Ha’way Back When: Sunderland’s epic North American adventure of 1967 remembered

Sunderland train in July 1967. From left: George Kinnell, Billy Hughes, Neil Martin, Allan Gauden, Jim Baxter.
Sunderland train in July 1967. From left: George Kinnell, Billy Hughes, Neil Martin, Allan Gauden, Jim Baxter.
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Sunderland’s players may have thought they had a short summer break this year – finishing on May 21 and back in training by the end of June.

But think of the Class of 67.

Ha'way Back When in association with John Hogg Funeral Directors

Ha'way Back When in association with John Hogg Funeral Directors

Ian McColl’s men completed their First Division campaign against Everton on May 16, ending 17th in the table.

That was a long enough season, but, incredibly, the Rokermen were then off to North America for a ground-breaking tour which only saw them back home on Tuesday, July 11 – just a week ahead of the start of pre-season training, although those who took part in the marathon 12-match trip were given an extra week off! Lucky them!

Sunderland were invited to take part in the inaugural United Soccer Association League, with 12 top-flight clubs, mostly from the British Isles, representing 12 North American cities.

The league was intended to start in 1968, but the United Soccer Association decided to begin a year early, following the formation of the rival National Professional Soccer League.

Sunderland represented the western Canadian city of Vancouver, playing as the Vancouver Royal Canadians, and it was to be a testing time for the Roker squad.

Maurice Setters had the honour of netting the first goal in the league as Stoke City (playing as Cleveland Stokers) beat Aberdeen (Washington Whips) 2-1, with Jim Storrie replying and Roy Vernon hitting the Potters’ winner.

Sunderland started dismally, suffering a shocking 6-1 drubbing from Dutch club ADO Den Haag, playing as San Francisco Golden Gate Gales. The Wearsiders were two down by half-time and conceded three more goals before Colin Suggett pulled one back. Ted Houwaart fired a hat-trick for Den Haag.

The Echo was distraught, commenting: “This was the shock result of the programme – an English First Division side trounced by a team from a country with only a slender tradition of football.”

Before the next game, Sunderland boss Ian McColl flew out to join the squad, having completed the £5,000 purchase of Carlisle’s Brian Heslop.

Sunderland picked up their first point in a 1-1 draw with Glentoran in Detroit, with George Herd heading home for McColl’s men.

The manager told the Echo that the heat – 86 degrees in the shade – was a handicap, but he was pleased with the performance of Jim Baxter in particular.

The Wearsiders then played their first home game at Vancouver’s 33,000 capacity Empire Stadium, with youngsters Colin Todd, Derek Forster, Colin Suggett and Billy Hughes stealing the show in a 4-1 defeat of Dundee United (Dallas).

Neil Martin’s opener was cancelled out by Bill Hainey, but Sunderland took command on the restart. Suggett and a great George Mulhall double did the damage.

Hughes was bright on his appearance as a substitute, while Heslop had his first run-out in the last 10.

Sunderland then beat Shamrock Rovers, representing Boston, 1-0 – again at Vancouver – with a fluke 21st-minute strike from John O’Hare, miskicking in front of goal to beat keeper Pat Dunne, sinking the Irishmen.

The Rokermen slumped to another big defeat in Los Angeles three days later, though, with Heslop bagging his first Sunderland goal.

Wolves cruised home 5-1 with Paddy Buckley (2), Peter Knowles, Derek Dougan and Ernie Hunt all netting.

The match brought a premature end to a promising run by keeper Forster, who injured a finger in the game with McColl issuing an instant call for Jimmy Montgomery – who had stayed at home to play for England Under-23s against Turkey – to fly to Canada.

Montgomery arrived in time to face Brazilians Bangu (representing Houston) but could not prevent a crushing 4-1 defeat. Paulo Borges hit a hat-trick for the Rio side with Fernando also notching.

Todd grabbed Sunderland’s goal after a neat link-up with Allan Gauden, who had recovered from a dislocated shoulder sustained in training.

Hibs handed out another beating to the beleaguered Wearsiders in Vancouver, with Eric Stevenson’s second-half double earning the Easter Road men, representing Toronto, a 4-2 win.

George Herd was allowed to fly home after the defeat, complaining that he had trouble sleeping.

Sunderland met Hibs again in Toronto soon after, with Gauden and Mulhall securing a 2-0 lead before Colin Stein and Joe Davis levelled matters. Todd was sent off for Sunderland for disputing a free-kick award.

It was all square, too, against Aberdeen in Washington. Francis Munro had the Dons ahead, but Gauden equalised in the second half.

McColl suffered disappointment in the aftermath of the draw, with Chelsea centre-forward Tony Hateley moving to Liverpool, who had a last-gasp £100,000 bid accepted when Roker director Jack Parker was supremely confident of securing the player for £80,000.

McColl was standing by in Washington to fly home to complete the deal, only to get the bad news from a phone call from a dejected Parker.

Sunderland moved on to Chicago to draw 2-2 with Italians Cagliari, who led 20 through Roberto Boninsegna’s first-half brace.

Centre-half George Kinnell pulled one back, with left-back Jimmy Shoulder equalising from 25 yards.

Uruguayans Cerro were next up, back in Vancouver, and Sunderland trailed from the 11th minute until Kinnell levelled in the dying seconds.

McColl’s side snapped their run of four successive draws with victory in their final match, a 3-1 Vancouver success against Stoke.

Baxter fired home on 25 minutes, and he added a second 12 minutes later. Alan Bloor replied, but Baxter was in inspired form, and he set Suggett free to add a third.

That ensured a bright finish for Sunderland with only their third win.

But they could only finish fifth in their Western Division, won by Wolves.

Wolves won the grand final, beating Aberdeen 6-5 after extra time in the showdown between the two divisional winners.