In 1949-50, Sunderland AFC for the only time ever had over a million fans at their home League matches. The Wearsiders would almost certainly have won the title if not for an injury to the top scorer that season. Here is Dickie Davis's story for the season. Davis scored 25 League goals and was in great form as the season moved towards its climax.
Adolf Hitler’s attacking ambitions delayed Birmingham-born Richard ‘Dickie’Davis’s League debut for Sunderland until he was aged twenty-four. He didn’t get on the scoresheet away to Leeds in December 1946, but when the Wearsiders returned to Roker Park he grabbed his first League goal against Liverpool. It proved to be one of five during the season.
However, with manager Bill Murray preferring Cliff Whitelum at centre-forward, Davis was forced to bide his time at the start of the following season, being switched to inside- forward before finally appearing to make the number 9 shirt his own.
The 1948–49 season was therefore a frustrating one as Davis found himself sharing the centre-forward spot with Ronnie Turnbull in a side in which record signing ‘Clown Prince’ Len Shackleton was the undoubted star. Davis was missing when Sunderland sensationally crashed out of the FA Cup when beaten by non-leaguers Yeovil Town. Having scored just seven times during the 1948–49 season, there was little to suggest that Davis, standing 5 feet 8 inches tall and weighing just over 11 stones, was about to set the First Division alight at the start of the 1949–50 season.
Yet within 41 minutes of the opening match, Davis had knocked home his first of the season, and although Liverpool had beaten Sunderland 4-2 at Anfield, there was enough in Sunderland’s performance to suggest they were going to have a decent season. This was confirmed in the next game at Burnley, when the sides shared four goals, one of which Davis struck home on 12 minutes. It was reward for a fine performance that had the Journal reporter at the game stating, ‘Davis proved a constant menace to the Burnley goal. Cummings did a good job against him but could not prevent the centre forward putting in some dangerous shots.’
Shackleton was at his magnificent best when Sunderland played their first home game of the season, notching up two in a 4-2 victory against Arsenal, the Wearsiders’ first against the Gunners in fourteen years. Davis failed to get on the scoresheet and after five games without a goal, he was under pressure to deliver when Sunderland ran out to play Derby at the Baseball Ground in the eighth League game of the season. When he notched up Sunderland’s second just before half-time the away side seemed set to run out easy winners, but three second-half goals by the home side saw The Rams capture both points.
Sunderland’s indifferent start to the season looked like it might continue when, with just 13 minutes of the home game to play against WBA, the score was tied. Then Davis, receiving a pass from Jack Stelling, pivoted sharply and shot past Jim Sanders to ensure a 2-1 victory. It was just the tonic he and his side needed, and the following weekend the man who’d guested for Aston Villa during the war was in impressive form against Manchester United at Old Trafford. First, on 9 minutes he hit a powerful shot that was going past ’keeper Jack Compton, only for Johnny Carey to get the last touch. Today such a goal would recorded as the striker’s, but if Davis was disappointed he didn’t show it as 6 minutes later, he eluded Allenby Chilton and met a perfect Tommy Reynolds centre first time, Sunderland eventually running off 3-1 winners.
Sunderland’s next away game was at Newcastle and Davis was again to add his name to the scoresheet. There were doubts about whether his shot had crossed the line in a 2-2 draw, but there were no doubts about the quality of the finish, a back-heeler in a crowded goalmouth from 15 yards out. It was the sort of goal only a player in form would have attempted and Davis followed it up by opening the scoring in the first minute of the following weekend’s 2-1 home victory against Fulham.Two further goals followed in the next game at Roker Park, a header and then a tap-in after the Charlton legend Sam Bartram inexplicably dropped a simple cross at the centre-forward’s feet.
With Sunderland and Davis maintaining their form into the New Year, the Wearsiders travelled to face Birmingham City in mid-January. The Blues had in goal one of England’s greatest ’keepers in Gil Merrick, but on 67 minutes he was to be left helpless by a magnificent Davis goal. Shackleton had crossed, but with the ball going away from both Davis and the goal, there seemed little danger before the Sunderland man leapt backwards to flick the ball over his head and past the startled Birmingham number one.
It proved to be a crucial match winner and with his confidence now raised to new heights, Davis struck his first hat-trick when he scored half his side’s goals in a 6-1demolition of Derby. If there was then the shock of being well-beaten 5-1 at Second-Division Spurs in the FA Cup, it was not enough to prevent Sunderland continuing their League progress.
Cup holders Wolverhampton Wanderers had a fine defence with England international Billy Wright at the centre and the man many feel is the best ever between the sticks for the Black Country side, Bert ‘the Cat’ Williams. Dickie Davis, though, was now in sparkling form and on 11 March 1950 he notched his second hat-trick of the season as Sunderland won 3-1 at Molineux. Centre-half Bill Shorthouse gave his much smaller opponent a right battering, but it failed to prevent him running off at the top of the First Division goal scorers’ chart with a total of twenty-three. It soon became twenty-five, as having hit the equalising goal at Fratton Park against reigning champions Portsmouth in a 1-1 draw, Dickie Davis then grabbed Sunderland’s second in a 2-2 draw at the Valley, nodding home a Tommy Wright cross with just three minutes remaining.
Davis was off the scoresheet in the next two games. Both were played at Roker Park and it was the man playing at inside right, next to him, who was the star. Ivor Broadis had been Carlisle’s player-manager when Sunderland had enquired about employing his services, and so he duly became the first man to transfer himself when he moved from the west to the east coast at a cost of £18,000 in January 1949. After hitting both goals in a 2-0 win against Villa, Broadis again got both goals as Middlesbrough returned down the north-east coast beaten 2-0. The result, though, had come at a cost, Davis being injured in a collision with Boro ’keeper Rolando Ugolini that saw him limp out the second half on the wing.
There were thirty-six games of the season gone and Davis had played in thirty-three of them and notched up twenty-five goals. He had scored 11 in the last twelve League games.
Sunderland were just coming into form, and since losing to Stoke City at the Victoria Ground in late December had played twelve League games unbeaten, winning eight of them.
Len Duns had been a fine servant for Sunderland, playing at Wembley when Preston were beaten in the FA Cup Final in 1937 and earlier collecting a League winner’s medal. He hadn’t, though, played a League game in over a year. Drafted in to play outside right, Sunderland reshuffled with Tommy Wright moved to play centre forward. Fulham were easily beaten 3-0 at Craven Cottage, but with Middlesbrough fighting for their lives a derby match at Ayresome Park was always going to be a difficult test. So it proved, as Sunderland went down 2-0.
The performance saw further changes in the starting line up for the must-win home game with Manchester City. Bert Trautmann twice saved one of Stelling’s penalty kicks as Sunderland flopped 2-1. When Sunderland subsequently lost a third consecutive game, at Huddersfield, they were out of the title race even after they beat Everton 4-2 at home in the penultimate match of the season before what was easily the smallest home crowd of the season at 23,519. This dropped the Wearsiders average gate to 47,785, which is still the highest in the club’s history.
Davis returned for the final match of the season and scored twice as Chelsea were beaten 4-2 before a Roker Park crowd of just 21,567, the lowest of the season. This was slightly fear than the 23,519 who had watched the Everton match. Yet despite these paltry attendances the 1949-50 season is when Sunderland recorded their highest average gates at 47,785. There were 21 League home games meaning 1,003,485 fans passed through the turnstiles during the season. The average home gate for the first 19 matches of the season was 50,442.
Davis’s absence in the five of the last six games of the season had proven crucial and although he ended up with the honour of being the First Division top-scorer, he would surely have traded it for a League winner’s medal. Sunderland finished in third place just a point behind Champions Portsmouth. One more victory and a seventh title would have been recorded.
Dickie Davis was to go on and make a total of 154 first team appearances for Sunderland before departing to play for Darlington in May 1954 after having hit seventy-nine goals on Wearside. The 1949–50 season was clearly the finest during his relatively short career. Sunderland were the League top scorers with eighty-three and Davis hit twenty-five of them. They included a beauty at St Andrews and two hat-tricks during a season in which Davis demonstrated his all-round goal-scoring abilities with goals from both left and right feet and his head. By finishing three goals in front of second-placed Stan Mortensen and Derby’s Jackie Stamps, Davis had shown that on his day he was up there with the best.