Sunderland AFC. A name not synonymous with footballing glory in the modern era. Ask most football fans what springs to mind when you mention Sunderland and Netflix will feature more than trophies.
However, it has not always been like this. Scratch beneath the surface and explore the history books and you will find – perhaps surprisingly – that Sunderland were once very good. So good in fact, they earned the moniker ‘the team of all talents’.
Some people will refuse to believe this. Particularly those of a certain age who do not realise that football was played, with great success, before the advent of the Premier League in 1992. However, it is even further back than this that we must travel to delve into the detail surrounding the infamous ‘team of all talents’.
April 30th 1890 saw the local paper, the Sunderland Echo, use the term ‘team of all the talents’ to describe the local football team after a particularly impressive season that saw them lose only four of 31 home games, scoring 116 times.
However, despite this headline, the term given to the team can initially be attributed to one William MacGregor, founder of the football league, and a director at Aston Villa. After witnessing his Villa side capitulate to a Sunderland team – who at that stage were not even league members – 7-2, MacGregor was credited with saying ‘Sunderland had a talented man in every position.’ Hence, the team of all talents was born.
It is widely believed that this impressive display, against one of the league’s founder members, helped to cement Sunderland’s application to join the ranks of the football league. A period of impressive performances in the preceding years – including a famous victory over the original ‘invincibles’ of Preston North End in 1889, as well as four Durham Challenge cup victories in five years – had helped improve the Wearside club’s popularity.
So, in 1890, they were duly elected to the Football League, in place of Stoke who had finished bottom the previous season and failed in their re-election bid.
As the most northern club in the league, it appears Sunderland had to sweeten the application process amongst their soon-to-be peers, by offering to pay the travel expenses of visiting clubs. Remember, in the late 19th century, getting from one side of the country to the other was a slightly more arduous process than it is today, although it appears that Sunderland never delivered on their pre-election promise, as there is no record of money ever changing hands.
A plethora of signings from north of the border saw Sunderland strengthen their ranks in anticipation of the start of their new league status. Raiding their near neighbours in Scotland proved to be a popular pastime for wealthy Sunderland owners, miner Samuel Tyzack and shipbuilder Robert Turnbull. It is reported that Tyzack regularly scoured Scotland, disguised as a priest, on scouting missions for Sunderland, much to the consternation of the Scottish fans.
Positions throughout the team were strengthened with the arrival of new team captain, Jonny Auld, the highlight. Originally making his name as a ‘half back’ – the modern-day equivalent being a sitting midfielder – Auld’s move to Sunderland saw him become the world’s first centre-half.
September 13th 1890 is the historic date that Sunderland played their first game as a league club. Expectation was high in the local area as the Sunderland Echo – buoyed by the displays seen in the previous couple of years – confidently predicted a top-six finish for the league’s new boys.
A first game loss at the hands of Burnley was swiftly followed two days later with a 4-3 defeat by visiting Wolverhampton Wanderers, and the early-season optimism was somewhat deflated.
After these early setbacks, and with little room for sentiment, Sunderland made the decision to dispense with the services of longstanding goalkeeper Bill Kirkley and secured the signing of Ted Doig, again from north of the border.
Arriving for the princely sum of £75, a clubhouse and a job in the North Sands shipyard, Doig had an instant impact, keeping a clean sheet in his first game and taking the first steps on his 14-year journey with Sunderland that would see him play 417 games and cement his status as a club legend.
This successful debut was somewhat tarnished when the club were docked the two points gained in the win, for fielding Doig without the proper registration. Thereby Sunderland faced the ignominy of losing the first points they had battled so hard to gain as a league club.
The initial transition to league football proved tough for Sunderland and inconsistency dogged the team as they stuttered towards Christmas, losing more games than they won. However, the turnaround in the latter part of the season laid a marker for what was to come for this side, as they only lost once in the second half of the 1890/91 campaign.
This ultimately led to a seventh-place finish in their inaugural season, with the docking of the two points for the illegal fielding of Doig earlier in the campaign costing them a place in the top five. It is worth noting that the Sunderland team also reached the semi-final of the FA Cup this year, losing out in controversial fashion to Notts County.
With the first game drawn 3-3 after the awarding of a goal that was deemed to have crossed the line, but many in attendance thought had gone wide – no nets were used at this point in history – a replay took place. Again, Notts County were on the receiving end of some fortuitous refereeing as another goal was awarded, with some uncertainty about whether the ball actually crossed the line, eventually winning the game 2-0 and going on to the final.
Perhaps some karma was delivered as they went on to lose 3-1 to Blackburn Rovers in front of 23,000 in what is now the Oval cricket ground.
Onwards to the 1891-92 season and a confident Sunderland side, after a season acclimatising to league football, and a strong finish to the previous season, won their opener in resounding fashion, knocking five past Wolverhampton Wanderers.
This early-season confidence was slightly misplaced as the team lost their next three fixtures and found themselves bottom of the league. However, defeat was not something the Sunderland team became accustomed to, as their early-season blip was put behind them. They would go on to lose only two more games all season as they swept everyone before them to win the league title.
This season proved to be an incredible success for Sunderland. After the early run of three away defeats they managed to win all 13 of their home games – scoring 55 goals along the way – and notched the season’s biggest away win – 7-1 at Darwen – as they finished the season five points clear of (former) invincibles Preston North End to claim the league title.
This was a great achievement for a new league side, who also reached another FA Cup semi-final, and were building a fearsome reputation amongst their league peers. A significant player in this team of all talents – in this season and the ones to come – was centre forward Johnny Campbell.
He finished the inaugural title-winning season as the league’s top scorer with a handsome return of 31 goals and would go on to claim many more in the famous red and white stripes of Sunderland AFC.
The following season bought the significant challenge of retaining the title. A task considered by many in the game to be harder than winning the trophy in the first place. Supporters of Sunderland need not worry as the team carried on where they left off.
A commanding 6-0 away win at Accrington sent out a message to the rest of the league and it was nine games before the team of all talents suffered their first loss, a narrow 3-2 away defeat at Sheffield Wednesday.
This was merely a blip as the Wearside team only suffered four defeats all season, once again remaining unbeaten at home as they marched to another First Division title. The league table of 1892/93 shows Sunderland’s supreme dominance over their rivals with an 11-point gap to old rivals Preston North End in second place.
Once again records had tumbled on Wearside in this historic defence of the title; Sunderland became the first side ever to score 100 goals in a league season – this event is remembered for the celebrations by the players, who took to doing cartwheels across the pitch. During a period in history when celebrations traditionally amounted to a sombre handshake or pat on the back, this was another example of Sunderland breaking the mould.
With their incredible total of goals in a season – reported to total 199 when including cup ties and friendlies – it is no surprise they only failed to score once in a rare away defeat, 2-0 at Wolves. Jonny Campbell once again finished as the league’s top scorer with an incredible return of 27 goals in 31 league games.
It appeared that no one could stop this Sunderland team and it was widely expected that the following season would bring more silverware to reflect the supreme dominance shown. However, this was not to be.
A stuttering start to the season found the team of all talents in alien territory with a position in midtable. This poor run of form in the early part of the season culminated in a home defeat to Blackburn Rovers – the first home defeat in two years and three months, covering a run of 46 games.
This defeat had a galvanizing effect, and the team of all talents regained their form, winning nine out of ten of their next fixtures. The upturn in form came too late to have any impact on the league, however, as Sunderland finished the 1893/94 season runners up to Aston Villa by a six-point margin.
Whilst this represented a disappointing season for a team that had set the bar so high, finishing runners up in the First Division, only losing once at home and scoring 72 goals was still no mean feat for a club who were still very much in their infancy in terms of their league journey.
Losing their status as league champions clearly hurt the team of all talents and they began the 1894/95 season with a clear message to the league. Derby County arrived on Wearside confident of a successful season themselves after finishing third in the previous campaign.
This confidence was misplaced as the Rams found themselves 3-0 down at half-time, before being duly dispatched back to Derbyshire with an 8-0 defeat on their record.
This was the start of an incredible run that saw Sunderland taste defeat only once in 15 outings as they led the table by New Year’s Day and they never looked back as the First Division title was once again delivered to Wearside.
Great success on the pitch – an 11-1 whipping of Fairfield in the FA Cup a particular highlight – saw the team of all talents take on the Scottish champions Heart of Midlothian in a World Championship challenge match in April 1895.
This was a fixture played out by the two dominant teams of the era, with added spice that the entire Sunderland team was full of ‘Scotch professors’ – the term given to Scottish players of the period who came south to play in the English league – and it did not disappoint, with Sunderland running out 5-3 winners at Tynecastle.
This victory added another layer of mystique to an already impressive football team, as they gained the unofficial title of World Champions to go alongside their team of all talents status.
Footballing periods of dominance are cyclical, and this showpiece final proved to be the beginning of the end for the team of all talents. Club captain and legend Jonny Auld only managed four games that season before becoming the first player to cross the divide and sign for local rivals Newcastle United.
The following season saw the team of all talents fall away completely and, despite once again finishing the season unbeaten at home, Sunderland finished a disappointing fifth place as Aston Villa regained the title.
This was also to prove the final season for long-serving – and first-ever – Sunderland manager Tom Watson who left the club to join Liverpool and was instrumental in delivering the Merseyside team their first two league titles. The departure of the talismanic manager along with several members of the squad proved to be the final nail in the coffin for this incredible team. Their dominance no longer on show at football grounds up and down the land but merely consigned to the history books as points of reference for future generations.
It would be seven years until Sunderland won another top division title and they never regained the dominance shown during this incredible five-year period at the end of the 19th century, which saw them win three titles in four years and break countless records.
We are currently in the midst of a period of dominance by Manchester City and have lived through relatively recent periods of control by Liverpool and Manchester United. However, it is fair to say the first team to show continued and consistent dominance of the topflight of English football was the Sunderland team of all talents. If only Netflix could make a documentary about that…