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On This Day (19 February 1869): Johnny Campbell, a true Sunderland legend, is born!

Roker Report looks at the career of an early Sunderland icon, who made a huge impression on English football 

Johnny Campbell lies down at the front. Image taken from Sunderland AFC The Absolute Record.

Johnny Campbell is an undoubted Sunderland AFC great, even though it was yet to be formed when the Scot was born on this day in 1869.

It would be another decade before the club came to be, and a further ten years after that before Campbell moved to Wearside having forged his reputation with both Renton United and Renton.

A Scottish Cup winner already with Renton, his Sunderland career would prove to be a roaring success and having witnessed him spearhead three title winning campaigns and earn himself a place in English football history, the residents of the town took him to their hearts.

Front and centre with the 1892-93 squad. Image taken from Sunderland AFC The Absolute Record.

Following his untimely death aged only 37, it was no surprise to see large crowds gathering to pay their respects outside the Turf Hotel on the corner of Bedford Street and West Wear Street (roughly where Bridge House now stands). Campbell had become a publican and had been the licensee there for over three years when he passed but had fallen on such difficult times financially that his funeral was paid for by former teammate John Auld.

Auld was at that point on the board at Newcastle United, who had sacked Campbell in 1899 for breaking club rules.

The incident was related to his employment at a pub on Barrack Road and saw him retire from playing, with Campbell remaining in the trade and eventually returning to Sunderland to take over at the Turf. It was a sad end to a career and life that had brought joy to many.

Making his senior competitive debut for the Lads in an FA Cup tie, Campbell then featured in the club’s first ever Football League game at the start of the following season.

A powerful and brave forward, he ended the 1890-91 campaign with 23 goals in 26 games, but both he and the team were only getting started.

With their feet now under the table, the club stormed to their first league title 12 months later, with the Scot bagging 32 goals plus another 7 in the cup as the Red and Whites reached the semi-finals for the second time running.

Top scorer in the country as a result, he achieved the same honour again in 1893 and 1895 – a feat that even now has only been beaten by three other players in the men’s game.

Individual honours were just the cherry on the cake however, with Sunderland once again topping the league in both instances.

Campbell was on the scoresheet in all three of the games that saw those titles confirmed, with four goals coming in one match as the maiden championship was secured in style at Newcastle Road against Blackburn Rovers.

It was not the first time the deadly finisher had scored multiple times in one game – he had already notched Sunderland’s first two league hattricks and his quadruple was the third occasion in which he managed such a haul, which is still a joint club record with Bobby Gurney and Dave Halliday.

The star striker’s name certainly deserves to be recognised alongside those other goal-scoring greats. Despite leaving Sunderland over 125 years ago, before the club had moved to Roker Park even, Campbell remains the fifth highest scorer in its history and is still the fastest man to reach 50 goals in terms of games played.

He left in 1897 after a season playing under the management of half-brother Robert Campbell, who had followed Johnny down to England after his transfer and worked in the shipyards whilst initially helping to take training, and in his final appearances he fulfilled different midfield and even defensive roles at times as part of the effort to avoid relegation - scoring in the last regular fixture prior to the ultimately successful Test Match playoffs.

A player profile. Image taken from Sunderland AFC The Absolute Record.

It was a goal that got away however that led to a major change in the sport.

The controversy surrounding an effort in an FA Cup semi-final against Notts County in 1891 that wasn’t allowed to stand played a major part in nets being introduced, whilst the influence Campbell had on Sunderland’s own early glories meant that not even a move to Newcastle United could diminish his popularity.

A Football Word Championship winner with both Renton and Sunderland, there was to be a promotion whilst at St. James’ Park prior to him hanging up his boots and concentrating on pulling pints. Campbell packed a lot into his career, and his legacy continues to be revered 154 years after he was born.

Johnny Campbell

Born: Edinburgh, 19 February 1869

SAFC debut:

Blackburn Rovers 4 (Townley, Townley, Walton, Barton)

Sunderland 2 (Hannah, Scott)

FA Cup 1st round, Leamington Road 18 January 1890

Final SAFC appearance:

Sunderland 2 (Gillespie 15, 80)

Newton Heath 0

Test Match, Newcastle Road 26 April 1897

Total appearances/goals for SAFC:



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