunning series of saves by Lionel Perez that enabled us to maintain that lead. There were 40,000 there that night as well. We’ll write about that one next season………

MD says: And now you’ve had a good read, how many Sunderland players can you name who also played first class cricket? Any advance on three?