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Sunderland And Aston Villa - A Great Football Rivalry That Predates Bent By 100 Years

Sunderland goalscoring great, Johnny Campbell
Sunderland goalscoring great, Johnny Campbell

Ever since Darren Bent decided to abandon the club for the Midlands, there has been a real sense of fervent anticipation about Sunderland's games with Aston Villa. Indeed, when we scanned down the list of fixtures when they were released over the summer, only looking for the derby games with Newcastle took precedent over finding out when we would get our chance to welcome our former hero back to the SoL.

But the truth is that a fierce rivalry between the clubs once existed long before the carry-on of last January. It is a rivalry which has pretty much been lost to the history books . But the rivalry and period of the club's history in which it emerged should be a source of pride for all who associate themselves with Sunderland AFC, for it was a rivalry born out of contesting the biggest prizes football had to offer rather than born out of disdain for a contemptible sycophant.

We invited acclaimed author, historian, and Sunderland fan, Mark Metcalf to tell us all about it. In Mark and co-author Paul Days' book 'In Search of The Double: Sunderland AFC 1912/13', the rivalry plays a significant role, so we could not possibly have any better guide on our journey. The book is, rather disappointingly, not sold in the club shop, but we'd recommend it to all Sunderland fans, whether you have an interest in history or not.

Fans can buy the book from A Love Supreme and the Supporters Association also have copies for sale. If you're with a Supporters Club Branch, contact Mark on 07952 801 783 who will be more than happy to sort you out with copies. As of tomorrow you'll find the book in Waterstones and the Sunderland Museum too, however those books are doubly special as they come signed by the great Gary Rowell!

And so, without further ado, I'll hand you over to Mark to tell us about a truly incredible time in our beloved club's history.

It’s a fact that football’s first great rivalry was that involving Aston Villa and Sunderland, who in the nine seasons starting in 1891-92 won English Football’s top flight on eight occasions between them. [Sheffield United won the title in 1897-98

In 1890, and having beaten local rivals Albion in the race to be the first side from outside the North West and Midlands to be allowed to join the Football League, Sunderland first tangled competitively with Villa at Wellington Road on Boxing Day and earned a creditable 0-0 draw. Their opponents had finished second to Preston in the inaugural season, 1888-89 and two seasons earlier had thrilled their supporters by beating their own Albion, West Bromwich, at the 1887 FA Cup final with one of their finest ever players, Dennis Hodgetts getting one of the goals in a 2-0 success.
Sunderland had started their own inaugural League season slowly, but in a sign of things to come they thrashed Villa 5-1 at Newcastle Road on January 10th 1891, with Sunderland’s great goalscorer Johnny Campbell notching three, all from close range. The Wearsiders were to take 16 points from the final ten matches of the season to finish in seventh place, but disappointed their fans by losing after a replay to Notts County in the FA Cup semi-final.
The following season didn’t start well for Sunderland and Villa beat them 5-3 in the fourth game, making it just two points out of a first eight. Four straight victories, with back-to-back wins against West Brom in which Campbell became the first player to score a penalty kick for Sunderland, moved the club up the table. On March 26th 1892 Villa travelled north with Sunderland breathing down the neck of leaders Preston North End, winners of the first two League titles. Four weeks earlier the West Midlands side had knocked out Tom Watson’s side by thrashing them 4-1 at Bramall Lane in the FA Cup semi-final. And although this time Villa were to be beaten 3-0 when they again played West Brom in the final it was of no consolation to Sunderland fans. They, like all fans of the day, wanted to see their side win what was at the time, and for many years afterwards [1], regarded as the biggest competition in the World, the FA Cup.
Revenge was in the air, but at 1-0 up Sunderland were pegged back to 1-1 when Jack Devey equalised. It seemed Sunderland might be denied top spot. However, three minutes later John Hannah struck a famous winner that had the ‘crowd going wild. When the final whistle blew Sunderland had snatched a famous victory and were sitting proudly at the top of the league’ [Newcastle Chronicle]. It was a position they held to clinch a first ever League title, with Campbell also finishing as top scorer with 32 goals.
He got one less the following season, but that didn’t stop Sunderland claiming a then record points total of 48 and becoming the first side to score 100 League goals [from 30 matches] [2]. In a season of many great performances arguably the finest was in the third match, away to Villa that was won 6-1. Campbell got two, his first on five minutes an absolute lethal strike that flashed past Bill Dunning, who later died of tuberculosis.
In the return match, played on January 2nd 1895, the sides drew 4-4 with Hannah getting three in a magnificent game that has been immortalised in the World famous Thomas Hemy painting that magnificently adorns the entrance to ground with the most passionate supporters in English football, the Stadium of Light. The painting is probably the oldest of an Association Football match in the world. Hemy lived locally and was commissioned by the club to paint a picture of the team in action and quite naturally the game against reigning Champions Villa was the match chosen. Over the years the painting has had 2 titles; "A Corner Kick" and the less popular "The Last Minute - Now or Never".
It was Aston Villa though who prevented Sunderland becoming the first club to win the title for three seasons running, pushing the Wearsiders into second place in 1893-94. To make matters worse Villa also beat Watson’s side in the FA Cup, doing so 3-1 in a midweek afternoon replay in which a special train was laid on to take fans to Birmingham at a cost of 6 shillings and 6 pennies [32.5 pence]. Villa were subsequently put out of the FA Cup by the [Sheffield] Wednesday in round three.
Sunderland responded in great fashion in the 1894-95 season, winning the League title for a third time. Early in the season they travelled down to the West Midlands to face the reigning Champions before a huge crowd of 20,000. Birmingham, ‘a City of a thousands trades’ with a population then of 470,000, has always had its share of football fanatics and the 1890s was no different. One down Sunderland were brought back into the game when ‘Campbell caught Cowan and Elliott completely by surprise when he suddenly checked back and drove a magnificent low shot past Wilkes from 20 yards for an equaliser. ‘Although the goal was against the home side it was warmly applauded by the sporting home crowd.It was enough to help Sunderland win the game 2-1, an important marker for the season to come. In the League that is, because in the FA Cup when the sides again met, in the semi-final, Villa won 2-1 at Ewood Park, Blackburn before marching on to win the Final by beating – yes, again, West Brom, 1-0 with a goal by Bob Chatt.
Yes Sunderland had won the League title, their third in four seasons, but Villa had won the FA Cup, entitling them, many felt, to claim the title of ‘Champions.’
That was harsh on a magnificent Sunderland side, but it was one that the West Midlanders were able to add to over the following season. They won the League in 1895-96, and Sunderland’s Johnny Campbell was replaced at the top of the scorers chart by Villa’s own Johnny Campbell, [3] a wonderfully gifted and clever inside or centre-forward. He was brave, aggressive when required, possessed plenty of tricks and above all had an instinctive knack of scoring goals. He showed it the following season, notching the first in the FA Cup final as by beating Everton 3-2 Villa completed the ‘double’ after earlier winning the League title. Sunderland had done badly and only just survived, winning through in the ‘test match’ series that, following the introduction of a second League in 1892-93, decided promotion and relegation.
Villa subsequently went on to make it four Division One championships in five seasons by finishing top in 1898-99 and 1899-1900. Sunderland responded with a second place finish and then in 1901-02 they moved within one of their great rivals by winning the League title for a fourth time, beating Villa 1-0 home and away in two tight matches.
And whilst Villa again stretched their lead at the top to two title wins by capturing the title in 1909-10 there was still enough in the rivalry to mean that when the sides met at the 1913 FA Cup final at the Crystal Palace a world record crowd of over 120,000 turned up to see which of England’s two most successful sides could strike a blow in their fight for both the Cup and League.
Sadly, it was Villa, whose side contained Harry Hampton who a few weeks earlier had partnered George Holley for England against Scotland and had scored the only goal.
Sunderland though were to get their revenge by pushing Villa into second place in the League. As such it meant that at the end of the season Sunderland had won the title five times, just one less than their great rivals, although in the FA Cup it was a no contest with Villa having won it five times.
Not until 1937 did Sunderland strike back, when a year after levelling up the title successes Johnny Cochrane’s side captured the FA Cup by beaten Preston 3-1 at Wembley. [4] Villa though remained five ahead in the FA Cup after winning the Trophy for a sixth time in 1920 – beating, guess who, en route? Yes Sunderland! F*ck Darren Bent, I’ve always hated them, even though I was at their most famous match, the 1982 European Cup Final in Rotterdam when they beat Bayern Munich 1-0.

Mark Metcalf, 26th October 2011


1. See Captain of the North by Stan Anderson and Mark Metcalf for Stan’s comments on the 1954-55 season when Sunderland threw away the League title in the week’s leading up to the FA Cup semi-final that they subsequently lost to Manchester City in farcical conditions at Villa Park.

2. James Crabtree was one of football’s first truly great reporters and during the first fifteen seasons of League football he rated the Sunderland forward line of this season as second only to Preston North End’s of 1888-89. Villa’s in 1896-97 he had down as third.

3. For more on both Campbell’s and all the players who’ve finished as top scorer in Division 1 and the Premier League since 1888 there’s a new book, now out next year. GOLDEN BOOT by Mark Metcalf and Tony Matthews. Sunderland’s six in the book are Campbell, Holley, Buchan, Halliday, Davis and Phillips.

4. See TOTAL FOOTBALL – Sunderland 1935-37 by Mark Metcalf and Paul Days.


Just an added word from Mark Metcalf who kindly provided the words here. Mark's looking to put on an authors evening in Sunderland featuring himself, as well as noted Sunderland AFC writers Lance Hardy and Jonathan Wilson (both of whom have featured on this site). The only thing required to make this incredible sounding night possible is a venue, so if you run a suitable venue or know someone who does, get in contact with Mark on 07952 801783.

Now here's a little bit extra for you, because we're good like that. Well actually Mark Metcalf and Paul Days are good, we're just passing this on. Print off the coupon at the bottom of this page, send it off with your money and you'll get the book delivered to your door for the incredible price of just £10. Be sure to take advantage of this offer, as it really is a top read.

But don't just take our word for it. Take the word of someone who actually matters...

It’s a pleasure and a privilege to be asked to write the foreword for this book on one of Sunderland’s truly great sides.

Sadly too many Sunderland supporters know too little about the history of the club, and any book that reminds fans that we’ve won the top flight on six occasions - more than the likes of Newcastle United, Chelsea, Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspur, Wolverhampton Wanderers or Leeds United - can’t be bad.

Two years ago Paul Days and Mark Metcalf did a great job of bringing alive the Sunderland side of 1935-37 in a book titled TOTAL FOOTBALL, a term the great Liverpool manager Bill Shankly used in honour of Raich Carter’s team who he compared to the fabulous Dutch side of the 1970s. 

Now in this latest book we get to find out how the 1912-13 side almost became the first side in the 20th century to win the League and FA Cup ‘double’ as they and, another great side, Aston Villa made it through to the Cup final whilst both finishing ahead of the rest in the League. In the end we took the League and the Villains the Cup in a final played before a then World Record crowd of 121,919 which remains the largest crowd at any Sunderland match during the club’s 132-year history.

As someone who loves the history of our club I was fascinated to find out more about the players from this fabulous season including the likes of George Holley - the First Divison top scorer in 1911-12 and a man who scored a hat-trick at St James’ Park in December 1908 when Newcastle were trashed 9-1. Jackie Mordue scored 15 times in the 1912-13 season but the undoubted star of the show was one of Sunderland’s greatest players - possibly the greatest - ever in Charlie Buchan, who notched 27 league goals,

Then there’s ‘keeper Joe Butler, who arrived after the season started, to make some fine-match winning saves and strengthen a defence in which centre half Charlie Thomson was outstanding. Throw in Harry Martin on the wing, Frank Cuggy and Harry Low as wing-half’s plus two outstanding fullbacks in Albert Milton and Charlie Gladwin then what you find inside this book is the tale of a very fine side. One all Sunderland supporters like myself can feel proud of.

Haway the Lads
Gary Rowell


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