INJURIES played a key role as Sunderland’s most encouraging performance of the season failed to reap any rewards.
The Rokermen were reduced to 10 men for the last half hour because of injuries, and Manchester United capitalised to take an unassailable 3-1 lead.
Even United boss Matt Busby confided in Echo writer Argus: “Sunderland certainly deserved a point – they came back really well.”
Mike Hellawell was carried off in just the third minute, forcing Sunderland to bring on sub Dave Elliott, and the loss of centre-forward Gary Moore to a badly bruised hip on the hour mark proved pivotal in stopping Sunderland potentially preserving a point.
Argus wrote: “These were bad breaks, and there were others which had referee James on the wrong side of the Roker crowd.
“But take the game as it was played and it was first-class entertainment, with Sunderland earning full credit for their well-sustained effort.
“They pushed the reigning First Division champions hard while there were 11 Roker players on the field ... harder still when down to 10 men.
“And I rated them desperately unlucky not to wring an equaliser out of a troubled United defence in that stirring last quarter of an hour.”
Sunderland were still checking whether Hellawell could return to the field of play when they grabbed a fifth-minute lead.
Sandy McLaughlan launched a long clearance into the United half and inside-left Neil Martin held off two defenders before placing a rising, left-foot shot wide of keeper Pat Dunne’s right hand into the top corner of the net.
The visitors, though, levelled with a brilliantly-taken George Best strike on 15 minutes, dancing around challenges on the edge of the box before firing home just inside the post.
Jim Baxter crashed a shot against the woodwork as Sunderland responded, but Best put United in front on 34 minutes, firing home first-time a fine pass from Bobby Charlton from close range.
Sunderland were down to 10 men permanently, with Moore off, when United added a killer third goal in the 65th minute.
Pat Crerand’s low drive across goal eluded everyone in the middle, but reached David Herd, who had the simple task of slotting home at the back post.
The goal, though, only seemed to inspire Sunderland.
United had a lucky escape when Martin beat keeper Dunne in the air, to a Martin Harvey cross, but no-one could take advantage.
But Martin got the second goal he deserved with 15 minutes left, storming through the box to send a powerful header beyond Dunne after magnificent work from George Herd on the left.
With a little more luck, the Wearsiders would have equalised a minute later, but another excellent Herd cross merely grazed Martin’s head.
Sunderland gallantly forced the issue in the closing stages, but United actually went closest to scoring, with McLaughlan forced to make a tremendous save to deny Crerand.
Argus hailed the Herd-Martin axis which gave United so many problems, writing: “Herd, storming back to peak form, and Martin, a master of goalfront technique, provided a keen fighting edge and were unlucky indeed to have only two goals to show for their work at the finish.
“Several first-class saves and cool, capable handling under pressure made it a day to remember for McLaughlan.”
H Harry Hood, Allan Gauden and Tommy Mitchinson scored for a strong Sunderland Reserves side, but they lost 6-3 at Hartlepool in the North Regional League after leading 2-0.
H Centre-half Jones headed a late consolation as Sunderland Boys’ English Schools Trophy dreams died with a 3-1 loss at Middlesbrough, who had Millet and Malone (2) on target.