A History of Football in the North East: Sunderland

This series of articles looks at the modern history of football in the north-east of England. It will cover the most important events in the recent history of Middlesbrough, Sunderland and Newcastle United. In this second article, the focus will be on Sunderland AFC from the 1980s up until today.

A Modern History of Sunderland

The start of the 1980s is a very good place to start when covering the modern history of this club. The end of the 1970s marked the end of one era, and the beginning of a new one. Sunderland celebrated their centenary with a tribute match against an England XI, which they lost 2-0. In the previous decade, Sunderland had enjoyed a spell in Europe, and were looking towards a bright future. However the coming decade would bring a much tougher time.

Sunderland had been relegated to the second division (the league we know as the Championship today). Newly-appointed manager Ken Knighton was given the task of achieving promotion back to the first division. Knighton succeeded at this, but was nonetheless sacked the following season with Sunderland struggling at the bottom of the first division. Mick Doherty came in as caretaker manager to help Sunderland secure safety. The role was then given permanently to Alan Durban. Under Durban the club managed to stay in the division the following three years, but were still struggling. Unable to take the club forward, Durban was replaced with Len Ashurst. Despite taking Sunderland to the League Cup Final, which they lost against Norwich City, Sunderland were again relegated to Division Two. Ashurst was sacked, but that would not be the end of Sunderland’s downfall.

In came Lawrie McMenemy. He was not able to succeed in his task of bringing Sunderland back to the top division. Instead in 1987, Sunderland would be the first victim of the newly-introduced play-offs which, at this point in time, included teams at the bottom of the division. After losing against Gillingham, Sunderland were relegated to the then third division. McMenemy was sacked before the end of the season. A new manager was appointed with Denis Smith and, under him, the Black Cats achieved promotion at the first attempt, as champions in 1988.

Two years after came yet another promotion in dramatic circumstances. After beating their big-brother and fierce rivals Newcastle United in the play-off semi finals, Sunderland actually lost the final against Swindon Town 1-0 but still gained promotion. Swindon were denied entry to the top division due to financial irregularities. Sunderland’s visit to the top flight was a short one though as they were yet again relegated after their first season, and subsequently struggled in the second division. Still, the club managed to reach the FA Cup final that same season, but lost 2-0 against Liverpool. As far as managers go, Denis Smith left that same season and was replaced by Malcolm Crosby. Crosby was in charge for less than a year, and was replaced by former England player Terry Butcher. Butcher was then replaced after only 45 games, by Mick Buxton. Sunderland went through six managers in ten years.

None of them were able to gain promotion for Sunderland. When Buxton left, Sunderland were struggling at the bottom of the second division. In an effort to save themselves from relegation a certain Peter Reid was brought in. Relegation was avoided easily and Sunderland won the second division in style the following season. Sunderland would then play in the recently formed Premier League for the first time. There, they would set a new record in a wholly unwanted fashion. They would be the first club to get relegated from the Premiership with 40 points.

A new era would be marked in 1997 as Sunderland moved out of Roker Park, and into a brand new 42.000 all -seater stadium, Tmarchhe Stadium Of Light. That move seemed to spark some success, as Sunderland achieved third place in the Second Divison that season. They then reached the final of the play-offs, but were beaten by Charlton Athletic in an absolutely thrilling match. The next season no mistakes were made, and Sunderland won the league with a record 105 points. This would be a sign of what was to come from Sunderland and a certain Kevin Phillips.

Back in the Premiership for the 1999-00 season, Phillips scored 30 goals and won the European Golden Shoe. Sunderland finished seventh in the Premier League. That same season they also beat rivals Newcastle United 2-1 in a match that would cost Magpie manager Ruud Gullit his job. The following season another seventh place was achieved, and the club looked like becoming contenders for European football. However, the 2001-02 season would se Sunderland slide back into the relegation battle. They would eventually finish 17th, narrowly avoiding relegation. Still, six Sunderland players represented England in the 2002 World Cup.

There would be a brutal end to Sunderlands Premier League status in the 2002-03 season. After an awful start to the campaign, Peter Reid was sacked in October. Howard Wilkinson was brought in to secure the place in the league, but was unsuccessful and sacked after only 20 games. In a final effort to turn things around, Mick McCarthy was appointed manager in March. McCarthy failed to turn Sunderland’s fortune around, and thus ended the season bottom of the league, with only four games won and a record low 19 points.

Two years would pass before Sunderland won promotion back to the Premier League. In that return season the club would only be able to beat their own abysmal record of lowest points tally. They collected 15 points. McCarthy was sacked in March of that season and replaced by Kevin Ball. In 2006 things would change for Sunderland. Niall Quinn had a consortium takeover the club and eventually appoint Roy Keane as manager. With Quinn as chairman a large amount of money was brought into the club. Six players were signed and Sunderland went on to have a fantastic run in the Championship. After 17 matches unbeaten Sunderland fans were again looking forward to Premier League football.

In the first season back in the Premier League, Keane once again spent big. Bringing in goalkeeper Craig Gordon for 9 million pounds, along with 10 other players. The season was a struggle, but Premier League status was secured with two games to go. Once again though, a manager would have to leave after a run of poor results. In December 2008 Roy Keane left the club and Ricky Sbagria was appointed caretaker. Under Sbagria, the club narrowly avoided relegation although he was let go at the end of the season.

Steve Bruce was regarded as the manager to take the club to level it sought, and was put in charge before the 2009-10 season. Bruce was given money to spend, and brought in striker Darren Bent for 10 million pounds, along with a few others. Sunderland had a decent campaign. Bent was a success, scoring 24 goals as Sunderland finished 13th. Subsequently Bruce was given more money to spend. Before next season players like Asamoah Gyan and Stephane Sessegnon were signed. Yet another successful season followed, as the Black Cats finished 10th, beating Chelsea 3-0 along the way.

However it was to be the same old story all over again for Sunderland, as Bruce lost his grip on the club next season, and was let go before Christmas 2011. Optimism would once again rise at the Stadium of Light, as former Aston Villa manager Martin O’Neill was appointed as manager. His first 10 games saw Sunderland pick up 22 points, and eventually finish 13th. In his second season in charge, despite a good start, a horrible run of results put Sunderland back in the relegation zone. O’Neill was sacked in March of that season.

Few could predict what was to come. Former player and openly fascist Paolo Di Canio was appointed in a process that ended in Vice-Chairman David Miliband leaving his post because of Di Canio’s former political statements. Di Canio did save the club from relegation and was viewed as a saviour by many fans. However, a horrible start to the next season meant the Italian was given the slip only eight games in.

Another exciting appointment was made in Gus Poyet. No immediate effect was seen, and Sunderland looked destined for the drop. But somehow Poyet pulled of a great escape and Sunderland stayed in the league once again. Despite a good start to the next season, the club gradually slided towards relegation. Beating the drop looked almost impossible as Poyet was sacked with nine games to go. In came Dutch legend Dick Advocaat, and once again Sunderland pulled off a great escape when everything looked bleak. Despite retiring at the end of the season, Advocaat decided to stay on as manager for the coming 2015-16 season.

The final article of the series will cover the modern history of Newcastle United.