When Sunderland last topped the league

John Hawley *

A trawl through the history of how SAFC respond to a really good win. As Moongod’s first comment shows, I should have made clear that being top, for the purposes of the headline and first sentence, had to last for longer than a couple of hours or so …

Only once in my long service as a Sunderland supporter have I been present at an occasion when we were top of the league. No, not the old Second Division or Third Division; I am talking about what we now call the Premier League and I am not old enough to have seen us win it in 1936.

The mini fact came to me when I decided to look back on how in the past we have followed up a thumping victory of the sort seen against Stoke City on Sunday.

Go back to the start of the 1980-81 season.

On the opening day, we beat Everton 3-1 at Roker Park, watched by a crowd remarkably similar to the turn-out for the 4-0 defeat of Stoke City (32,005). John Hawley scored a penalty and Stan Cummins got the second, with an own goal and Everton’s consolation coming after the break.

Four days later we had Man City away. I had been told by The Daily Telegraph to find and interview two prominent people on either side of a debate on the Welsh language; both had to speak Welsh but take opposing positions on the campaign, ultimately successful, for a Welsh language TV channel.

Not for the first time or the last, I made my working arrangements fit in with football and fixed my interviews with an eye to the fixtures list. Lo and behold, I was able to talk to a couple of suitable candidates in the Rhyl/Colwyn Bay area. And by an excellent coincidence, there were trains along the coast to and from Manchester that would get me there for kickoff and back that night.

I even enjoyed a spot of luck once in that city of the North-West Midlands. Dougie from Doggie (West Cornforth for the unitiated), or close enough for it not to matter, somehow spotted me as he drove towards Maine Road and spared me the rest of a long walk.

We watched in disbelief as Sunderland played, at times, appallingly but were lucky enough to be up against a woeful City side. The amazing strike force did it again, Cummins getting the first and then Hawley grabbing a hat-trick.

And that night, on the strength of back-to-back wins (I’d almost forgotten how to type that phrase), we sat at the top of the old Division One. And the inevitable descent was slow.

A home defeat to Southampton was followed by a good draw at Old Trafford and victory at Leicester. We were still as high as third on Sept 6, despite having treated the league cup that week with the same disdain we show it now (out to Stockport County in a replay at Roker). The real collapse did not happen until November: bottom half for the rest of the season and just two points above the relegation zone, at sixth bottom, come the final table, Cummins again popping up with a goal in a 1-0 win at Anfield that secured our top-flight status on the last day.

So that 4-0 win at Maine Road had led to a sequence reading 1-2, 1-1, 1-0, 0-1 (plus the two cup games against Stockport).

Stan Cummins *

Limiting research to the last 20 years or so, and wins by four goals or more, I came up with these examples:

* 1990/1991 Bristol City 1 SAFC 6 . A League Cup win, followed by 2-0 (Luton h), 0-1 (Arsenal a), 1-1 (Man City h), 0-0 (Coventry h). 19th and relegated.

1991/1992 SAFC 6 Millwall 2. Followed by 2-1 (Derby a), 1-1 (Port Vale h), 1-2 (Bristol Rovers a), 1-1 (1-1 Tranmere h). Finished 18th in Div Two, two places above Newcastle (who also survived), but we did win 3-2 at Oxford in the post-Millwall run on our way to the Wembley final vs Liverpool.

1993/1994 SAFC 4 Charlton 0. Then 0-1 (Notts Co a), 0-1 (Crystal Palace a), 0-2 (Wolves h), 1-1 (Watford a). We progressed two rounds in the league cup during and just after that bad run, drawing at Chester to win 3-1 on aggregate and beating Leeds 2-1 home and away.

1995/1996 SAFC 6 Millwall 0. That took us top, where we finished to win promotion, but was followed by 1-1 (Reading a), 1-3 (Derby a), 0-1 (Norwich h), 0-0 (Leicester a), briefly putting us as low at seventh and eighth.

1997/1998 Bradford 0 SAFC 4. Then 1-0 (Birmingham a), 1-1 (Wolves h), 1-2 (Boro a), 0-4 (Reading a). We beat Bury in the league cup along the way and finished the season 3rd, losing on penalties to Charlton in the famous playoff final. We also beat Rotherham 5-1 away in the FA Cup and won three of the next four league games (4-2 Sheff Utd h, 1-0 Man City a, 4-2 Port Vale h, losing 2-1 at Norwich).

1998/1999 SAFC 7 Oxford 0 in a game I recall for our goals but also Oxford’s endless first-half corners. We then drew three games (1-1 Portsmouth a, 2-2 Norwich a, 0-0 Bradford h) before winning 3-2 at WBA. That season, we finished runaway leaders of 105 points, 18 ahead of second-placed Bradford.

1998/1999 Sheff Utd 0 SAFC 4. Then three homes wins – 1-0 Stockport, 2-0 Port Vale, 2-0 Crystal Palace and a 0-0 draw at Birmingham. Finished top (see above) .

1999/2000 Derby County 0 SAFC 5. Next four league games: 1-0 (Sheff Wed h), 4-0 (Bradford City a), 2-1 (Aston Villa h), 1-1 (West Ham a) and – extending the sequence because of the Bradford result – 2-1 at home to Spurs, a great run taking us third in one of Peter Reid’s two seventh-top seasons and that draw at Upton Park should have been a win taking us top. And 5-0 at Derby had been immediately followed by 5-0 at Walsall in the league cup.

2002-2003 Cambridge United 0 SAFC 7 (League Cup). Next four games: 1-3 (Arsenal a), 0-1 (West Ham a), 1-1 (Bolton a), 1-1 (Charlton a). Sadly, it got little better and we sank to bottom with just 19 points.

2003-2004 Bradford City 0 SAFC 4. Next our league games: 2-1 (Crystal Palace h), 1-3 (Stoke a), 1-1 (Derby a), 2-0 (Reading h) with a 4-2 league cup defeat at home to Huddersfield in there somewhere. We finished in the play-offs, only to be cheated of promotion by Palace.

2004-2005 Gillingham 0 SAFC 4. Next four league games: 2-0 (Notts Forest h), 3-1 (PNE h), 1-0 (Leeds a), 0-1 (Sheff Utd a). Out of the league cup on penalties at Crewe. Finished top (Championship).

2004-2005 SAFC 5 Plymouth 1. Next four league games: 1-0 (Coventry h), 3-1 (QPR a), 1-0 (Wigan a), 1-2 (Reading h). Top (see above).

2005-2006 SAFC 4 Southampton 0. Next four league games: 1-1 (Birmingham City a), 2-1 (Derby h), 2-1 (WBA a), 2-0 (Barnsley a). Finished top under Keano.

2005-2006 Luton 0 SAFC 5 in the last, title-clinching game of the season. Follwoed in the 2006-2007 Premier season by 1-0 (Spurs h), 2-2 (Birmingham a), 0-3 (Wigan a), 0-1 (Man Utd a). And we crashed oit of the league cup, 3-0 at Luton, the team we’d thrashed 5-0 four months earlier. Ended season

2008-2009 SAFC 4 WBA 0. Followed by 4-1 (Hull a), 1-1 (Blackburn h), 0-3 (Everton a), 1-1 (Boro a), with a 2-1 FA Cup win at home to Bolton along the way. Finished 16th in the Premier.

2009-2010 SAFC 4 Bolton 0, followed by 1-1 (Man City h), 3-1 (Birmingham h), 1-1 (Aston Villa a), 0-3 (Liverpool a). Finished 13th (Premier).

There were no four-goal margins last season. The one truly great performance, 3-0 at Stamford Bridge, was followed by a 2-2 draw at home to Everton, defeat at Wolves (2-3), a win at home to West Ham (1-0) and a goalless draw at Fulham.

That is five points from 12. I am probably asking too much in looking for an improvement – and maybe even an undefeated run – from Norwich (a), WBA (h), Arsenal (a) and Bolton (h)?

Ten may be beyond us, but wouldn’t eight, and therefore unbeaten, or nine, beaten once but winning three, be nice?

* All checked with Sunderland: The Complete Record (Rob Mason) and the official club site. Interestingly, the 9-1 win at Newcastle in 1908 led to a dismal run of three defeats in four. If any detail above is incorrect, let me know and I will put it right. Photos of John Hawley and Stan Cummins by kind permission of therokerend.com

Monsieur Salut

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14 thoughts on “When Sunderland last topped the league”

  1. The Mazda 3 has shattered my childhood memories of “Wolfie” Sixsmith in his battered 2CV cruisng the streets of Shildon!!

  2. Colin Waldron scored with a header from a Dougie Collins corner, Derek. The 2CV was fun – but, like your dad, I’m a Mazda 3 man now!!!

  3. Well you are getting old Derek, but most of us here are not spring chickens. What a way to do down though eh? I remember this well.

  4. Does anyone remember consecutive home victories of 4 – 0 v Boro, 6 – 1 v West Brom and 6 – 0 v West Ham, followed up by a 1 – 0 win against Ipswich in the heartbreaking 1976 – 1977 season?
    Or am I just getting very old?

  5. Sobs beat me to the comment about Tom Sword scoring the winner. Heady days indeed, and only thirty years ago.

    I remember being very excited when we signed John Hawley. He notched another hat trick not long after this one against Charlton at home. It was one of the few (maybe 3 occasions) that I ever stood in the Main Stand Paddock. It was also one of the few occasions that I could persuade my Dad to come to the match. We both ended up being circled in a photo in the Sunderland Echo. We had to go down to the office and collect 4 quid apiece as the prize. It more than paid for the cost of getting into the game in those days.

    Great memories stirred with this lovely piece!

    I remember “Douggie” very well of course Pete. Another CSP regular back in those days.

  6. salutsunderland says:
    September 21, 2011 at 12:46 pm

    “Phil’s right, second leg not replay. I knew that having to plough through stats would a) take for ever, b) produce errors and c) make me wish I hadn’t started.”

    Thanks for that, it makes me worry less about approaching senility!

    Maybe, still a few years/months/days/hours/minutes/seconds left.

    Sheesh!!

    What am I doing here?

  7. Phil’s right, second leg not replay. I knew that having to plough through stats would a) take for ever, b) produce errors and c) make me wish I hadn’t started.

    I still remember thinking that we were poor at Maine Road, at least at certain points of the game.

  8. I was there with Ian Douglass,now permanently touring the USA with his wife. We had camped at Whaley Bridge and quaffed several pints of Robinsons fine ales the night before.
    My memory, filtered through the aforementioned Robinsons, is that we played quite well, but City lived up to their Stuart Hall description of The Theatre of Base Comedy and were dreadful.
    Always liked John Hawley and thought he had a grand swagger to his game. He scored an absolute belter against Arsenal later in the season. And Stan Cummins was just brilliant. Sam Allardyce played centre half alongside Rob Hindmarch.Two big lads there!!!

  9. Stockport won 2-1 at our place and Tommy sword, ex-Bishop Auckland centre half, scored the winner

    and I tought we played great stuff at city!

  10. I was at Maine Road for the City game, in which my memories are different to your own as I thought we, comprehensively, demolished them.

    Maybe, though, that is what I want to remember, rather than the fact?

    Having only to drive up from Birmingham I, also, made it to Stockport for the league cup fixture.

    Maybe, my mind is playing tricks (senility kicking in, perhaps) but going back to 1980 wasn’t the League Cup played over two legs, in the early rounds?

    IIRC the result at Edgeley Park was 1-1 and I can remember sitting there thinking how unfair it was that lower league teams had to then face their “more illustrious” opponents away, which meant they had next to no chance of going through to the next round.

    What did I know?

    They won at Roker!!

    I think, though, that Methuselah was still a young lad when we last topped the top flight table after 3 fixtures (when I was younger tables only appeared after that number of games) and I, certainly, was not around then – despite what others may read into my posts!!

  11. To be a pedant – Keano had us top in 2006 when we beat Spurs before the rest of the league had kicked a ball…technically we were top for about 90 minutes after Michael Chopra’s late winner.

    Interesting article though – will be interesting to see how we react to a good victory this time.

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