For the past five seasons, Sunderland have been teetering on the edge of relegation from England’s top flight – the Premier League. Only several last minute Houdini acts have saved them from Championship football, including this season, largely thanks to Jermain Defoe’s superb form, which resulted in their north-east neighbours Newcastle facing the prospect of playing Championship football in the 2016-17 season.
However, the Mackems haven’t always been as poor; in fact if you look back to the 1970’s they weren’t a bad club at all. In 1973, the club won their last major trophy – the FA Cup, courtesy of a 1–0 victory over Don Revie’s Leeds United at Wembley.
However, we have to go as far back as the late 1800s and find their halcyon days. The club started it’s life back in October 1879 when James Allan gathered a group of school teachers together to find a way to keep students in shape.
The club was first called Sunderland and District Teacher’s Association Football Club, and after the first year the name was changed to the current one of Sunderland AFC. During the early years of the club, they went searching for a home ground to play their football, ground hopping before eventually settling on Roker Park, where they played in all blue, a stark contrast to the colours they play in today.
The club wore an all blue shirt for the first five years until 1884, when they moved to their famous colours of red and white. Back then, their badge featured a ship, the top part of the Sunderland coat of arms, and a black cat. The badge was also changed in 1977, just two years short of the club’s centenary anniversary.
The legendary Brian Clough also ended his playing career with Sunderland – in an icy match against Bury on December 26th, 1962 when he slid into then Bury goalkeeper Chris Hanker. Clough tore his medial and cruciate ligaments in his knee and missed several years before making an unsuccessful comeback which ultimately resulted in his retirement at the age of 29.
When you look at the record for clubs with the most Top Flight First League titles (What is now called the Premier League), a name you’ll see on there, which most young footballing supporters won’t believe, is Sunderland. They sit sixth with six titles (1892, 1893, 1895, 1902, 1913, and 1936), also they’ve finished runners up five times.
The Black Cats have also won the FA Cup twice (1937, 1973), and were League Cup finalists in 1985 and 2014, as well as winning the FA Community Shield in 1936 and being finalists the following year.
Their first successful manager or ‘Secretary’ as it was called at the time, was Tom Watson who travelled to Scotland to recruit young, international players which was their policy at the time. After Watson took over for the 1888-89 season, only four of the original team survived such were the changes that were implemented by the new manager. The squad that Watson assembled was so talented that William McGregor, the founder of the Football League, described Sunderland as the “Team of All Talents” after a 7–2 win against Aston Villa.
Sunderland joined the Football League in the 1890-91 season when Stoke were not been re-elected, leaving to join the rival Football Alliance – another league during that time. Sunderland were admitted to the league with the provision that they pay the expenses of the visiting clubs due to Sunderand’s geographical location – it took a huge effort to travel the distances involved between cities in those days.
In their first match in the competition they lost to Burnley 3-2, and like many matches at the time, records were crudely kept, so any idea on who actually scored is a mystery. Sunderland finished the season in seventh place behind Bolton Wanderers and Blackburn Rovers after being deducted two points for fielding an unregistered player.
In their second season in the Football League, Sunderland won the 1891-92 championship, with 42 points – five clear of second place Preston North End. Their record in all competitions that season was P: 55 W 35 D 11 L 9 F 155 A 61. In the league, they had a superb home record – playing and winning all 13 games with a goal tally of 55 with just 11 conceded. Scot John Campbell finished as the league’s top scorer with 31 goals along the way to the championship.
The team retained the title the next year with centre forward John Campbell scoring another 31 goals for the second straight year. They were the first team to score 100 goals in a season, to which wasn’t seen again until 1919-20 when West Bromwich Albion repeated the feat on the way to become the champions of England.
By 1904 the team had won another two titles (1894, and 1901) and also played in a one-off match against Scottish club Hearts in 1894-95, in a match that was referred to as ‘The Championship of the World’. They ended up beating Hearts 5-3. Perhaps this event could be viewed as a precursor for the European Champions Cup and the Champions League which was first played in 1955.
Sadly for Sunderland, Watson moved south to Liverpool in 1896, where he enjoyed further success there until his premature death in 1915 at just 56 years old. During his time with Liverpool, Watson won the league on two occasions, in 1900–01 and 1905–06 – Liverpool’s first of 18 titles to date.
Sunderland would go on to win the 1937 and 1973 FA Cups, as well as the 1936 Community Shield – those triumphs were the last time that the club won any silverware. Eventually, like with several clubs whose glory days are in the past, the money flowing in to the game priced them out of many transfers, which has resulted in them to be a mid-table to relegation candidate every year.
That said, the club will receive a good proportion of the TV money that will come into play this season, so it will be interesting to see how Sam Allardyce strengthens his squad ahead of the new season where they are again expected to struggle to beat the drop.