Johnny Mapson - goalkeeping legend

Interview by Brian Leng September 1995

To say that Johnny Mapson had a baptism of fire when he moved from Reading to Sunderland mid-way through the 1935-36 season is certainly something of an understatement. Having just made it into the Third Division South side’s first team, he suddenly found himself between the posts in a star-studded Roker side that was chasing the club’s sixth English League championship.

“I’d only played two first team games for Reading when I heard Sunderland were interested in signing me, ” recalled Johnny, “Their regular keeper Jimmy Thorpe had died following an injury sustained in a game against Chelsea and they needed an emergency replacement.

“I had to travel to London to meet their manager, Johnny Cochrane, in a hotel near Kings Cross station and after I’d signed he gave me a £20 note which he said was my signing-on fee. Well I was only 18 at the time and had never even seen a £20 note before, let alone handled one. Mr Cochrane could see I was a bit uneasy so he changed it for four £5 notes, the old large white ones, and felt much happier with these.”

At the time Sunderland were one of the leading clubs in the English League and at Roker Park Johnny teamed up with some of the biggest names in the game, players of the calibre of Raich Carter, Bobby Gurney and Jimmy Connor.

“We had a great team in those days, and in my first season we won the First Division Championship although, because I’d only played in seven games, I didn’t receive a medal – that was presented to Jimmy Thorpe’s widow.”

A year later there was even greater excitement on Wearside when the FA Cup was won for the first time in the club’s history and, in particular, Johnny has special reason to remember an epic battle against Wolverhampton Wanderers in the sixth round.

“For the one and only time in my career, I received an approach to throw a game. I still have the letter which I received on the morning of the game, which suggested that there would be a ‘big hand out’ for me at Wolverhampton Post Office that night if Sunderland were to lose the game. I immediately handed the letter to our manager Johnny Cochrane who concluded that the letter, which had a London post-mark, was nothing more that a hoax probably from a Wolves fan attempting to intimidate a young goalkeeper.

“As things turned out, we drew the first game at Molineux 1-1 and really fancied our chances in the replay. However, with only seconds remaining we were a goal down and it looked as though we were on the way out. Then Bobby Gurney popped up to score the equaliser from what looked like an impossible angle to take the game into extra-time and we eventually ended up drawing 2-2.

“The second replay was at Sheffield Wednesday’s ground and this time we made no mistake, winning 4-0. I recall Bobby Gurney scored one of the goals that day and then discovered after the game that he’d played with a broken bone in his foot!

“We’d made a habit of coming from behind during the Cup run and even in the final itself against Preston we were a goal down at half-time. Mind you we really turned it on in the second-half and ended up as comfortable winners.”

It was in 1939 that Johnny first received international recognition when he was selected to represent the Football Association on a tour of South Africa and two years later he was capped by England in a war-time international against Wales.

“When war was declared in 1939 I moved back down south and got a job in the Pulsometer engineering works and played for Reading when my shift work allowed. We actually won the London War Cup Final in 1941 when we beat Brentford at Stamford Bridge.”

When peace time football returned in 1946, Johnny was back between the posts at Roker Park and he remained Sunderland’s first choice goalkeeper for a further six seasons before retiring from the game in the summer of 1953.

He continued to live in Sunderland for many years before returning his home town of in Swindon in 1982. He was to spend the latter years of his life back in the north-east living with his daughter on the outskirts of Washington before his death in August 1999 at the age of 82 following a short illness.

I was fortunate to meet Johnny during the 1995-96 season when he made his final visit to Roker Park as a special guest of the club for the visit of Reading. It was immediately obvious that he loved Sunderland Football Club and its supporters and he talked with great affection of those marvelous days in the 1930’s when Sunderland dominated the English game.

Anyone who was ever fortunate enough to meet Johnny Mapson will tell you how nice a man he really was, a true gentlemen who loved Sunderland never tired of talking football.