Of all Sunderland’s teams, the greatest is Tom Watson’s "Team of All the Talents". And of all of the players in that team, none was more crucial than the first truly prolific forward in the English game, Johnny Campbell.
Signed after impressing during a friendly against Scottish side Renton in 1889, Campbell made his debut for Sunderland in an FA Cup defeat to Blackburn in January 1890. With Sunderland joining the Football League for the first time in the 1890-91 season, Campbell got his chance to impress against the best English football had to offer, and duly delivered. A goal in the club’s first league game against Burnley was followed six games later by the club’s first league hat-trick, Campbell notching four in a 5-2 win over Bolton at Pikes Lane.
Sunderland finished that first season in seventh place, Campbell scoring sixteen goals in twenty two games. League Championships were won in 1892, 1893 and 1895, Campbell finishing the league’s top scorer in each season (thirty two, thirty one and twenty two goals respectively). Campbell’s record places him as one of three players, alongside Gary Lineker and Alan Shearer, to have finished as the league’s top scorer three times, with only Jimmy Greaves, Thierry Henry and Derby and Middlesbrough forward Steve Bloomer achieving the feat on more occasions.
Campbell scored as Sunderland were crowned "World Champions" after defeating Hearts in 1895, the title becoming the last thing that he or his manager Tom Watson were to win at the club. Watson departed for Liverpool at the end of an 1895-96 season which had seen Sunderland finish a disappointing fifth (although Campbell was once again top scorer, notching fifteen league goals for the side).
Campbell’s time at Sunderland came to an end in 1897 when, after a poor season in which the club struggled to a fifteenth place finish, he accepted a move to Second Division side Newcastle United. He was to win promotion at Newcastle, before being dismissed for breaking club rules by becoming a licensee.
Campbell’s life was cut short by his death in 1906, aged just thirty six. Despite this, his record at Sunderland remains truly remarkable, his 150 goals in 215 games putting him alongside the greatest forwards ever to grace Wearside turf.