Sunderland Football Club is a historic institution in the north east of England. The Black Cats have a long, varied history in the English game, having been formed in 1879 (some say 1880). The north east outfit is one of only four clubs to have won a title in three of England’s top four divisions.
They may have yet to win an English top-flight title in the Premier League era, but Sunderland has been crowned champions of England on six occasions. Only Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal, Everton, Aston Villa and Manchester City have won more English top-flight titles than Sunderland.
However, the north east club won all their English title triumphs before the Second World War while also finishing as runners-up on two occasions.
Here is a brief history of Sunderland’s titles and how the Black Cats became early kings of the English game:
The early success
Sunderland was founded in 1879 as Sunderland and District Teachers A.F.C by educator James Allen. However, there have been suggestions that the club didn’t become official until 1880. The club was renamed to its current name Sunderland A.F.C in 1880, as they allowed people other than teachers to represent them.
The Black Cats joined the nascent Football League in season 1890/91. It didn’t take them long to become English champions. The Black Cats became champions in season 1891/92 under their first manager, Tom Watson, who became a highly-rated manager in the early Football League years.
Sunderland impressed many in the late 19th century, as Football League founder William McGregor dubbed the Black Cats the “Team of All Talents” after they defeated his club Aston Villa 7-2.
Watson’s team retained the crown the following season, with Scottish forward John Campbell leading the attack and scoring over 30 goals for a second straight league season. The team as a whole scored a century of goals in that second title-winning campaign.
More success followed
Sunderland came close to winning their third English title in the season 1893/94 when they finished as runners-up when pipped to the title by Aston Villa.
However, they didn’t have to wait long for title number three, as they were back at the top of the English football tree the following season, winning the top flight once again. Campbell once again topped the scoring charts in their triumph.
While Campbell was busy scoring goals, Sunderland goalkeeper Ned Doig set a 19th-century record at the other end of the pitch by keeping 87 clean sheets in 209 appearances in the English First Division.
Manager Tom Watson resigned as Sunderland boss at the end of the 1895–96 season to become Liverpool manager. His replacement Robert Campbell struggled to replicate the success of his predecessor and failed to win the title in his three seasons with the club.
Scottish boss Alex Mackie arrived as Campbell’s replacement in 1899. The Black Cats then finished as top-flight runners-up in 1900–01. However, Sunderland was back on top the following season, winning the title and finishing three points ahead of second-place Everton in the First Division.
The team from the north east also won the Sheriff of London Charity Shield in the same year, a competition that was the forerunner of the Charity Shield and later the Community Shield.
Making history and more silverware
On December 5th 1908, Sunderland made history by recording their biggest-ever league victory by beating bitter north east rivals Newcastle United 9-1. The result is still a record to this day.
More importantly, Sunderland was again crowned English champions in 1913 under Irish boss Bob Kyle. The Black Cats won the title four points ahead of Aston Villa, with Scottish star Charles Thomson captaining the side.
The Black Cats then struggled to replicate their success, although they did finish as First Division runners-up to Liverpool in the season 1922/23.
In season 1927/28, the north east club escaped relegation to the Second Division by just a point, despite star forward Dave Halliday scoring 35 times in the campaign. Halliday was even more prolific in the following season, as he scored 43 goals in 42 games, which is still a club record for the most goals scored in a single season.
Sunderland secured their sixth and last English top-flight to date in the season 1935–36. Their attacking play was the key to success that season, as they scored 109 goals. Forwards Raich Carter and Bobby Gurney notched 31 goals apiece in helping their team to the title.
The Bank of England Club and the decline
Things only went downhill from that point for Sunderland. Despite the club earning the nickname the “Bank of England club” for their big spending on players such as Len Shackleton and Trevor Ford, the English title eluded them. The closest they came to a title was in 1950 when they finished third place in the First Division table.
After financial issues at the club, Sunderland was relegated in 1958, ending the Black Cats’ 68-year tenure in the top flight of English football. The relegation started decades of the club’s struggles.
However, during those decades, Sunderland won the second-tier title on five occasions and the third-tier once in season 1987/88.
A glorious history to live up to
Those early years of the English Football League saw several clubs that are now no longer high-profile thrive and shine brightly to claim league titles. Unfortunately for the Black Cats, they now fall into that category.
They have enjoyed brief periods of relative success in the 21st century. However, the title-winning teams were always going to be an impossible act to follow, as the Blacks Cats have a glorious history.
The game has moved on, and it will be difficult for the north east club ever to repeat the feats of those successful early teams. However, those teams will forever be in the folklore of English football. That is something that can never be taken away from Sunderland, as some of those teams were regarded as the most exciting of their era and will likely never be forgotten in the north east.