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On This Day (29 January 1964): Sunderland hero John Kay is born!

Turning 58 today is former Sunderland defender and fan favourite John Kay, so to mark the occasion Roker Report looks back on the career of the man dubbed the Red & White Tractor…

Everybody has a favourite John Kay story, whether it be him dancing on cars or rowing off football pitches, and it was no surprise that he was selected to feature in Rob Mason’s 2008 book ‘Sunderland AFC Cult Heroes’. A hugely popular figure with the fans both on and off the pitch, Kay was a key member of a successful Roker side and is still fondly remembered by those that saw him play.

Despite being born in Sunderland General and growing up in Great Lumley, his senior career started in London. After spells with Arsenal and Wimbledon and a short stint on loan at Middlesbrough it was new manager Denis Smith that brought the full-back home in 1987. A league ever present in his first season with Sunderland, his rock solid performances on the right hand side of the defence helped the side win the Division Three title.

Kay missed large chunks of the following campaign but returned to the starting XI as promotion was again secured in 1989-90. Having been asked to play centre-back for periods his versatility and engine even saw him put on the wing during the ultimately doomed battle against relegation from Division One twelve months later. His high fitness levels and sheer will to win were major assets to the team but having been a champion sprinter and decathlete as a youth, Kay’s catalogue of injuries eventually proved too much to take.

The Red and White Tractor ploughs on (image taken from 1992 Sunderland Annual by World International Publishing)

Famously stepping aside and missing out on the 1992 FA Cup final for the good of the team, having been an integral part of the run to Wembley, his decision to tell Malcolm Crosby he was not 100% was a real mark of the man. He was still named the Supporter’s Association’s Player of the Season for 1991-92 though, and fans longed to see his effort and commitment be further rewarded in the form of a goal from one of his marauding runs up the channel.

A strike in Sunderland colours did not come however, but even in his darkest hour he gave those watching in the stands something to smile about – laughing and joking as he was stretchered off the pitch during a game against Birmingham City in October 1993 when a challenge for the ball resulted in him breaking his leg. Although he returned to fitness following another leg break in a reserve match and remained at the club for another three years, the Birmingham game proved to be the final first team outing for a man that was as committed as you could wish to see.

Kay was more than just a hard as nails tough tackler however; he was a talented defender who was comfortable on the ball. He was released in 1996 and eventually ended up at Scarborough, where despite relegation from the Football League in his second season he had once again become one of their most important players. There had also been quick stops before that on loan at Shrewsbury Town, for whom he played at Wembley in the Football League Trophy final, and Preston North End, and after turning out for Workington he called it a day in 1999.

A birthday card for John...

Following his football career he moved into voluntary youth work before getting a job supporting people with addiction issues. Sunderland supporters always like seeing a local lad pulling on the stripes and giving their all, but John Kay has gone further than that – his wicked sense of humour and a down to earth nature have seen him remain well loved to this day. Happy birthday Kaysie!

John Kay


Sunderland, 29 January 1964



SAFC debut:

Brentford 0

Sunderland 1 (Bertschin 46)

Griffin Park 15 August 1987

Final SAFC appearance:

Sunderland 1 (Howey 30)

Birmingham City 0

Roker Park 9 October 1993

Total appearances for SAFC:

236 (+ 3 as sub)


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