Much fuss was made about Josh Maja’s goals this season. Maja became the third highest scoring teenager in the club’s history with 17 goals. Way out in front as the highest ever scoring teenager with 23 goals before he turned 20 was Willie McPheat who has sadly passed away, aged 76.
The last of those goals came three days before his Sunderland career was ended. The 19-year old was the victim of a challenge by Leeds United’s Bobby Collins.
“Willie was raw material” remembers his former teammate Len Ashurst. “He was two-footed and a big, strong player who could hold his own physically. That endeared him to the manager and the crowd. What was surprising was how quick he was. He used to cover the ground with speed and that put him in good positions. He enjoyed the dressing room banter and it’s sad to hear he has passed away after a long illness.”
The illness Ashurst refers to is Alzheimer’s, a condition McPheat had suffered with for many years. Living in a Glasgow nursing home, he had been regularly visited throughout the last decade by his old Sunderland teammate and life-long friend John Dillon.
“I last saw him about a fortnight before he died,” explains Dillon. “He hadn’t been able to recognise me for the last couple of years, but I still went to see him regularly. We were in digs together at Sunderland. He was a couple of months older than me but then I thought he was a year or older because he was so much taller than I was. We got on smashing and when you gave him the ball, he could do anything with it. He wasn’t a flamboyant player, but he was strong.”
McPheat’s haul of goals included one on his debut against Leeds and another in a big win over Newcastle. Willie also scored in Sunderland’s first ever League Cup tie against Brentford, but it was in an FA Cup quarter-final against Spurs that he netted his most famous goal, one that is pictured on the staircase that leads to the dressing rooms at the Stadium of Light. That goal triggered a pitch invasion at Roker Park as Spurs escaped with a draw.
Tottenham went on to become the first team of the century to win the double of league and cup with Spurs’ official history recording that the nearest they came to failing in that mission as at Roker Park where over 60,000 gave second division Sunderland a wall of noise that had Spurs’ skipper Danny Blanchflower famously seen searching for the speakers he thought amplified the crowd after the match. There were none of course. McPheat had simply ignited the Roker Roar. Dillon played on the wing that night and recalls Blanchflower subsequently writing about Willie McPheat and himself as “The two young Scots who gave me a hard time.”
How many more goals McPheat would have scored if not effectively finished a month before his 20th birthday we will never know. His 23 in 72 games as a teenager was tremendously impressive. Three years after his injury, having tried and failed to regain sufficient fitness to play again for Sunderland, who were by now back in the top flight, he moved to Hartlepool where after four goals in 17 games he returned to Scotland to play for Airdrie.Born in Caldercruix on 4 September 1942, McPheat passed away aged 76 on Saturday 6 April.