🕵️‍♂️ Football League Focus: Sunderland

Logo: OneFootball


Alex Mott

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Welcome to our latest series here at OneFootball where we’ll be shining a light on one Football League club each week.

It’s our chance to go in-depth on sides that don’t normally attract our attention and hold up a magnifying glass to the plethora of brilliant stories outside the Premier League.

We already looked at Cardiff City and Derby County but now our attention turns to fallen giants Sunderland.

Can you tell me a bit about the club?

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Established in 1880 and becoming the first new club to join the Football League 10 years later, Sunderland were one of the English game’s first truly great sides.

They were dubbed The Team of Talents by the founder of the League, William McGregor and just a year after joining won their first League Championship.

Scottish striker John Campbell was Sunderland’s main figurehead during that time as the Black Cats won three titles in four years, becoming the first team to break the 100-goal barrier for a season during the 1893-94 campaign.

In 1895 they became the unofficial World Champions after beating Scottish Championship winners Hearts 5-3.

This particular result enraged those north of the border, however, as Sunderland’s starting XI that day was comprised entirely of Scottish players.

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Two more pre-war titles followed, in 1902 and 1913, but it wasn’t until 23 years later that Sunderland would win their sixth and final First Division trophy, and in the process becoming the last English team to win the league wearing striped jerseys.

Although league success evaded the club, Sunderland would win two more major trophies in the intervening years.

Their first FA Cup came in 1937, beating Preston 3-1 at Wembley, but they would have to wait another 35 years to get their hands on the trophy for a second time.

The 1973 FA Cup final has gone down as one of the biggest upsets in British football history, as Bob Stokoe’s men – then in the Second Division – beat arguably Europe’s best team, Leeds, 1-0.

In the modern era there was another FA Cup final in 1992, losing to Liverpool that time, and play-off glory.

But the story of Sunderland since the mid-90s has been one of turmoil rather than trophies.

Any great moments from their history?

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The pre-war years were clearly Sunderland’s zenith as a football club but the moment that is most-clear in everyone’s mind is the 1973 Cup final.

Bob Stokoe, in his brown raincoat, running onto the Wembley turf, that save from Jimmy Montgomery, perhaps the greatest save Wembley ever saw, and the hundreds of thousands who crammed onto the Sunderland streets to welcome their heroes home.

It hasn’t been all doom and gloom since then though.

Under Peter Reid, Sunderland won the First Division in 1999 with a then-record 105 points and the following season finished seventh in the Premier League, with Kevin Phillips, unbelievably, winning the European Golden Boot award.

Then there was Roy Keane’s time in charge back in 2004/05 – having taken over in October that season with the Black Cats rooted to the bottom of the Championship, Keane performed miracles from the dugout and saw the North East side finish as champions come May.

The less said about the following season, the better.

And surely there must be some lows as well?

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Take your pick, really.

As one of the biggest clubs in British football with a fanbase that can rival any in the Premier League, Sunderland have been a hotbed of chancers and schemers for a long, long time.

It’s not just in recent years where shooting for the moon has seen them slide down divisions, though.

Back in the early 1950s Sunderland were nicknamed the Bank of England Team for their lavish spending, breaking the world record transfer to sign Trevor Ford from Aston Villa.

In fact in the history of the game, only Real Madrid and Juventus have broken the world transfer record more than Sunderland’s four times.

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A slide down the divisions followed and despite the brief high of winning the FA Cup in 1973 there was more misery at Roker Park to come.

In 1987 Sunderland slipped into the Third Division for the first time in their history and the same fate befell the club in 2018 when they were relegated after finishing bottom of the Championship, just one year after being in the Premier League.

A rogues’ gallery of dodgy owners have come and gone, with players on crazy wages eating into resources which was all captured by Netflix for their recent documentary Sunderland Til’ I Die.

After the 2019/20 campaign was halted, Sunderland finished last season in eighth place in League One, the lowest in their entire history.

Who are the club legends?

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Charlie Buchan is the club’s all-time leading goalscorer with 204 and helped them win the 1912/13 First Division championship.

Jimmy Montgomery was the hero at Wembley in 1973, producing the greatest FA Cup final save ever.

Charlie Hurley was a commanding centre-back of the 1960s who was named Sunderland’s Player of the Century.

What about the current squad? Any players to look out for?

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It’s a squad more than good enough to get out of League One with quality in almost every position at this level.

But the real stand-outs are Scottish forward Chris Maguire, a 31-year-old veteran who has been there, done that, and prints the T-shirts himself.

Luke O’Nien has done well for the Black Cats since joining in 2018. He is a clever, versatile right-sided player who won their Young Player of the Season award in 2019 and looks destined for greater things.

Is the manager any good?

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Phil Parkinson is an old hand at this League One malarky and after experimenting with Jack Ross, Chris Coleman and Simon Grayson, is the steady hand on the tiller that the Black Cats have been crying out for for years.

The football isn’t spectacular but Parkinson has a habit of playing the best players in their best positions, and that is something of a skill at this level.

Finally, how are things looking this season?

Two wins and one draw in their opening three games has put Sunderland fifth in the table.

Before the season started they were the bookmakers’ favourites to earn promotion, and although that had more to do with their name than their actual quality, Parkinson’s side should have more than enough to earn a play-off place come the end of the season.