They Might Be Giants: The Big Six of League One


Although eclipsed, in the eyes of many, by their neighbours on Tyneside to the north, Sunderland AFC have to be the biggest club currently languishing in League One. I know Toon fans mock them with their “Sunderland’s a Massive Club” chant but they really are, aren’t they? A 49,000 seater stadium, an illustrious history and a fanatical supporter base, albeit somewhat reduced in size from their glory days, not to mention six league titles and two FA Cups say they are. Or rather, they were. Three of their league titles came when Queen Victoria was Empress of India and Britain ruled a quarter of the globe and their last one came months before the abdication of her great grandson, Edward VIII. Their most recent FA Cup win came at the expense of Leeds United courtesy of an Ian Porterfield goal early in the game and a string of extraordinary saves by Sunderland keeper Jim Montgomery to deny Leeds an equaliser, let alone a winner. Sunderland were massive underdogs for the game as a second division side at a time when Leeds, managed by Don Revie, were in their pomp. At the time Sunderland were managed by Bob Stokoe who had joined them from Blackpool the previous year. My abiding memory of Stokoe is that he always wore a trilby hat. That triumph was in 1973, nearly 50 years ago and it took them until this season to win another knock out competition when they landed the EFL Trophy, again with a solitary goal, this time against Tranmere Rovers.

The Black Cats have also enjoyed their fair share of controversy being implicated in a financial scandal and found guilty in 1957 of making payments to their players in excess of the maximum wage, resulting in a £5,000 fine and the suspension of the chairman and three directors. The following year they were relegated from the First Division for the first time in their history and found themselves up against the Imps in the league for the first time. After a six year stay they were promoted again in 1964 but returned to the Second Division in 1970, again for six years before returning to the top flight for a single season.

Prior to 2017, Sunderland’s lowest ebb, in terms of league position, came in 1987 when they were relegated to the Third Division, which they promptly won to ensure a speedy promotion back up to Division Two. Since then they have spent a total of 22 years in the top flight, eleven in the second tier and the past three seasons in League One. I prefer not to speculate as to how long this state of affairs will continue but hope it will be for at least one more season.

Long known for paying high transfer fees, in the 1950s they were known as The Bank of England Club. In 2009 Darren Bent was signed from Tottenham for £10 million, departing eighteen months later for a reported £24 million. A year after Bent’s signing, Ghanaian international Asamoah Gyan arrived at a cost of around £12 million. During this time Sunderland collected and then disposed of high profile managers like it was going out of fashion, including Steve Bruce, Martin O’Neill, Gus Poyet, Dick Advocaat and most controversially, Paulo di Canio. Sam Allardyce (who should perhaps be known as Fireman Sam) saved the club from Premier League relegation in the 2015 – 2016 season before leaving to take up his short lived appointment as England manager. Allardyce’s successor David Moyes was not so successful, steering the club to its most recent relegation from the Premier League.

It was not only the manager’s seat that kept changing hands either with  the club itself passing between a succession of owners. Former player Niall Quinn took over in 2006, succeeded in ownership three years later by Irish-American businessman Ellis Short. In 2018, with the club now in League One, following successive relegations, a consortium led by Oxfordshire based Stewart Donald took over. His popularity among supporters soon waned and in less than two years the club was on the market again. In February of this year 22 year old Frenchman Kyril Louis-Dreyfus became majority shareholder and chairman.

It strikes me that Sunderland are one time giants of English football who are only beginning to come to terms with their reduced circumstances. That was something that came across in the episodes I saw of the Netflix series “Sunderland Till I Die”. Whether a young Frenchman is the right person to lead them back to greatness time will tell. He certainly has the pedigree, given that his father, Robert is chairman of Olympique de Marseille.

The Trend Continues?

Hillsborough Stadium - Wikipedia

As I started this article, Sheffield Wednesday’s relegation from the Championship was confirmed although since then, I have read that Derby County may yet face the drop, should a points deduction be reimposed. I could write plenty about them too but it’s late and I need to be up early tomorrow. Perhaps another time.

Fair’s Fair

In the interests of balance, I should perhaps mention that there are two other former Premier League sides in League One, namely Wigan Athletic and Swindon Town. Yes, I’d forgotten that too.

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