There was a time when Sunderland was the best club in the country – granted, it was now two centuries ago. Many great sides get nicknames, sometimes from players, sometimes from fans, and sometimes from the media. The great Sunderland side of 1889 to 1895 was named the Team of All the Talents by William MacGregor, the founder of the Football League and on the Board of Aston Villa.
This was all after MacGregor saw SAFC humiliate Villa 7-2 at Newcastle Road on April 5, 1890. It’s recorded that he said “Sunderland has a talented man at each position.” To put this more into context, in 1890 Sunderland weren’t in the Football League, and this was also the time just after that featured in the Netflix show The English Game.
When you look at the record for clubs with the most Top Flight First League titles (what is now called the Premier League), a name you’ll see on there, which most young footballing supporters won’t believe, is Sunderland. They sit sixth with six titles (1892, 1893, 1895, 1902, 1913, and 1936), and they’ve also finished runners up five times.
Their first successful manager, or Secretary as it was called at the time, was Tom Watson, who travelled to Scotland to recruit young, international players which was their policy at the time. After Watson took over for the 1888-89 season, only four of the original team survived, such were the changes that were implemented by the new manager.
Sunderland joined the Football League in the 1890-91 season when Stoke were not re-elected, leaving to join the rival Football Alliance, another league during that time. Sunderland were admitted to the league with the provision that they pay the expenses of the visiting clubs due to Sunderland’s geographical location, as it took a huge effort to travel the distances involved between cities in those days.
Getting back to the name “Team of All the Talents”. It was the Sunderland Echo that used it first, in an article on April 30th, 1890, in their summary of the 1889/90 season. That season was highlighted by 11 home matches against league sides, where the club only lost twice. By the time the article was in circulation, the club had played 31 matches at home, and only lost four times. They put in an amazing 116 goals during the season.
The Echo predicted the club would end up in the top six in their first season in the Football League, and, surprisingly, they weren’t far off as the club ended up 7th behind Blackburn Rovers. Newly converted to what most people think as the first centre half in the sport, Johnny Auld came from Third Lanark in Scotland, becoming not only the captain of the side, but a very influential figure. Footballers at the time needed a second job, and Auld ran a corner shop on Union Street that sold shoes, boots, and slippers, with adverts for the shop regularly in the Sunderland Echo.
By April of 1891, Sunderland’s star shone so brightly that The London Star pronounced the club as the greatest of the teams they’d see coming to the capital to play Arsenal on the 25th. Just into the first part of the 1890/91 season the club struggled, only getting one win out of the first five home games, but six consecutive wins at home to close the season was a marker of what was to come.
Now that the club had gotten their feet wet and knew what to expect the team clicked and won its first League Championship in the 1891/92 season. This was an impressive feat, as they won all 13 home games and scored 55 goals in the process. Johnny Campbell was the league top scorer, with 31 goals, the club notching the league’s biggest away victory in a 7-1 thrashing of Darwen. The Sunderland Echo on May 14, 1892 wrote up the League Championship in that edition with an artist’s renderings of each player - courtesy of the Sunderland Photographic Company.
The team were champions of England again the following season. This time they won the title at an impressive clip, by 11 points, and a goal difference of plus 64. They remained unbeaten at home in 15 games, winning 13 and scoring 58 goals. Johnny Campbell, who else, topped the league’s scoring charts with 31 goals. The league’s record away win? As you guessed, Sunderland against Accrington 6-0. The longest unbeaten run was 10 matches from January until April of 1893.
The following season ended up as a non-title winning season as they finished runner up to Aston Villa. The two clubs shared a fierce rivalry which was recognized by The National Football Museum as the first club rivalry recorded. Villa ended up in this run as the bogey side, but Sunderland did put one over on them at various points during this run. This was also the season that saw Villa win an iconic FA Cup final at The Crystal Palace in front of the world's record crowd.
In 1893/94 Sunderland were finally beat at home, losing to Blackburn 3-2 – the only home league defeat in 81 matches. This was also captain Johnny Auld’s last full season with SAFC, as he would only turn out for four games in the following season, marking the end of the original Team of All the Talents. The capture of the World Crown and another league title in 1894/95 was the actual end to the side. They won the 1894/95 title by 5 points over Everton, and once more went undefeated at home by winning 13 and drawing 2 of the 15 matches.
As we are in the era of the Premier League, and all eyes are turned to the likes of Manchester City and Liverpool winning the league at a canter in 2018/20 we can make comparisons to this Sunderland era. The Team of All the Talents was just as unbeatable as Manchester City and Liverpool are today. Sunderland would go on to have more pre-war success, but the interludes of WW1 and WW2 stopped Sunderland dead in their tracks just as it was building to be legendary.
By 1904 the team had won another two titles (1894 and 1901) and also played in a one-off match against Scottish club Hearts in 1894-95, in a game that was referred to as ‘The Championship of the World’. They ended up beating Hearts 5-3. Perhaps this event could be viewed as a precursor for the European Champions Cup/Champions League which started in 1955. Another factor in the ending of the Team of All the Talents was Tom Watson moving to Liverpool in the summer of 1896. The offer was three hundred pounds, which was double his salary at Sunderland. Watson to this day is the longest serving manager in Liverpool’s history, serving 19 years. He led the Merseyside club to two league titles in the first division, but he died of pneumonia on May 6, 1915 and is buried at Anfield Cemetery.