In the first of a regular feature to build up to the first game of the coming season, we will look back at some of Sunderland’s more memorable opening games over the years. Today we remember the six-goal opening game of the 1964-65 season at home to Leicester City, where a 15 year-old rookie debuted in goal. This was Sunderland’s first game back in Division One following their first ever relegation in 1958.
The season continued the trend in keeping player numbers low and intensifying fitness schedules, owing to the abolition of the maximum wage rule forcing clubs to keep a smaller number of players on their books. Of the 36 players who began Sunderland’s 1964-65 campaign, only 23 were full professionals, and only 14 had played in the previous season, a one which Sunderland broke records for highest points, most points away from home and best defensive record in a 42-game campaign. It was a shock, therefore, when manager Alan Brown left to take over the vacancy at Sheffield Wednesday just a few weeks prior to the opening game at home to Leicester City. Sunderland would be without a manager, the squad being instead picked by a selection committee.
Despite the smaller squad size, the only position without an adequate cover in the previous season was the goalkeeper, and an injury to Jimmy Montgomery in the close season had necessitated a last minute stand-in in the form of former England schools international Derek Forster, aged only 15 years and 185 days. The Newcastle-born Forster was signed by Sunderland as an apprentice only two months previously, his shock immediate entry into the first team as the league’s youngest ever player would be the key talking point of the game, and all eyes would be on the young boy to see if he could withstand the physical rigour of the First Division.
Another injury to a major player, and this one unfortunately would be permanent, was still keeping Brian Clough absent from first team affairs after a cruciate ligament tear back in 1962. On the same weekend as the first team’s match against Leicester City he turned out for the reserves in a fifteen minute spell, managing to score a goal. He would make three first team appearances early in the campaign, scoring against Leeds, before settling for an abrupt retirement after a game against Aston Villa in September. Tall & physical inside-left Willie McPheat also struggled to regain fitness following a broken leg, eventually being sold to Harlepools United as the season progressed.
The game itself opened with a goal from Leicester’s Mike Stringfellow, this was after two great saves from Derek Forster to deny Howard Riley. Leicester made it 0-2 with a shocking error on Sunderland’s part, as Johnny Crossan and Martin Harvey left the ball to each other in attack, allowing Frank McLintock to steal it and play it to Tom Sweenie. Len Ashurst in the Sunderland defence naively stayed with Riley on the wing, allowing Sweenie to drive home from the edge of the area, giving Forster no chance of a save.
The home side pulled one back before the break with a typically fine piece of wing play from Crossan, with George Mulhall finally slotting the ball past England international Gordon Banks in the Leicester goal. George Herd got onto the scoresheet after the restart with a rebound after a Crossan shot had hit the crossbar. The wing partnership of Crossan and Mulhall was in fine form and worked hard in the second half, with Sunderland managing to complete the comeback with a pass from striker Nick Sharkey to Mulhall, who beat Graham Cross in the City defence and scored to make it 3-2.
Within 45 seconds of the restart, however, another defensive error proved costly to the home side. Cec Irwin stalled in a tackle which enabled Stringfellow to play the ball down the centre to Ken Keyworth, who equalised to make the game 3-3.
Doubts about young Forster’s aptitude in the first team were eased early on, with Argus of the Sunderland Echo stating that he “showed poise and ability beyond his years”, and despite conceding three goals he could not be said to be at fault for any of them. Predictions of a long and successful career were made, but unfortunately it was not a potential that was realised. After conceding four in the next match against West Bromwich Albion, and three at Chelsea, it became clear that a fifteen year old boy (quite understandably) would not be able to hold his own in front of goal. Kilmarnock keeper Sandy McLaughlin was signed in time for the second home game of the season, another match against West Brom. He would go on to understudy Montgomery and McLaughlin for the next nine years, picking up only a few games, before finishing his career in further obscurity with Charlton and Brighton reserves.
Prior to the opening game it had been predicted that Sunderland would be strong in defence and lacking in attack, although on this showing the opposite opinion could have been made, with two of the Leicester goals the result of defensive errors on Sunderland’s part. Further was an uncharacteristically out of form Charlie Hurley, although points could be made on the heavy winds making heading and aerial play difficult. Full-backs Irwin and Ashurst often having to cover for the Irishman was an unusual sight. In attack, Nick Sharkey made intelligent approaches on goal but his finishing was lacking. Wing play from Crossan and Mulhall was certainly Sunderland’s strongest asset going forward.
Hopes for the new season were dashed with a string of poor results which followed this match, with the club not picking up their first victory until the ninth game of the season, a 1-0 win against Blackburn. Sunderland were struggling when the managerial situation was finally dealt with, Middlesbrough legend George Hardwick arriving in style in November with a 4-0 hammering of Everton at home. After a tough couple of months a great run of form was finally picked up, moving Sunderland away from the relegation zone. The club would eventually finish the season in 15th position.
Final score: Sunderland 3-3 Leicester City
Sunderland goals: George Mulhall (2), George Herd.
Sunderland line up: Derek Forster, Cecil Irwin, Len Ashurst, Martin Harvey, Charlie Hurley, Jimmy McNab, Brian Usher, George Herd, Nick Sharkey, Johnny Crossan, George Mulhall.