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On This Day (22 October 1983): Cowies for Sunderland as the Lads lose to Man Utd!

Today marks the 39-year anniversary of defeat for the Lads against Manchester United, but of longer term impact was the introduction of a kit sponsor for the first time… 

Ray Wilkins scores on this day. Image from the 1983-84 Watford edition of the match day programme.

Kit sponsorship is common in modern day football, but during the early 1980s it was only just starting to come to the fore.

Teams had been testing the water over the course of a few years and were often forced to revert to plain strips when being featured on television, but when broadcast regulations were relaxed commercialism started to really take hold as one-by-one clubs sought to maximise potential revenue.

It was inevitable from that point that Sunderland would follow suit, and on this day in 1983 the Lads took to the pitch bearing the name of a sponsor for the first time – the club crest and kit manufacturers branding now sharing space on the famous red and white with the logo of a firm that just so happened to be owned by club chairman Tom Cowie OBE (he was not knighted until later).

It was a controversial move, as was the call to award visitors Manchester United a penalty that resulted in the only goal of that afternoon’s game.

The man everybody was talking about. Image from the 1983-84 Queens Park Rangers edition of the match day programme.

As one of the biggest clubs in the game, Ron Atkinson’s side were well used to the emerging links between marketing and football.

What would prove to be a fruitful and long standing relationship with electronics firm Sharp had already been fully established and like rivals Liverpool and their own backers Candy, the partnerships would become synonymous over the course of the decade.

That wasn’t the only thing that sprang to mind when thinking of the Red Devils though – and whilst it wasn’t until the 1990s that they were really at their peak, rumblings of a ‘big club bias’ were never far away.

Those feelings were expressed loud and clear when referee David Hutchinson awarded the Red Devils a spot kick for a supposed foul by Shaun Elliott on Frank Stapleton, even though the common view was that the infringement was the other way round.

Ray Wilkins tucked the early Fulwell End penalty away, and the sense of injustice grew even further when minutes later a seemingly obvious trip by Lou Macari on Leighton James in the other box was waved away.

They were the two main incidents of an otherwise sluggish game in which Alan Durban’s side were solid enough but struggled to create against the league leaders – leading to an away win that nowadays would feature somewhere in the middle of the Match of the Day running order.

The Cowies logo take centre stage. Image from the 1983-84 Watford edition of the match day programme.

39 years ago however, the game was originally due to get top billing having been selected by BBC at a time when the programme only featured one or two fixtures each week.

That had been the spark for Cowie to introduce his eponymous motoring empire on the shirts in the first place, although a spanner was put in the works somewhat due to industrial action taking place that meant the show was not aired.

It was somewhat ironic therefore that whilst the presence of TV cameras had in the past stemmed the rise of sponsorship, Sunderland now had the branding but not the broadcasters.

Football wasn’t the only aspect of life back then in which the influence of money and big business was taking hold; the mood in the country was far from harmonious and strikes such as that at Television Centre would become commonplace (sound familiar at all?).

This was felt keenly on Wearside, where tensions were raised due to the ongoings at Roker Park - Cowie was not the most popular of blokes in some circles, and some of his more inflammatory comments about the supporters did little to help his popularity ratings.

The money that was being made available for squad strengthening was limited too, and seeing his organisation, albeit locally based and a nationally recognised operation, emblazoned across the cherished stripes drove home the need for more external investment in the eyes of some.

Gary Rowell shows off the new logo - it wasn’t always clear on photographs and a much larger version would later be introduced. Image from the 1983-84 Watford edition of the match day programme.

Romantics and realists would have always differed over what was such a contentious and at the time, radical, move no matter who the backers were, but the fact Sunderland’s first-ever kit sponsors were one of their chairman’s other interests, and one that was seemingly running much more successfully too, antagonised not only the purists but also some of the more pragmatic Lads fans as well.

Despite this, a crowd over double that of the last home attendance a week earlier was in the ground to witness the new age being ushered in, although admittedly that was more to do with the standard of opposition and an encouraging run of three wins and a draw.

Kits now are more than just necessary sports apparel – they are a fashion choice and an opportunity to promote goods, services and almost everything else too with logos prevalent not only on the front of shirts but also on the backs and sleeves, and on the shorts too.

In that regard, Sunderland had opened pandora’s box on this day.


Saturday 22 October 1983

Canon League Division One

Sunderland 0

Manchester United 1 (Wilkins 19)

Sunderland: Turner; Venison (Cooke 82), Elliott, Atkins, Pickering; Bracewell, Chisholm, Proctor, James; Rowell, West.

Roker Park, attendance 26, 826

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