“We are a Second Division side, playing Second Division clubs, and doing badly.”
– Stanley Ritson, Chairman of Sunderland AFC, 1958.
Sunderland AFC has become a footballing establishment renowned for relegation and financial disrepute. Recent defeats to Sheffield United and Barnsley highlighted our naivety when entering the Championship - perhaps a symptom of our delusional attachment to our history.
If we are going to avoid relegation to the third division for a second-time, change needs to happen. Our financial predicament is no secret and Chris Coleman’s January budget will be sparse, but perhaps we can learn how to move forward by looking to the past.
Sunderland’s long-standing issues with identity, success and finances began in the 1950s, a period which we’ve never since been able to properly recover from.
All of our financial troubles spawned here as the most successful club in English football fell from grace. Obviously, football has changed a lot in the past sixty years, but the sentiments remain all the same.
Our historic lineage is similar to the rise and fall of Fray Bentos, both off the pitch and on, rising to power in the 1920s before meandering into footballing obscurity with nothing but self-parody on our side.
Where tinned corned beef pies were sold in their millions, half a dozen football league championships were won, and worldwide acclaim was secured. European giants Racing Club de Paris, Rapid Vienna, and Lev Yashin’s Dinamo Moscow would all make a point of stopping off at Roker on their pre-season tours. We were the Manchester City of the time, but more than any other, we were well-respected.
But how did everything turn so sour? When did we become so bad that the money ran dry? It all started in 1957 - a year that ended a decade of failed potential and illegal under the counter payments.
In the years leading up to the Second World War, Sunderland were crowned league champions for the final time in 1936 whilst also winning the FA Cup in 1937. Detours for peace in France and Germany stifled the opportunity for this golden period to snowball and with competitive football on hold, victory in Europe began to lament in the peripheries of a nation who were carrying the burden of war.
As the evil flames of fascism were extinguished, the re-emergence of post-war football was greeted with optimism. Football was back, and once more the hopes of Wearside could now rest in Roker Park rather than the Ardennes. The 1949-50 season saw Sunderland narrowly miss out on the First Division championship after being pipped to the title by Portsmouth by a solitary point.
During the 1950s the maximum wage still applied to footballers and was enforced tightly by the FA. For players and clubs, it was often a frustration to see the inequalities between playing wages and the incomes that were being generated through the huge gate receipts of the day.
Although they were the working-man’s players, they were the performers and required fair appraisal for their efforts. As a result, clubs began bonus schemes under the counter and players like Trevor Ford, Ken Chisolm, Ray Daniel and Billy Bingham all took advantage of the illegal practices.
In January 1957, an FA enquiry was lodged against Sunderland surrounding accusations of illegal under the counter payments. The whistle-blower was a man dubbed ‘Mr. Smith’. To this day the identity of Mr. Smith has never been propagated, but theories were proposed that jealous playing staff or a boardroom power struggle was to blame for the insider leak. It’s interesting to know that there could well be someone alive today who knows the truth about the elusive Mr. Smith.
It seemed like Sunderland were going to get away with it until a receipt was found in the ground maintenance accounts for £3000 worth of straw. This was an era where straw was used to heat pitches throughout winter and thaw out any remaining snow or ice. The secretary of the Football League, Alan Hardaker immediately contacted his brother, who was a chairman at Hull Rugby League Club, and enquired about how long £3000 worth of straw would cover a pitch for winter.
“Twenty-five seasons” was his brother’s answer, and thus the case was lost.
Sunderland had been found out. All the evidence was there, the ground maintenance accounts had doubled in value from 1952 to 1956 and we’d been caught. Sunderland had been disguising their outgoings and filtering the illegal payments through their excessive hay purchases.
Sunderland were fined £5000. It was the biggest fine ever received by a football club and the chairman Ted Ditchburn admitted sole responsibility for the scandal, with three directors including Ditchburn and the Vice-Chairman permanently banned from the sport. Trevor Ford, Ray Daniel, Ken Chisholm, Willie Fraser, Billy Bingham, and Jonny Hannigan were brought to trial and under instructions by PFA Lawyers refused to comment. They too were also banned from the sport permanently.
Following the case long-serving manager Bill Murray resigned, thus bringing an end to his twenty-eight year management and playing association with the club. The scandal meant that many men who’d been great servants to the club were either dismissed or resigned with dignity, albeit with the taste of sour grapes on their palette.
Throughout the following 1957/58 season public shame hung over Roker Park as new directors and players were left to pick up the pieces of a case that had taken its toll.
The team that had become known as the ‘Bank of England’ club throughout the decade were left cowering at the foot of the table. Sunderland were relegated for the first time in their history and were knocked from their once exalted dais. The marquee signings of the 1950s became a figment of the past. Ivor Broadis, Trevor Ford, and Len Shackleton became just another name on the teamsheet as the club’s fate went from bad to worse.
Examples were there to be made and Sunderland needed to accept it and move on. The club suffered great hubris, many of the old guard left and it was down to Alan Brown to recover the mess that had been made.
Young players like Jimmy Montgomery, Cecil Irwin, and Len Ashurst were brought into the fold, and the austerity that had been caused by the 1957 scandal created a policy that mixed youth and ageing experience, but the damage had been done.
Chairman Stanley Ritson said at the time:
There was a tremendous overdraft and I realised for the first time that the financial position for the club was pretty disastrous. Unless economies are effected, the livelihood of everyone connected with this club is in jeopardy.
There are similarities to be made between the club’s transfer policies between the Drummaville and Short eras and the might of spending prior to and after the scandal.
There’s no question that throughout the early parts of the Quinn and Short tenures money was there to be spent. In Roy Keane’s first Premier League transfer window expenditure surpassed £50 million. Similar cases are to be made up until just a few seasons ago, and it’s a proven that money doesn’t always generate success.
Peter Reid’s success at Sunderland was not founded on the expenditure of money, and it only came crashing down once our policy on transfers became lazy and irresponsible.
Since that period of high-spending in the 1950s we’ve had a great deal of players we’d consider as ‘legends’, but how many of them cost us a significant amount of money?
We vitally need transfer funds this January, more out of necessity than anything else, but history has shown us that the people who’ve dragged the club back from the dead in the past have done so as the result of frugal fiscal work.
We eventually finished 15th in our first season in the second division. Our attitudes then mirror the attitudes we have today when we come up against teams like Barnsley or Sheffield United. Our implied grandiosity on the back of no success at all is our weakness and the oppositions strength, and we must quickly learn that we aren’t expected to win.
It’s easy to look back through our history and make comparisons to certain events and find scapegoats. Whether its corruption or the mismanagement of 1957, relegation to the third division in 1987, or the current predicament we find ourselves in, we know that sooner or later, promotions will only ever be a couple of years away.
The heady heights of pre-war Sunderland were never reached and the sentiments of Roker Park have never been recreated for some. For those of us who’ve only ever known the Stadium of Light, Bob Murray and Peter Reid done a fantastic job establishing our most successful recent history and identity to date. An older generation of fans grew up with the thought that second division football was not a Sunderland trait, whilst another generation who endured away day trips to Grimsby in 1988 would never have thought that in just over ten years Sunderland would be finishing seventh in the Premier League.
Things can change, and they will. Monty, Cecil Irwin, and Len Ashurst were the young hopefuls who had to bare the brunt of Sunderland apathy for a while, and look how that turned out. Could the same be said about George Honeyman and other young Sunderland hopefuls with the weight of the world on their shoulders?
Football finances are a different beast to what they once were and perhaps we will never recover. One day though, when we least expect it, we will find ourselves back in the Premier League with hopes of European football like the Reid years as the cycle continues.
There you have it. Tell your friends, wives, girlfriends, sons and daughters when they ask “why are Sunderland so shit?” - when your young son looks up with his innocent eyes as we are 2-0 down to Fleetwood Town in League One, and questions our plight, you will turn to him and say: “It’s because of straw, son. It’s because of straw.”