Sunderland

Mackems, Black Cats, SAFC and A Love Supreme

Teams, tales and tips – a guide to the local game

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 AFC 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, and an agonising play-off defeat in 2019, saw the Black Cats sink to an all-time low, confirmed with an eighth place in League One in 2020. Incoming owner, billionaire Kyril Louis-Dreyfus, barely in his twenties, had the immense task of righting the ship, a challenge that proved beyond his not-quite-rich-enough predecessor, Stewart Donald. Despite a tricky winter in 2022, SAFC rallied under Alex Neil and broke their play-off hoodoo to reach the second tier after four years.

Soon it will be 50 years since Sunderland’s greatest triumph of the post-war era, the 1-0 win over Don Revie’s all-powerful Leeds at the 1973 FA Cup Final. The image of Sunderland manager Bob Stokoe’s dashing 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.

Stadium of LIght/Colin Young

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.

Roker Hotel/Darren Turner

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.

Welcome to Sunderland/Colin Young

Shortly afterwards, Sunderland moved north of the Wear to a ground by Roker Beach: Roker Park. Transformed by stadium master Archibald Leitch, Sunderland’s revered ground had an official capacity of 60,000 but bigger crowds were not unheard of.

Later Newcastle bitterly regretted being passed over for the honour of staging World Cup matches in 1966. Spectators failed to fill Roker Park for group games involving Italy, Chile and the USSR – the real fun was to be had in Middlesbrough, watching North Korea. This was also where a promising Hungary side came undone against their traditional foes, USSR, after an early goalkeeping fumble in the quarter-final.

Sunderland’s move from Roker Park came in 1997, inspiring a stage play and the theming of new street names around the former ground, knocked down to create a housing estate. Hotels and guesthouses still line Roker Terrace, parallel to the beach,  within walking distance of the Stadium of LIght in adjoining Monkwearmouth.

By then, Sunderland legend Bob Stokoe had long been out of the limelight, suffering a sad demise from Alzheimer’s. A cup-winner with both Newcastle and Sunderland, as a player and manager, he was deeply mourned by both parties at his funeral in 2004.

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Getting Around

Arriving in town, local transport and tips

Newcastle Airport is 22 miles (35km) from Sunderland. Tyne & Wear Metro runs every 12-15mins to Sunderland (single £3.70, Metro DaySaver inc Stadium of Light £5.40, 55min journey time). Services also stop at the Stadium of Light, journey time from the airport 50mins. There are several types of day ticket, the simplest being the £7.80 Day Rover. This allows use on metro, buses, local trains and the ferry.

A few direct trains a day run to Sunderland from London Kings Cross (cheapest advance single £40, 3hrs 30mins journey time), or change at Newcastle and take the metro (journey time 3hrs 45mins-4hrs). From Birmingham New Street (cheapest advance single £60, 3hrs 30mins-4hrs journey time), you also need to change at Newcastle. From Manchester Victoria (cheapest advance single £25, 3hrs 15mins journey time, change at Thornaby or Newcastle). 

Adding a Sunderland PlusBus (£3.80) to your fare allows you all-day use of services of the three main bus companies: Arriva, Go North East and Stagecoach. Sunderland station is in the city centre on the south side of the Wear, the stadium over the river, walkable or an easy hop by metro.

Sunderland firm City Taxis (+44 191 511 0111) charge a flat £22 for town-centre drop-off to or from the airport.

Where to Drink

The best pubs and bars for football fans

Pubs and bars dot the streets spreading out from Sunderland Minster. On High Street West, Vesta Tilleys provides live action on 12 screens plus live music and DJs at weekends. Across the street, the Dun Cow has undergone a modern makeover but retains its traditional feel while offering a decent range of craft beers. Just behind, in the same family, The Engine Room at the Fire Station shows what you can do with a classic building and savvy pub-interior designers. Decent beers, too.

The Peacock makes great use of a historic building alongside the Fire Station, putting on buskers’ nights, film clubs and best-forgotten names from the punk era while serving hand-pulled ales from the local Vaux and Maxim breweries. Notch-above Rabbit stocks 40 types of gin, mixes superior cocktails and offers a roof terrace in summer, with plenty of TV screens for sport and DJ decks for party nights. Next door, aperitif is a popular Italian restaurant but a decent bar, too, handy for a classy drink on any bar crawl of High Street West.

Across the road, Mexico 70 appeals to Rivelino-obsessed baby boomers but rather than screen endless re-runs of Azteca action, concocts Mezcal Mules and stacks of tacos. Alongside, No.2 Church Lane operates both as a fun-focused bar (unlimited lager offers, One Direction quiz nights) and as a serious burger joint.

Right beside Sunderland Minster, Greens and Streetbar Sunderland SR1 show live sport in lively surroundings while Victoria’s Loft prefers a rooftop cocktail. Further round on Vine Place, The Borough puts football first, with a bit of racing thrown in. Alongside, the long-established ttonic combines pub, sports bar, cocktail bar and party spot in one, hence the opening hours from 11am to 3am. 

Late drinking and match-watching can also be enjoyed at Gatsby on Derwent Street and Port Of Call on Park Lane, a smart rendition of industrial chic. Sunderland’s ship-building heritage is depicted on the tables of old-school Chaplins on Stockton Road, with seven ales on offer. The Gunners on Mary Street has retained its military theme from its days as a workmen’s club, and now shows TV sport to all.

Closer to Sunderland station, in 2021 The Beehive took over the former bright red Flanagans and still programmes plenty of live sport and live music. Over on West Sunniside, Sloanes Sports Bar fills a large space with snooker tables and TVs, with more match action screened a few doors down at Sams Bar.

Just over the river on Wear Street, the Times Inn features huge murals of two seminal moments in SAFC history, Jim Montgomery with the FA Cup and Kevin Phillips with his Division 1 medal in 1999, painted by Frank Styles whose other work decorates the city centre. Inside, it’s wall-to-wall TV sport.

Where to stay

The best hotels for the ground and around town

City of Sunderland has a hotel database.

Right by the stadium on Vaux Brewery Way, the Hilton Garden Inn Sunderland comprises 141 comfortable, mid-range rooms, a gym open 24/7 and the Karbon Grill steakhouse for pre-match drinks and post-match feasts. Free parking for hotel guests is another handy facet.

Other walkable accommodation options overlook the beach, around the site of the former Roker Park. The nicest and priciest is the Grand Hotel Sunderland, the former Marriott, and the city’s only four-star, whose pool and gym attract visiting teams. Views of  Whitburn Bay backdrop photos of just-married couples.

Round the corner, the Mayfield Guest House offers superior B&B lodging a short walk from the sea. Further south on Roker Terrace, right by the old Roker Park and a closer walk to the Stadium of Light, more affordable guesthouses and B&Bs serve the seafront. 

The Roker Hotel would have been the height of elegance when it was built in the mid-1800s. It still has terrific sea views, plus 43 reasonable rooms, a cocktail bar, Italian restaurant and classic English tea room. Nearby, the Queen Vic is better-known for its lively bar and karaoke parties, but also offers guest rooms, some with sea views. 

Named after the next beach up, the Seaburn Inn is ideal for a football weekend, comprising comfortable rooms and welcoming pub with a terrace and quality food. All comes with sea views.

In town, the Travelodge Sunderland Central is a handy stagger from the city-centre bars – expect a little noise at weekends – while its quieter sister hotel, the Travelodge Sunderland High Street West, is more convenient for the station and central metro station.

Another lodging option with nightlife in mind, the Premier Inn Sunderland City Centre lies the other side of the main road from town, meaning affordable comfort close to the bar hub without the post-midnight din.