This has been published on the Roker Report website, my thanks to them.
It’s a fact that football’s first great rivalry was that involving Aston Villa and Sunderland, who in the nine seasons starting in 1891-92 won English Football’s top flight on eight occasions between them. [Sheffield United won the title in 1897-98]
In 1890, and having beaten local rivals Albion in the race to be the first side from outside the North West and Midlands to be allowed to join the Football League, Sunderland first tangled competitively with Villa at Wellington Road on Boxing Day and earned a creditable 0-0 draw.
Their opponents had finished second to Preston in the inaugural season, 1888-89 and two seasons earlier had thrilled their supporters by beating their own Albion, West Bromwich, at the 1887 FA Cup final with one of their finest ever players, Dennis Hodgetts getting one of the goals in a 2-0 success.
Sunderland had started their own inaugural League season slowly, but in a sign of things to come they thrashed Villa 5-1 at Newcastle Road on January 10th 1891, with Sunderland’s great goalscorer Johnny Campbell notching three, all from close range. The Wearsiders were to take 16 points from the final ten matches of the season to finish in seventh place, but disappointed their fans by losing after a replay to Notts County in the FA Cup semi-final.
The following season didn’t start well for Sunderland and Villa beat them 5-3 in the fourth game, making it just two points out of a first eight. Four straight victories, with back-to-back wins against West Brom in which Campbell became the first player to score a penalty kick for Sunderland, moved the club up the table.
On March 26th 1892 Villa travelled north with Sunderland breathing down the neck of leaders Preston North End, winners of the first two League titles. Four weeks earlier the West Midlands side had knocked out Tom Watson’s side by thrashing them 4-1 at Bramall Lane in the FA Cup semi-final. And although this time Villa were to be beaten 3-0 when they again played West Brom in the final it was of no consolation to Sunderland fans. They, like all fans of the day, wanted to see their side win what was at the time, and for many years afterwards , regarded as the biggest competition in the World, the FA Cup.
Revenge was in the air, but at 1-0 up Sunderland were pegged back to 1-1 when Jack Devey equalised. It seemed Sunderland might be denied top spot. However, three minutes later John Hannah struck a famous winner that had the ‘crowd going wild. When the final whistle blew Sunderland had snatched a famous victory and were sitting proudly at the top of the league.’ [Newcastle Chronicle]
It was a position they held to clinch a first ever League title, with Campbell also finishing as top scorer with 32 goals.
He got one less the following season, but that didn’t stop Sunderland claiming a then record points total of 48 and becoming the first side to score 100 League goals [from 30 matches]. 
In a season of many great performances arguably the finest was in the third match, away to Villa that was won 6-1. Campbell got two, his first on five minutes an absolute lethal strike that flashed past Bill Dunning, who later died of tuberculosis.
In the return match, played on January 2nd 1895, the sides drew 4-4 with Hannah getting three in a magnificent game that has been immortalised in the World famous Thomas Hemy painting that magnificently adorns the entrance to ground with the most passionate supporters in English football, the Stadium of Light.
The painting is probably the oldest of an Association Football match in the world. Hemy lived locally and was commissioned by the club to paint a picture of the team in action and quite naturally the game against reigning Champions Villa was the match chosen. Over the years the painting has had 2 titles; “A Corner Kick” and the less popular “The Last Minute - Now or Never”.
It was Aston Villa though who prevented Sunderland becoming the first club to win the title for three seasons running, pushing the Wearsiders into second place in 1893-94. To make matters worse Villa also beat Watson’s side in the FA Cup, doing so 3-1 in a midweek afternoon replay in which a special train was laid on to take fans to Birmingham at a cost of 6 shillings and 6 pennies. [32.5 pence]
Villa were subsequently put out of the FA Cup by the [Sheffield] Wednesday in round three.
Sunderland responded in great fashion in the 1894-95 season, winning the League title for a third time. Early in the season they travelled down to the West Midlands to face the reigning Champions before a huge crowd of 20,000. Birmingham, ‘a City of a thousands trades’ with a population then of 470,000, has always had its share of football fanatics and the 1890s was no different.
One down Sunderland were brought back into the game when ‘Campbell caught Cowan and Elliott completely by surprise when he suddenly checked back and drove a magnificent low shot past Wilkes from 20 yards for an equaliser. ‘Although the goal was against the home side it was warmly applauded by the sporting home crowd.
It was enough to help Sunderland win the game 2-1, an important marker for the season to come. In the League that is, because in the FA Cup when the sides again met, in the semi-final, Villa won 2-1 at Ewood Park, Blackburn before marching on to win the Final by beating – yes, again, West Brom, 1-0 with a goal by Bob Chatt.
Yes Sunderland had won the League title, their third in four seasons, but Villa had won the FA Cup, entitling them, many felt, to claim the title of ‘Champions.’
That was harsh on a magnificent Sunderland side, but it was one that the West Midlanders were able to add to over the following season. They won the League in 1895-96, and Sunderland’s Johnny Campbell was replaced at the top of the scorers chart by Villa’s own Johnny Campbell,  a wonderfully gifted and clever inside or centre-forward. He was brave, aggressive when required, possessed plenty of tricks and above all had an instinctive knack of scoring goals.
He showed it the following season, notching the first in the FA Cup final as by beating Everton 3-2 Villa completed the ‘double’ after earlier winning the League title. Sunderland had done badly and only just survived, winning through in the ‘test match’ series that, following the introduction of a second League in 1892-93, decided promotion and relegation.
Villa subsequently went on to make it four Division One championships in five seasons by finishing top in 1898-99 and 1899-1900. Sunderland responded with a second place finish and then in 1901-02 they moved within one of their great rivals by winning the League title for a fourth time, beating Villa 1-0 home and away in two tight matches.
And whilst Villa again stretched their lead at the top to two title wins by capturing the title in 1909-10 there was still enough in the rivalry to mean that when the sides met at the 1913 FA Cup final at the Crystal Palace a world record crowd of over 120,000 turned up to see which of England’s two most successful sides could strike a blow in their fight for both the Cup and League.
Sadly, it was Villa, whose side contained Harry Hampton who a few weeks earlier had partnered George Holley for England against Scotland and had scored the only goal.
Sunderland though were to get their revenge by pushing Villa into second place in the League. As such it meant that at the end of the season Sunderland had won the title five times, just one less than their great rivals, although in the FA Cup it was a no contest with Villa having won it five times.
Not until 1937 did Sunderland strike back, when a year after levelling up the title successes Johnny Cochrane’s side captured the FA Cup by beaten Preston 3-1 at Wembley.  Villa though remained five ahead in the FA Cup after winning the Trophy for a sixth time in 1920 – beating, guess who, en route? Yes Sunderland! Fuck Darren Bent, I’ve always hated them, even though I was at their most famous match, the 1982 European Cup Final in Rotterdam when they beat Bayern Munich 1-0.
Mark Metcalf 26th October 2011.
- See Captain of the North by Stan Anderson and Mark Metcalf for Stan’s comments on the 1954-55 season when Sunderland threw away the League title in the week’s leading up to the FA Cup semi-final that they subsequently lost to Manchester City in farcical conditions at Villa Park.
- James Crabtree was one of football’s first truly great reporters and during the first fifteen seasons of League football he rated the Sunderland forward line of this season as second only to Preston North End’s of 1888-89. Villa’s in 1896-97 he had down as third.
- For more on both Campbell’s and all the players who’ve finished as top scorer in Division 1 and the Premier League since 1888 there’s a new book, now out next year. GOLDEN BOOT by Mark Metcalf and Tony Matthews. Sunderland’s six in the book are Campbell, Holley, Buchan, Halliday, Davis and Phillips.
- See TOTAL FOOTBALL – Sunderland 1935-37 by Mark Metcalf and Paul Days.