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Sunderland are aiming to get “back to where we belong” - but where is that exactly?! (Part I)

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By looking at Sunderland’s final position in the league as our only parameter, we look to see what that tells us about our standing in English football. Our first part takes us from the 1890’s all the way through to the 1960’s.

Charlie Hurley Photo by PA Images via Getty Images

How many times do we hear that Sunderland should be “back where we belong”? Well, based on final league positions since the very first year Sunderland were elected to the Football League, we are going to take a look at exactly where that might be.

Breaking it down over era’s and decades we see what the averages were for each one as well as across the board.

In this part we cover our election to the Football League all the way up to end of the swinging 60’s.


1891-1915 – The Glory Years

Twenty-five years that included five Football League titles was an impressive introduction for the “Team of All Talents” after being elected as new members in 1890 in place of Stoke City. Our first year during the 1890-91 season was the third season of the Football League and contained only 12 clubs, but alongside Preston North End and Aston Villa, Sunderland were a side who dominated the years leading up to World War I.

Four years after the Football League’s debut year in 1892, saw Sunderland lift our first league title, becoming the third club to do so, and also saw the introduction of a Second Division. This came after the absorption of the Football Alliance, and by 1915 the top tier had also expanded to 20 teams.

In 1913, we came within a whisker of winning the double. After claiming the league title, we were defeated by a single goal in the FA Cup Final to Division One runners-up Aston Villa at London’s Crystal Palace.

From 1915, the outbreak of World War I forced the suspension of the Football League until the 1919-20 season, but for Sunderland, this opening quarter of a century was about as good as it gets.

1891-1915...

Highest Final League Position: 1st Division One (top tier)

Lowest Final League Position: 15th Division One (top tier)

Average Final League Position: 6th Division One (top tier)


1920 – 1939 – The Interwar Period

After the resumption of the Football League, Sunderland picked up where we left off and regularly finished in the top half of Division One.

After narrowly missing out on the title during the 1920’s we finally won another championship in 1936 when both Bobby Gurney and Raich Carter scored over 30 league goals in the same single season as we lifted the famous trophy for a sixth time.

After the 1938-39 season football would again come to an abrupt halt for seven years with the outbreak of World War II. Along with our opening 25 years, this interwar period would see some of the best years of the club’s history.

1920-1939

Highest Final League Position: 1st Division One (top tier)

Lowest Final League Position: 16th Division One (top tier)

Average Final League Position: 8th Division One (top tier)


1947 – 1958 – The Postwar Years

Once football resumed, we would become notorious for splashing the cash, earning ourselves the nickname of the “Bank of England club” after names such as Len Shackleton and Trevor Ford were signed for big fees.

We also began to see something more like the inconsistent Sunderland Association Football Club we all love. Twelve seasons that saw us come within a point of title, survive relegation by the skin of our teeth, being implicated in a major financial scandal and then ultimately suffer our first ever relegation as a club on goal difference in 1958.

In typical Sunderland style we finish on the same points as Portsmouth and Newcastle United and still find ourselves relegated to the Second Division of the Football League for the first time.

Also in true Sunderland fashion, it needs to get worse before it can be better as we strive for an immediate return to Division One as we move into the 1960’s.

1947-1958...

Highest Final League Position: 3rd Division One (top tier)

Lowest Final League Position: 21st Division One (top tier)

Average Final League Position: 12th Division One (top tier)


1959 – 1969 – Slight Return

Our initial efforts to return immediately to Division One do not go to plan, and we finish in the bottom half of Division Two in the first two years after relegation.

Despite Charlie Hurley’s best efforts to take us back to the top level of English football as quickly as possible, we end up waiting until 1964 as we finish runners-up to Don Revie’s Leeds United. We probably should have returned a year earlier, and if you have never seen how close we came and managed to fall at the final hurdle, it’s worth taking a look.

As we skirt around the bottom of Division One for the rest of the decade, we ride our luck year-on-year and by the end of the 1960’s, in terms of final league positions, we now look more like the modern day pattern.

1959-1969...

Highest Final League Position: 15th Division One (top tier)

Lowest Final League Position: 16th Division Two (tier 2)

Average Final League Position: 2nd Division Two (tier 2)