In 1881, in order to relax financial troubles, the name was changed to Sunderland Association Football Club and non-teachers were allowed to join. S.A.F.C. turned professional in 1885, the same year they recruited a number of Scotsmen, their first international players. In 1887 the club was split in two due to the influx of paid professional players pushing the local men out of the first team. In protest over this many of the best local players (and club-founder James Allan) left the club and formed their own team, Sunderland Albion F.C. A brief rivalry began, peaking in 1890 when The Football League promised admission for just one of the teams. A deciding playoff was held; SAFC won. Sunderland Albion remained an amateur club, and gradually faded into obscurity.
Sunderland AFC joined the Football League in time for the 1890-91 season, which was only the league's third season. Stoke, one of the twelve Football League founder members dropped out after two seasons. Sunderland took their place, effectively making them the 'thirteenth' team in English football. In the early years of the Football League, SAFC were the most Northern top-flight team and often had to pay opposing teams' travel expenses. Over six seasons "the team of all the talents" lost only one home game and became the first side to win the league three times.
The club shared this period of dominance with Aston Villa, and the battles between these clubs were immortalised in a famous Thomas MM Hemy painting of the two clubs in action during the 1894-1895 season, the first ever painting of a competitive football league match. Entitled 'A Corner Kick', the painting now stands in the doorway of the club's current stadium, The Stadium of Light. From 1886 until 1898 SAFC's home was at Newcastle Road; ironically, Newcastle United are their main rivals. In 1898, the Club moved to what would become their home for almost a century, Roker Park. Initially the ground had a capacity of 30,000, but over the following decades it was continually expanded and at its peak held an official crowd of over 75,000.
In 1904 the club was rocked by a financial scandal involving the club's right back Andy McCombie, in which Sunderland's board of Directors gave the player £100 in order to start up in business, with the view that his benefit game would see him repay the money. McCombie however saw the money as a gift and refused to pay back the club. The Football Association launched an inquiry and agreed with McCombie, stating that it was a "resigning/win/draw bonus" and furthermore the books of Sunderland showing financial irregularities, and so violating the rules of the game. Sunderland were fined £250, with six directors being suspended for two and a half years. Furthermore, McCombie would go onto sign for Newcastle United, and be instrumental in Newcastle's spell of league dominance of the era. The club were shook heavily by this and began to struggle in the league, the only true bright point of the remainder of the decade being a 1-9 hammering of Newcastle United away in 1908, which is still the biggest away victory of any team the top flight. Billy Hogg (ironically, Newcastle born) and George Holley scored hat-tricks, Arthur Bridgett scored twice and Jackie Mordue once. All four of the goal-scorers for Sunderland were England internationals. Also, in 1905 the club were involved in the first ever £1,000 transfer fee for a player when Alf Common signed for Middlesbrough.
On 19 April 1913 Sunderland narrowly missed out on becoming one of the first clubs to win the double when they were beaten 1-0 by Aston Villa in the FA Cup Final at Crystal Palace. The crowd that day was 121,919; the second-highest ever to watch an FA Cup Final, behind the 1923 White Horse Final. This decade in the clubs history also saw the goalscoring prowess of Charles Buchan, who played in the 1913 cup final and would go onto score 224 goals for the club, which means he stands today as the second highest goal-scorer in the club's history after Bob Gurney's record of 228.
World War I saw the break-up of the Sunderland team as men went off to fight on the continent - many not returning. The team was rebuilt and in the 20's and 30's the club fielded some of its greatest ever players, including Charlie Buchan, Dave Halliday, Bobby Gurney, and Raich Carter. Bank-rolled by wealthy shipyard owners, Sunderland broke regular transfer records bringing the likes of Halliday to Roker Park. At least 35 league goals in each of his four full seasons at Sunderland and the most prolific goals to games scorer in the club's history, Dave Halliday's 43 league goals in 1928/29 is still a club record and made him the top scorer in England's highest league that season.
Despite the investment, Sunderland failed to win any trophies until 1936, when they won the league championship for the sixth, and last time. The following year, they eventually won their first FA Cup in a 3-1 victory over Preston North End in front of 93,495 at Wembley. The goals were scored by Gurney, Carter and Eddie Burbanks. The team looked set to win many more trophies in the seasons ahead before the misery of the Second World War broke out. The football league was suspended.
In January 1949 Sunderland were involved in what is often regarded as the first case of a player transfering himself when they paid £18,000 for Carlisle United player-manager Ivor Broadis. This along with Sunderland spending the likes of record breaking transfer fees on Len Shackleton and Wales' Trevor Ford led to the club being known at this time as the "Bank of England" club. The club finished third in the top division in 1950, the highest finish to date since the 1936 championship.
Despite high-spending on transfer-fees, the club's hands were tied regarding player wages due to an FA-imposed £15-per-week wage-cap. In January 1957, a letter was delivered to the FA from a 'Smith', in it, the author made allegations that Sunderland were making illegal payments to players. The FA sent an investigation team to the club, who found evidence of illegal activity in the club accounts, including a £3,000 bill for 'straw' to cover the pitch. The team uncovered a string of similar accounting glitches; Contract companies were purposely charging Sunderland excessive fees for services, and later sending credit-notes to redress the balance. These credit notes were passed on to players. In total, just over £5,000 was handled in this way. The club Chairman and chief financier along with three club directors were permanently suspended. The club was fined a record £5,000, manager Bill Murray was fined £200, and a number of players, including record-signing Trevor Ford were temporarily suspended. The punishment was severe, and sent shock-waves through the world of football and sent Sunderland into disarray. Ironically, the wage-cap was removed in 1961.
In 1958, in the aftermath of the illegal-payments scandal, Sunderland were relegated from Division One for the first time in their history. Sunderland's 68 unbroken years at the top flight was at the time a record in English football; since then, it has been surpassed by Arsenal. The local sports newspaper, the "Football Echo", had always been pink - but after relegation it was sold in white, headlines claimed the colour change was "due to the shock".
Despite losing the remarkable Brian Clough to injury in the early 60's, Sunderland were promoted back to the top-flight in 1964; after six long years in the second division. Unfortunately, Sunderland failed to make an impact in the top-flight - they never finished higher than 15th and six years later in 1970, they were eventually relegated for the second time. Despite the poor league showing, during this time Sunderland had some notable players: Jimmy Montgomery in goal, Charlie Hurley in defence, George Herd and Jim Baxter in midfield and George Mulhall on the wing.
On 5 May 1973, second-division Sunderland ended a fairy-tale cup run by beating cup-holders Leeds United in the FA Cup Final. A first-half goal by Scotsman Ian Porterfield was the only goal of the game - in no small part thanks to an outstanding double-save by goalkeeper Jimmy Montgomery, first from a Cherry header, and then a powerful follow-up by Peter Lorimer. It is often described as one of the greatest saves of all-time. At the end of the game, Sunderland manager Bob Stokoe ran on to the pitch to embrace his goalkeeper, an enduring image in FA Cup history. It was the first time a team from outside of the top-flight had lifted the cup in over 40 years.
In 1976 Sunderland were once again promoted to the first division. They only lasted a season but returned in 1980 for another five-year stint in the top flight. During this time the club never managed to finish higher than 13th place and were perpetual league strugglers. Notable players in this period included Shaun Elliott, Kevin Arnott, Chris Turner, Barry Venison, Gary Rowell, Gordon Chisholm, Mark Proctor, Paul Bracewell, Stan Cummins (with NASL Seattle Sounders 1981 (game results ), Nick Pickering and Iain Munro.
Two years later they reached the Second Division playoff final after beating Newcastle United in the semi-final. This fixture is noted for the final leg at St. James' Park on 16 May 1990 where disappointed Newcastle fans, seeing their team two-nil down with only five minutes remaining, invaded the pitch in the hope of forcing an abandonment. Despite losing 1-0 to Swindon Town at Wembley, Sunderland were promoted a few weeks later in place of Swindon - who remained in the Second Division after admitting financial irregularities.
Sunderland went back down after just one season in the First Division, despite taking over 15,000 expectant fans to the final game of the season away at Manchester City. The Wearsiders subsequently struggled in mid-table in 1991-92. However, the club evoked the spirit of '73 with a scintillating run to the FA Cup final - where they lost 2-0 to Liverpool on 9 May 1992, but did beat Chelsea in a pulsating quarter-final replay on 18 March. Smith had quit as manager during the season and was replaced by his assistant Malcolm Crosby, who in turn resigned after less than a year despite success in taking the club to only the fourth FA Cup final in their history. Crosby was replaced by Terry Butcher.
Before the end of 1993, Butcher's short-lived reign as manager came to an end and he was replaced by Mick Buxton. Buxton fared a little longer, being sacked in March 1995. At this stage, Sunderland were in real danger of relegation from Division One. The club's board turned to Peter Reid as manager and his target was simple - to keep Sunderland clear of relegation. That objective was achieved within weeks and he was rewarded with a permanent contract.
Peter Reid's first full season as Sunderland manager was a huge success. They cruised to the Division One title and gained promotion to the Premiership for the first time since the league re-structuring. But a shortage of goals caused by Reid's reluctance to pay big money for unproven strikers, coupled with injuries which kept key players out of the picture for long stretches of the season, sabotaged their chances of success during 1996-97, despite beating Manchester United (winning 2-1 on 22 March 1997), Arsenal (winning 1-0 on 11 January 1997) and Chelsea (winning 3-0 on 15 December 1996) at Roker Park. As at Maine Road six years earlier, Sunderland went into the final day of the season unsure of safety and were ultimately relegated on the last day of the season, this time at Selhurst Park, losing 1-0 to Wimbledon.
In their first season at their new ground, Sunderland overcame a bumpy start to finish third. After beating Sheffield United in the playoff semi-final, they reached the final at Wembley. Over 40,000 fans travelled from the North-East to see an incredible game against Charlton Athletic which ended 4-4 after extra time. After a phenomenal season of goalscoring, new striker Kevin Phillips scored here as well, meaning that he broke Brian Clough's post-war single season goalscoring record with a tally of 35. Charlton, however, went on to win the game on a penalty shootout, as Michael Gray had his penalty saved by Charlton goalkeeper Saša Ilić. It is often regarded as one of the best games seen at Wembley in recent years.
Sunderland returned to the English Premiership after running away with the Division One title in 1998-99 season with a record 105 league points. Kevin Phillips had another brilliant season, reaching the 25-goals-a-season mark despite spending several months of the season sidelined by injury. Highlights of 1998-99 included beating Tranmere Rovers 5-0 on 22 August 1998, the 7-0 demolition of Oxford United on 19 September 1998, gaining promotion at Bury after winning 5-2 on 13 April 1999, and the Championship party, winning 2-1 against Birmingham City on 9 May 1999 in a blaze of fireworks and rock 'n' roll courtesy of contemporary band Republica, performing live pre-match.
Over the next two seasons, Sunderland finished seventh — just missing out on a place in European competition both times. With a team containing many international players, included some capped for England; Kevin Phillips, Gavin McCann, Michael Gray, Sunderland fans began to believe that the club had finally come out of the dark era and were re-established as a permanent top-flight club. Phillips won the European Golden Boot in his first top-flight season with Sunderland, scoring 30 goals. Average attendances at the Stadium of Light were some of the highest in the club's history.
The 1999-2000 season started with despair at Stamford Bridge as Sunderland were rocked by a 4-0 thumping at the hands of Chelsea on 7 August 1999. However, far from bringing Wearside back down to earth, Sunderland took it in their stride tearing the Premiership apart with forward-thinking, exciting football. Upon entering the new Millennium, Sunderland were sitting third in the Premiership table, having lost only three times between their opening day defeat at Chelsea. On their way surging up the table, Wearside turned the tables on Chelsea, avenging their 4-0 drubbing with a 4-1 win at the Stadium of Light on 4 December 1999. Other notable results saw the Mackems beat Spurs, Southampton, Watford, Aston Villa, Bradford City, Sheffield Wednesday, Leicester City and, famously, in a glorious night for Sunderland, a 2-1 victory over rivals Newcastle United in the rain at St. James' Park on 25 August 1999, which saw Alan Shearer relegated to the bench and Magpies boss Ruud Gullit lose his job. Manchester United and Arsenal also offered little resistance as they were held to draws on Wearside. After an inconsistent start to 2000, Sunderland dropped off the pace slightly and ended in seventh place, still a highly creditable finish on their return to the Premier League, and the club's highest league placing in over fifty years. The 2000-01 season was much the same, and again the club ended the season the seventh best team in England, four places higher than Newcastle.
In 2001-02, however, the club narrowly avoided relegation. They were the lowest scoring team in the Premiership with just 28 goals. Despite this, nine more points would have seen them finish seventh. First hurdle exits from both cup competitions built up the pressure on Peter Reid. In 2002-03 they finished bottom, with an English Premiership record low of 4 wins, 21 goals and 15 points. Peter Reid had been sacked in October and been replaced with Howard Wilkinson, with Steve Cotterill as his assistant. Wilkinson's reign was catastrophic, and he left the club after only six months in charge. Although Sunderland were outside the relegation area at Christmas with 18 points, after poor performances, they only picked up one more point, and a series of 17 straight defeats which only better by Darwen in League history with 18 straight defeats, saw Sunderland relegated with a then-record low points total in the Premiership of 19 points.
Former Republic of Ireland manager Mick McCarthy came to the club in mid-March, and all he could do was make plans for the future as Sunderland's final 15 Premiership games all ended in defeat. In addition to relegation, heavy activity in the transfer market including £10m paid for Tore André Flo and Marcus Stewart shortly before Reid's sacking meant that Sunderland found itself in debt for more than £35 million, and the club was forced to sell many of its best players and close a number of club shops.
In their first season back in the second-tier, McCarthy began to rebuild the squad with players mainly brought in from lower divisions. Despite the transition, Sunderland finished a respectable third, and only a penalty shoot-out defeat at the hands of Crystal Palace prevented them from reaching the playoff final. In the 2004-05 season, Sunderland finished top of the table in the Coca-Cola Championship, returning to the Premiership.
2005-06 was a torrid time for the Wearsiders. Sunderland, for the first time in their history, failed to win a home game before Christmas and were relegated with what was then the lowest points tally ever gained by a team in English football league history since 3 points for a win came into the football league in 1981. Embarrassment was compounded when they were knocked out of the FA Cup at the 4th round stage by League One side Brentford. Manager Mick McCarthy was sacked in March, and replaced by caretaker manager Kevin Ball. Ball, a former club captain and fans' favourite, became the 30th man to take control in Sunderland's history, but the fourth in the last 4 years. He faced an almost impossible task of keeping Sunderland in the Premier League. The Black Cats' relegation to the Championship was sealed on 14 April by a scoreless draw against Manchester United at Old Trafford, leaving them on 12 points with five matches left to play and 17 points from any chance of safety.
Sunderland won their final home game of 2005-06 with a 2-1 win over Fulham, which prevented them from the suffering further humiliation of becoming the first English professional club to have gone a whole season without winning a single home game in the league.
Sunderland began the 2006-07 with new backroom staff, as former player Niall Quinn, backed by the Drumaville Consortium, completed their £10m takeover of the club. Out-going chairman Bob Murray left Sunderland A.F.C. after two eventful decades in charge; above all else, he was responsible for the club's move to the Stadium of Light.
Quinn tempted former Manchester United and Republic of Ireland legend Roy Keane to take his first managerial post in charge of Sunderland amid national media frenzy. Sunderland had lost their first three games of the season before Keane's arrival, and they improved drastically, finally reaching the playoff zone in February.
Sunderland did the unthinkable at the beginning of the season and secured a promotional spot to the Premier League with Birmingham. They then once again were crowned champions of the football league by beating Luton Town 5-0 away as Birmingham lost 1-0 away to Preston North End.
Sunderland celebrated 10 years at the Stadium of Light with a 1-1 draw with Juventus, and prepared for the oncoming season as Roy Keane spent nearly 40 million on new players for the squad whilst also smashing the British transfer record for a goalkeeper with the 9 million pound transfer of Craig Gordon. Whilst other notable transfers included Andy Cole, Michael Chopra and Kieran Richardson. Sunderland's season took off with a memorable 1-0 home victory against Tottenham, as Michael Chopra scored in the very last minute.
Although the club found itself in a relegation battle once again, there was a massive improvement since the clubs last premiership season, with Sunderland reaching over 30 points mark and being undefeated by the other newly promoted clubs Birmingham and Derby. With the Sunderland player Daryl Murphy also bagging premier league goal of the month with an amazing long range goal against Wigan Athletic.
Finally after a 3-2 derby victory over rivals Middlesbrough F.C. and with teams below failing to win, Sunderland had completed their revival and secured their premier league place for the 2008/2009 season, being 7 points clear with two games to go. They have since confirmed themselves as the highest-placed of the newly-promoted teams in the 2007-08 Premier League; with Derby County breaking the record of low points in the premiership and Birmingham being relegated on the last day of the season. Sunderland finished the season on 15th, gaining them a merit payment of £3.6 million.