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Monday, January 23, 2006


As I make my occasional inquiries into games in the English Premier League, I have run across a word that has significance there, but perhaps not to most Americans. The word is "Sunderland." While people following this season understand the significance, others may not. Let's look at the history of Sunderland, beginning in 1879:

Sunderland Football Club began its life in October 1879 at a meeting of schoolteachers called by James Allan, graduate of Glasgow University who had started teaching at Hendon Board School. At first the club was called Sunderland and District
Teachers' Association Football Club....

With wealthy directors like shipbuilder Robert Thompson and coal owner Samuel Tyzack, Sunderland brought in more talented young Scottish players and applied to join the Football League. Their successful record in friendly matches against league teams helped their cause. When they beat Aston Villa 7 - 2 in 1889 a Villa official, William McGregor, (the league's founder) said that Sunderland had a talented player in every position.

The following year this "Team of all Talents" was elected to the league....

The Football League had begun in 1888 with twelve clubs from Lancashire and the Midlands. Burnley, Blackburn Rovers, Everton, Accrington, Preston North End, Bolton Wanderers, Aston Villa, Notts County, West Bromwich Albion, Stoke, Derby County and
Wolverhampton Wanderers....


In 1890 the League elected Sunderland to join in place of Stoke. Some clubs did not like the idea of travelling all the way to Sunderland and the newcomers had to agree to pay their visitors travelling expenses before they were admitted. A
notice outside the ground said "We have arrived and we are staying here". Sunderland remained in the first division for 68 years, a record only recently passed by Arsenal.

This is where I should note something about football/soccer that would be good to adopt in some of our U.S. leagues - the concept of relegation. In American terms, it means that if you're one of the worst teams in a major sports league, you can be kicked out of the major league and into the minor leagues. Look at the Clippers from a few years back (before they became top team in Los Angeles due to better play and Laker implosion) - would Don Sterling have done things differently if the threat of being relegated to the CBA hung over him?

Returning to Sunderland:

The 1950's were perhaps the most dramatic years of the Club's history. This crucial period would govern our future success. With life returning to normal after the devastation of War, it was make or break time. Unfortunately for Sunderland it would be "break" with an illegal payments scandal rocking the club. Whilst big money signings flowed in and out of the club on a regular basis it eventually culminated in a first ever relegation....

After 68 years continuous membership of the Football League's top flight The Black Cats bowed out of the 1st division. We didn't know it then, but it would be 40 years before our rehabilitation was complete and we were in a position to compete with the best in England.

There were interludes of good play:

[T]he team won promotion to the First Division in 1964, after 2 cruel seasons had brought about last day heartache. Good Cup performances against Everton and Manchester United suggested that the team would do well in the top division, but manager Brown left the club and his team was soon dismantled....The club was never far from the foot of the division and a second relegation followed in 1970....A return to the top flight would not be achieved until the mid 1970's.

Things would get worse:

Managers came and went in rapid succession during the eighties: promoted again under Ken Knighton in 1980, three years of struggle with Alan Durban in charge, relegated in 1985 under Len Ashurst. The same season they lost 1-0 (an own goal) to Norwich City at Wembley in the Milk Cup Final. This was bad enough but then in 1987 they were relegated to the third division through the play-off system after two years under Lawrie McMenemy. To try to make matches more interesting near the end of the season the league had introduced play-offs for promotion and relegation, and Sunderland were among the first victims.

Eventually Sunderland ended up in the top league (now the Premier League), but as I write this they are at the bottom of the league and in danger of relegation again. Perhaps this statement is appropriate, perhaps not:

The club has had its triumphant ups and its terrible downs, but as human nature is, adversity makes you stronger not weaker, if it is something worth fighting. The footballing waters can truly be parted only if we "keep the faith". It's your football club.

And Sunderland has a fanzine, established in 1989:

"A Love Supreme" may seem an unlikely title for a football magazine. Rather than try and explain it we'll leave you to consider the following passage, from one of the best football books ever written, and leave you to draw your own conclusions. "True supporters care."They care enough to argue vehemently but often perceptively about the team, the players, the issues; they care enough to commit themselves to the cause of the club; they care enough to turn up week after week to support the team; they care enough to criticise, among themselves, their own players. The opposite of love, after all, is not hate, but indifference. (Taken from "The Glory and the Dream - The History of Celtic Football Club 1887-1987" by Tom Campbell and Pat Woods, Grafton Books.)

Lately the love has been tested:

Remember that heady day way back in May, when we came from behind to claim the Championship of the Championship? The day when we proved, beyond doubt, that we were the best team in that division and by a good margin as well.

Like the weather, everything was all bright and sunny. Sure, we knew that best in the Championship is a long way from survival in the Premiership, but we were rightly confident that we’d see big changes and that those big changes would be in place in time for the start of a campaign in the best league in the world....

We all know where we are and although by no means desperately adrift, we are frantically trying to unfurl the sails and get going....

From the Ontario Empoblog (Latest OVVA news here)

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