Billy Elliott - 1925-2008 - Part 1

Written by Rob Mason

Rob Mason pays tribute to a member of the ‘Bank of England’ side who was twice caretaker manager as well as trainer of the 1973 FA Cup winners.

No-one should underestimate Billy Elliott’s contribution to SAFC. As a player in the 50s he was one of the most committed of the sporadically brilliant but inconsistent ‘Bank of England’ side. In the 1970s he twice managed the team on a caretaker basis being successful and popular enough for supporters to instigate a petition to have him appointed as permanent manager while in 1973 he was trainer when the Lads lifted the cup, Billy having played a key role in that success.

In ill health since before Christmas, Billy passed away on Monday of last week, two months short of what would have been his 83rd birthday. His funeral was held last Saturday at Roker and was attended by many of his former colleagues.

Billy the Sunderland player

Capped five times by England, Billy Elliott was a hard player in an era when you could be as hard as you liked. There was no need to dive and roll around in mock agony if you were up against Elliott, chances were anything hurting would be hurting because Billy had clattered you! Billy played anywhere on the left flank, be it as an out an out winger, full back or in what many considered his best position, the traditional left half berth.

Signed for £26,000 from Burnley in the summer of 1953, Billy’s bow came at Charlton on the opening day of the season. Injury then ruled him out of a handful of games but a goal on his home debut in a 7-1 hammering of Arsenal was the first of a long unbroken run in the side.

Elliott’s second season saw Sunderland finish fourth in the top flight, level on points with the runners up. The Lads also got to the first of two successive but unsuccessful FA Cup semi finals. Billy played in both, the second against this evening’s visitors Birmingham, but he would help win the cup a generation later.

By 1956-57 he started dropping back from the wing to wing half or full back, the latter being the position he occupied on the day the club were relegated for the first time in history, at Portsmouth in 1958. Billy was the only ever present in that infamous campaign.

By the following Christmas, Elliott had played his final game as manager Alan Brown replaced big name players with youth. 33 year old Elliott was part of the cull and moved on to non league Wisbech Town the following summer. He did though return to Roker in January 1968 to coach in Brown’s second spell as manager.

Billy the Sunderland trainer and caretaker manager

Howard Wilkinson, George Hardwick and of course Niall Quinn were all ‘permanent’ Sunderland managers who oversaw fewer games than caretaker Billy did in his two spells in charge. Elliott’s 30 games as caretaker manager is also double that of the caretaker boss with the next highest number of games.

Billy’s first spell consisted of two draws and two defeats in November 1972 between the departure of Alan Brown and the arrival of Bob Stokoe. During that month Billy took the major decision to move Dave Watson from centre forward to centre half. Despite leaking two goals in the opening quarter of an hour of ‘Watto’s’ first game at the back away to Carlisle, Sunderland suddenly began to look better at the back and six months later when centre half Watson won the man of the match award in the FA Cup final, trainer Billy knew he’d made a major contribution. “At the time Dave Watson was being wasted as a centre forward in my opinion. I knew there was only one position for him and that was as a centre half” he told the programme in March 2005 on the occasion of his 80th birthday. Watson went on to win more caps for England than any other player ever has done while on Sunderland’s books.

Five years further on and Elliott was brought back to take over as caretaker after Jimmy Adamson and eventually Dave Merrington left for Leeds. A home defeat to Cambridge in Eliott’s first game was followed by four draws interrupted by a terrific FA Cup win over Everton on a frosty night at Roker Park.

A ten game unbeaten run in the league included the day of Gary Rowell’s hat trick against Newcastle at St. James’. In the end a couple of dodgy home defeats including one against bottom of the table Blackburn meant that promotion was missed by a point.

Under Bill Sunderland had played exciting, attacking football, topping the table after putting six past Sheffield United with just two games to play. Supporters handed in a petition to have Elliott appointed manager but he never got the job ‘full time’.

Click here to go to Part 2

We'll also look at his time as a globetrotting coach and manager, with tributes from Niall Quinn and Gary Rowell.