Home of the world’s greatest football team in 1895, Sunderland has spent a century or more trying to live up to its illustrious past. Sunderland FC won all but one of their eight major honours before the war – five of them before the Great War.
Successive relegations in 2017 and 2018 meant the Black Cats had sunk to an all-time low. Disappointment was tempered by the heroic performances of former Sunderland man Jordan Pickford in the England goal at the 2018 World Cup. The sale of the club was also welcomed, incoming owner Stewart Donald starting afresh debt-free.
Sunderland provided one of the most delightful cup upsets of the modern era, their 1-0 win over Don Revie’s Leeds in 1973. His Sunderland counterpart Bob Stokoe’s dash onto the pitch afterwards, sporting his gentleman’s trilby, raincoat flapping, arms outstretched to greet hometown hero goalkeeper Jim Montgomery is one of those classic frozen moments of football history. Captured in statue form outside Sunderland’s modern-day arena, it depicts the last time a major honour went to Wearside.
Built for the club in 1997, ‘The Stadium of Light’ was not named after its legendary namesake in Lisbon. Set on the site of the old Wearmouth Colliery, the venue was named in honour of the miners who once worked there. A monument of a Davy lamp stands by the entrance, and the nearest pub is the Colliery Tavern.
But the Black Cats, their modern nickname taken up after the move from Roker Park, were not formed by pitmen or mine-owners. The club were originally the Sunderland & District Teachers AFC, founded in 1879 by and for schoolmasters. They first played near the house of Scots teacher James Allen, the driving force behind the club.
The team that later played at Newcastle Road, close to today’s Stadium of Light, through most of the 1890s were perhaps the best the game had seen up to that point. Though Allen had left by 1888, the people he had recruited, manager Tom Watson, and Scots internationals versed in the passing game, would go on to win three league titles in four seasons.
The disgruntled Allen formed Sunderland Albion, short-lived adversaries of his original club. Not only did Allen set up both, he played for both too.
So strong was the cross-town rivalry, the two refused to play each other if drawn to meet in the FA or regional cups.
Unable to join the Football League, Sunderland Albion crumbled after their backers, Wear Glass, pulled out. Allen went back to school-teaching. Sunderland never had a city rivalry again.
What they did have was the Tyne & Wear derby with Newcastle, an enmity so fierce it has historical ties way before the 19th century.
The most famous forward of the Allen era was Scotsman Johnny Campbell, top scorer in each of Sunderland’s title-winning seasons. Campbell’s move to Newcastle, while his brother Robert was still Sunderland manager, caused serious ructions.
Later Newcastle bitterly regretted being passed over for the honour of staging World Cup matches in 1966. Fans only half-filled Roker Park for group games involving Italy, Chile and the USSR – the real fun was to be had in Middlesbrough, and North Korea.
Ultimately, one man managed to unite the warring North-East factions, and then, only in death. A cup-winner with both clubs, as a player and manager, Bob Stokoe was deeply mourned by all parties at his funeral in 2004.
Newcastle Airport is 22 miles (35km) from Sunderland. Tyne & Wear Metro runs every 12-15mins to Sunderland (55min journey time, £3.20). There are several types of day ticket, the simplest being the £6.80 day rover. This allows use on metro, buses, local trains and the ferry. Metro-only is £4.40 – the Stadium of Light is on the same network.
Sunderland firm City Taxis (+44 191 511 0111) charge a flat £22 for town-centre drop-off to or from the airport.
Sunderland Tourist Information Centre has little by way of hotel information.
There are no hotels in the immediate vicinity of the stadium.
The pick of the city’s hotels is the Sunderland Marriott, whose views of Whitburn Sands, pool and gym attract visiting teams.
More affordable guesthouses and B&Bs line the seafront, some age-old favourites from when Roker Park was close. The Best Western Roker Hotel provides terrific views and reasonable prices. It adjoins the Roker Hotel Lodge, in similar vein.
Pubs and bars fill the city centre. First port of call should be the Corner Flag (278-284 High Street West), a popular sports bar with well chosen displays (note the framed Charlie Hurley shirt), 20-plus TV screens and meal deals on match days.
On the same stretch are landmark traditional pub the Dun Cow (No.9) and the Indigo Rooms (No.278-284), perhaps better used as a pub than a restaurant.
The match should also be screened at Establishment (34 Low Row), club-like ttonic (12-14 Vine Place) and the Lambton Worm.
Late-drinking can be enjoyed at Gatsby (13-14 Derwent Street), among other similar venues nearby.