Born Falkirk; May 8, 1936.
George Mulhall provides one of the finest possible examples of a species of winger which was particularly abundant in English football throughout the 1950’s and 60’s. Fast, direct and seemingly indestructible Mulhall raced up and down the wing for Sunderland for the best part of a decade taking all the punishment the defenders of the day could dish out on a multitude of playing surfaces, ranging from perfect to perfectly awful, with automaton regularity and consistency.
Indeed, having made his name as a footballer in the Granite City of Aberdeen it seemed as though Mulhall had been imbued with the same raw material such was his ability to absorb punishment and keep on coming back for more.
George Mulhall was actually born in Falkirk and played his first serious football for the highly respected amateur side Kilsyth Rangers, a club situated midway between Falkirk and Glasgow. Sitting conveniently in the heartland of Scottish football it was hardly surprising that Kilsyth’s dashing young winger should quickly attract attention from the professional clubs but it would be interest from further afield that led to Mulhall’s breakthrough.
Having been spotted and recommended by an Aberdeen scout Mulhall signed for the team from the far north in 1953. Whatever dreams of stardom the youngster may have felt on signing for Aberdeen they had to be put on hold indefinitely as Mulhall found himself understudy to a player who possessed the same Captain Scarlet type virtues that Mulhall would himself display later on in his career.
Mulhall was fast, strong and had a dangerous shot on him but these were precisely the attributes of Jackie Hather, the incumbent left winger at Pittodrie. Over the next six years Hather would continue to provide sterling service for The Dons and, frustratingly for Mulhall, remain amazingly healthy.
These were heady days for Aberdeen as well as they claimed the Scottish title in 1955 before finishing runners up the following year. There was excitement in the cups also as the club won the League Cup in 1956 as well as being losing finalists in the Scottish Cup finals of 1954 and 1959. All this time Mulhall remained mainly in the shadows playing only a bit part role in these exploits.
This side had to break up eventually, however, and even Hather began to decline. In general Aberdeen found it difficult to replace their better players with adequate replacements but in Mulhall they had a ready made substitute for Hather. So easily did the new man step into Hather’s boots on the left wing, in fact, that he soon found himself stepping out in the dark blue of Scotland.
Mulhall had begun to dispute the number 11 jersey seriously with Hather during the 1958-59 season and from the beginning of the following campaign it became his own property. Such was the impact his forceful raiding made that he was selected for his full Scottish cap in October 1959, away to Northern Ireland, and he marked his debut with the final goal in a 4-1 victory.
This encouraging debut did not result in any opportunity of establishing himself in the national side, however, and it would be three years before Mulhall would gain another cap in his somewhat bizarre international career.
Consistent performances for Aberdeen, where he would establish a good understanding with the young inside forward Charlie Cooke, and representative honours with the Scottish League XI kept Mulhall far enough in the spotlight to make it no surprise when his talents, along with so many of his contemporaries, were taken north of the border.
Sunderland, beginning to build up a formidable array of Scottish talent, were the club eager to do business and they handed over a cheque for £23,000 to secure Mulhall’s services in September 1962.
Sunderland were a second division side at the time but eager for, and confident of, a return to the first division and their former glories. Mulhall was to give their forward line penetration down the left hand side but their attack, in many ways their whole team, was concentrated on the remarkable scoring feats of their brash, buccaneering centre forward, Brian Clough.
With Clough scoring freely and Sunderland a real force in the second division it was a good time for Mulhall to be arriving at Roker Park and the winger settled down immediately. His brand of wing play was uncomplicated but highly effective and his powerful surging runs, fast centres and hard shooting were all to the taste of the Wearside faithful.
Whether the Scottish selectors were impressed by Mulhall’s fine early form with his new club or whether they had simply been reminded of his existence by his move south of the border is uncertain but within a couple of months of his joining Sunderland the winger was presented with his second cap. Once again Northern Ireland were to be the opposition and this time Mulhall formed part of a forward line that led Scotland to a 5-1 victory.
This was undoubtedly the best side Mulhall ever played in. From right to left his partners in attack were Willie Henderson, John White, Ian St. John and Denis Law while behind them was a beautifully balanced half back pairing of Pat Crerand and Jim Baxter. It was a great occasion for Mulhall but the show was very definitely stolen by his inside partner. Denis Law was in the process of truly establishing himself as a world star and helped himself to four of the five goals.
Mulhall’s international prospects remained bleak, however, as he was one of a number of wingers in the queue behind Scotland’s resident outside left, Davie Wilson of Rangers, and when the next team was selected Wilson, available again, was straight back into the side.
There was also a desperate setback awaiting on the domestic front. Going into Christmas Sunderland, and Brian Clough in particular, were flying. Having scored twenty eight goals in as many games, however, Clough would be struck down with a serious injury in the Boxing Day clash with Bury, an injury that would eventually force him to retire.
Clough’s misfortune would not stop Mulhall from going on to enjoy an excellent career at Roker Park and Sunderland remained a formidable side in the second division but the loss of this prolific forward went a long way towards denying the player and his new club the possibility of any real glory during the next decade.
Even without Clough Sunderland looked a good bet for promotion from the second division that season before a late slump left them battling Chelsea for the second automatic promotion place behind Stoke City. Three successive wins left them needing only a draw at home to their rivals in their final game of the season but Chelsea managed to win by the only goal, Peter Bonetti making a breathtaking last minute save from Mulhall, and the Londoners then confirmed promotion by virtue of their superior goal average by thrashing Portsmouth 7-0.
The following season saw promotion clinched with something to spare, however, as Sunderland and Leeds United proved themselves a cut above the rest of the division.
Nick Sharkey came in at centre forward to try and compensate for the loss of Clough and was certainly a willing replacement but the major improvement in the Sunderland forward line came with the acquisition of Johnny Crossan who struck up a fine understanding with Mulhall down the left hand side and generally added a touch of class to the attack.
Mulhall earned his third and final Scottish cap early on in the campaign when he was again selected to face Northern Ireland but this time the trip to Belfast, made without Denis Law, brought a 2-1 defeat and spelled the end of the wingers’ international career.
This meant that Mulhall’s international career comprised of three caps which were spread over four years but only one opponent.
The promotion battle that ensued between Sunderland and Leeds laid the foundations for a bitter rivalry that was to endure throughout the sixties and Mulhall would prove to be a leading protagonist in the tussles that lay ahead.
The two league games between the sides that season were scheduled over the Christmas programme and Sunderland had the better of the meetings, drawing 1-1 at Elland Road before winning the return 2-0 at Roker Park two days later.
Mulhall was a prominent figure in the two games, especially so at Roker where he consistently tore down the wing to create danger for the Leeds defence, and the meetings of these two sides would continue to fire his competitive spirit. The fiery left winger could generally be relied upon to produce his best against the Elland Road club or, if things weren’t going quite so well, get himself sent off instead.
Either way there was seldom a dull moment when Mulhall saw the all white strip lined up in front of him.
Despite coming out second best in their head to head meetings Leeds were able to ease away from Sunderland to clinch the second division title as their rivals became involved in an epic FA Cup run. There was a famous victory over Everton, the reigning league champions, in the 5th round which set up a quarter final tie with Manchester United that would stretch to three games before being resolved.
The drama and emotion generated by these three ties is hard to convey almost half a century later but in the days when the FA Cup was still the highlight of the English football season nobody involved in this epic struggle would ever forget the events. The enduring impact made is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that two of the players involved would recall the series of clashes when contributing to separate books detailing their most memorable games.
The fact that Sunderland’s defender, Len Ashurst, should choose these games as his most memorable is not too surprising but that they should also be the choice of United’s Bobby Charlton, with all the massively important and dramatic games he played in for club and country, gives a clear indication of just how great these games were.
The first game was played at Old Trafford and Sunderland really should have settled the issue there and then. Mulhall opened the scoring and then provided the centres as Sunderland swept into a 3-1 lead. United, strangely lacklustre in attack, looked to be heading out until two late goals saved them and forced a replay at Roker Park.
Not surprisingly interest in this game had reached fever pitch in the north east and it is believed that no accurate record of the attendance exists after the huge swell of people in and around Roker Park saw several gates burst open to allow ready admittance for the swarming crowds outside.
Once more Sunderland looked likely winners. With the game into extra time another devastating Mulhall cross was turned into his own net by a desperate Maurice Setters and a famous victory seemed certain only for United to grab another last minute equaliser.
The third game was held on neutral turf at Huddersfield and it was again Sunderland who took the lead, a Nick Sharkey goal giving them a half time advantage, but United came out to finally find their top form and run out 5-1 winners, Denis Law clicking into gear with a hat trick.
Sunderland’s sense of frustration was heightened by the fact that their immense centre half, Charlie Hurley, had put through his own net at Old Trafford before making a crucial error for United’s third goal and Jim Montgomery, their hugely reliable goalkeeper, had been badly at fault to present United with their last gasp equaliser at Roker Park.
Some of this frustration was vented a couple of weeks later as Preston North End, their one potential danger in the quest for promotion, were summarily beaten 4-0 at Roker Park and the club was back where it felt it belonged in the first division.
Mulhall, with the club for just shy of two full seasons, was yet to miss a game for his new employers and he would be ever present again as Sunderland consolidated their place in the top flight the following season. This left him within touching distance of the clubs’ record for consecutive appearances and he duly went on to set a new benchmark at the beginning of the 1965-66 season. With his total standing at 125 Mulhall was finally forced to sit one out having been sent off against Leeds on the opening day of the season, however.
Mulhall’s consistency, and durability, were important factors in Sunderland managing to maintain their place in the top flight. With no obvious stars the club relied to a large extent on hard work and team spirit to keep themselves out of trouble. Mulhall was a winger who did not mind pitching in to help the team and his eye for a goalscoring opportunity was also vital to the teams’ cause.
The eight goals he managed during the 1965-66 season made him the clubs’ joint top scorer alongside the newly signed centre forward Neil Martin and helped Sunderland just about stay clear of the drop.
Martin, especially good in the air, would prove a sound acquisition for the club and his aerial prowess was also appreciated by Mulhall who could always be relied on for some quality service from the left flank.
The 1966-67 season saw Mulhall produce his best goalscoring return for Sunderland as he hit eleven first division goals and he further endeared himself to the Sunderland supporters with a match winning display in the local derby with Newcastle at St. James Park. Mulhall scored one and was the provider for Martin and John O’Hare as Sunderland stormed to a 3-0 win, their first victory at that venue for over a decade.
This season also saw Sunderland, and Mulhall, pitched into another epic FA Cup tie which has also lived long in the memory of all those involved but not for such positive reasons as the earlier one with Manchester United.
This time Sunderland were pitted against Leeds United and these three games were dour, tense battles that were always simmering on the brink of outright violence. After two 1-1 draws the teams headed for Hull City’s Boothferry Park for the third game and with the teams again locked at 1-1 the referee awarded Leeds an outrageous, and decisive, penalty in the dying minutes of the game.
It has been said that Don Revie had barked the instruction for his players to go down anywhere near the box shortly before the decision was given and Sunderland resentment was understandably high. This manifested itself in two of their players getting themselves sent off in the remaining few minutes with Mulhall, somewhat predictably, being one of them.
After enjoying his most prolific season with the club in 66-67 the following campaign saw Mulhall struggle to find the net although he did save a hugely significant goal for the last day of the season.
Sunderland, once again, had been battling relegation for the most part of the campaign but were safe as they headed to Old Trafford to play Manchester United on the final day. Sunderland were only supposed to be making up the numbers as United battled neighbours City for the league title but they obviously hadn’t read the script.
When Mulhall came in off his wing to head home a right wing centre midway through the first half Sunderland had established a two goal lead and although United pulled one back they could not complete a comeback and their defeat allowed City to clinch the title in relative comfort with a victory at Newcastle.
Mulhall was now into his thirties and the 1968-69 season would be his last in English football. His strength had always been his genuine pace and his ability to shrug off the knocks dished out by opposing defenders but the passing years were beginning to erode these natural attributes and it was no great surprise when Mulhall and Sunderland parted company in the summer of 1969.
To the last, however, Mulhall had offered sterling service to the club and been able to trouble any right back he came up against.
After seven years hard labour with Sunderland a less taxing environment was probably deserved and Mulhall no doubt secured this by joining the migration to South Africa which tempted several stars who were nearing their sell by date at that time.
Mulhall had a couple of seasons representing Cape Town City before returning home to play a couple of games for Greenock Morton before calling time on his playing career at the age of 35.
Mulhall then went into coaching and, later, into management and offered much the same sort of service in those roles as he had as a player. Loyal, hard working, dependable and occasionally inspirational he did good work, normally in difficult circumstances, for Halifax Town, Bradford City and Bolton Wanderers.
The highlight of his time as a manager came as something of a bolt out of the blue when he returned to take over at Halifax Town in 1996, some fourteen years since his last job in the hot seat at Bolton.
Halifax were languishing dangerously close to the relegation zone in the Conference but rallied under Mulhall to survive before stunning most onlookers by storming to promotion, and a return to the Football League, a year later.
Mulhall, who had suffered previously with gout, was unable to lead the club back into league football but his outstanding efforts were recognised in 1999 with a testimonial at The Shay against Sunderland which drew a crowd of over six and a half thousand, no common occurrence it is fair to say.
I suppose, looking back at his career, that there was nothing unduly special about George Mulhall as a footballer. There have been plenty of other quick left wingers who could cross a good ball and bang in a shot but his contribution to the game, and to Sunderland Football Club in particular, is certainly worth remembering.
For seven seasons Mulhall was a fixture in the Sunderland team as the club fought its’ way back into the first division after a six year absence and then strove to establish itself as a first division club. Scarcely ever out of the starting line up Mulhall proved himself as one of the most consistent wingers in the country both in creating chances for others and in snapping them up himself when the opportunities arose.
Not a player to inspire widespread adoration perhaps but undoubtedly a good man to have on your side and surely one of Sunderland’s best ever “value for money” signings.
Sunderland 253 games, 53 goals.
Scotland 3 games, 1 goal.
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