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Interview: ‘Sunderland AFC: The Absolute Record’ Relive every twist & turn of the rollercoaster

Sunderland’s official club historian Rob Mason and long-time collaborators Barry Jackson and Mike Gibson have been putting their lockdown time to good use – finalising their new large-format book, Sunderland AFC: The Absolute Record. The book chronicles every detail of Sunderland’s illustrious history, and Rob spoke with Martin Wanless about the project itself, the discovery of a previously unknown player, and the unwanted record Titus Bramble holds in SAFC history.

MW: Rob, there’s something quite symbolic about publishing a book covering our history as we’re in statistically the lowest position we’ve ever been in!

RM: The way things have turned out, with Sunderland finishing in our lowest ever league position, the disappointment of missing out on promotion, and the supporters being so unhappy with the hierarchy at the football club, it could be very bad timing to be bringing out a new football book on Sunderland!

But the fact is that Sunderland Association Football Club, as a football club, despite his current position, remains, and will remain one of the giants of English football. And the reason it’s one of the giants of English football is because of its early history when Sunderland established themselves as one of the giants in the game, and we’ve never lost that. Yes, for many years we’ve been accurately described as a sleeping giant.

But, a giant nonetheless. A fact that I regularly dish out, because I want people to always understand it, is there are still only five clubs in the country who have been champions of England more times than Sunderland.

So, regardless of what’s going on, on the pitch, we’ve got an enormous, rich and interesting – and successful – history.

Chelsea Vs Sunderland
Sunderland, the reigning league champions, take on Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, December 1913. The game ended 1-1.
Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

MW: This book is called The Absolute Record. You also wrote the Complete Record, which was published in 2005 and republished in 2012, with Barry Jackson and Mike Gibson. What’s different with this one?

RM: It’s a completely new book – it’s not an update on what we did before, so there are hundreds of pages of new stuff to discover! The bread and butter of the book is the record of all of the seasons since Sunderland came into the league in 1890.

Now, in the previous books, yes we had those records of all the lineups, and we’ve got more detailed versions of those records of all the lineups again. In addition, for every season, you’ve what the attendance was, who the subs were if substitutes were allowed, who they came on for, who the captains were.

But in this new book, we’ve also got a write up of every season, and that puts the campaign into context and tells the story. We’ve picked out a game that was a key match – not necessarily the most famous game, but maybe a turning point for the season. There’s a team picture for each season, a list of the major signings, the debuts, players who’ve come through the youth team, that sort of thing.

As well as the season-by-season stuff, there are around 150 other pages of all kinds of information to do with Sunderland, so there’s a whole load of top 10s – the top 10 tallest, smallest, lightest, heaviest players, the oldest and youngest. There’s a section on penalties, a section on goalkeepers, a section on overseas tours, a section on the fixtures played at Roker Park in 1966 for example.

Each season is broken game-by-game, with some never-told-before stories providing significant context.

MW: I believe a few records have been updated as a result of new things you’ve discovered in the process of putting this book together...

RM: They have, yes. We’ve gone back through and checked every detail, and have updated a number of things that had previously been published. The digitisation of newspapers has been beneficial for us.

You know what it’s like at the match – a goal’s scored and you aren’t too sure who scored. You think it was one player, and your mate thinks it’s another. Sometimes it’s hard to tell. And it’s the same in the press box. Now, of course, you have replays, but back in the day there were no replays, no ground announcers, no shirt numbers, games played on dark winter evenings... so you can see the margin for error.

Previously, if there was a conflict over who’d reportedly scored, we went with the local reporter – after all, they watched the players regularly so were more familiar with them.

However now, because of the information available online in the form of old newspapers, we can cross-reference eight, nine, ten match reports from various source. If a large percentage agree, then we can look at the evidence and say it’s more likely to be correct.

Where we’ve updated any records, we’ve explained in the book what it is, the criteria used, and ultimately everything is accurate based on the very best evidence before us.

Soccer - World Cup England 1966 - Quarter Final - West Germany v Hungary - Roker Park Sunderland.
A section of the book is devoted to the World Cup action Roker Park hosted in 1966, including the USSR v Hungary Quarter Final
Photo by PA Images via Getty Images

MW: I’ve heard talk of a new player who’s never been mentioned before. Tell us about him!

RM: That’s right, and this was down to Mike, who over many, many years has made it his business to trace every player who’s ever played for Sunderland, not only through his football career but through census records, birth certificates, death certificates and all of those types of documents.

By the way, Mike’s the bloke who, when travelling away with Sunderland over years and years, rather than going to the pub for a couple of pints before the game, goes to the local library and digs through the newspaper archives to uncover everything he can about games Sunderland played!

Anyway, during Mike’s research, we discovered a player who played many, many decades ago, and the following season a player of the same name played, too. Now, in previous records, they’ve gone down as one player, but through census records and various other material, we’ve established these were two completely different people.

I’m not telling you his name yet – you’ll have to read the book!

Read the book to find out who the player is who’s never before been discovered. Clue: It’s not Tommy Miller.

MW: As you touched upon earlier, the book’s also got a whole host of quirky facts and figures. What are some of the highlights?

RM: Well, the heaviest player ever to play for us… Titus Bramble. 16 stone 1 pound, which is pretty significant for a footballer! The tallest player? Pantilimon (6” 8’). Tallest outfield player? Sebastian Coates. Smallest player? Officially it’s not Milton Nunez – in the record books he’s 5 foot 5 - I think he gave himself four or five inches there – but officially the smallest players are Bert Davis (1932-1936), John Harvie (1889-97) and Reuben Smith (1886-88), who were all 5 foot 4. Bobby Kerr was 5 foot 4 and a half!

Soccer - Barclays Premier League - Sunderland v Arsenal - Stadium of Light
Titus and his turning circle
Photo by Owen Humphreys/PA Images via Getty Images

MW: Finally, Rob, what do you think version 2.0 of the Absolute Record will say when reviewing this coming season?

RM: Well, I never make predictions anyway, but it’s impossible to know what sort of a team we’ll have. There are so many things they need to sort out. But what I do know is you can buy players, get a new manager, but you can’t buy a fanbase.

I look at Brentford and Fulham – they’re battling to go up to the Premier League – how much would they pay for our fanbase? Our fans are incredible. Thanks to Bob Murray we’ve got a superb ground, the training ground, and not forgetting the Beacon of Light, which is associated with the club. It just shows the stature and the power of the club. We’re still a giant of the game.

Sadly, and not for the first time, we lack on the pitch. However things go in circles, and one thing I’m certain of is that, at some point in the future, we’ll have good times again.

Eventually, someone will get it right.

Sunderland AFC: The Absolute Record, will be published in hardback on 1 November, priced £30. Pre-order at safctheabsoluterecord.co.uk before the end of August, and you can have your name – or the name of the person the book’s being purchased for – printed in the roll of honour at the back of the book.