By finishing as top scorer in Division One on three occasions John Campbell ranks as the first of English football’s truly prolific goal scoring merchants. It was Campbell who turned the 1890s Sunderland side into a great one deserving of the title ‘The Team of All the Talents’ with title successes in 1891-2, 1892-3 and 1894-5.
Campbell, who stood 5’ 9” tall, had in 1889 caught the eye of one of Sunderland’s financiers during a friendly with Scottish Cup winners Renton. The Wearsiders were seeking entry to the Football League and were assembling a formidable team. High profile friendlies had drawn large crowds and when pitched in an election battle against the league’s bottom club Stoke City Sunderland obtained more votes and joined the Football League for the 1890-91 season.
It didn’t take long for Campbell to get his name on the scoresheet, scoring in Sunderland’s opening game against Burnley, and then in the seventh game of the season he became the first Sunderland player to score a league hat-trick by putting four goals past John Sutcliffe in the Bolton away game at Pikes Lane as Sunderland recovered from going 2-0 down to win 5-2. In January 1891 he became the first Sunderland player to score a home hat-trick when his three close range finishes did for Aston Villa in a 5-1 hammering of the West Midlands side. Sunderland were to finish in a respectable seventh place. Campbell had missed just one of the 22 league games and had netted 16 times.
There was disappointment however in the FA Cup. In the first round Sunderland squeezed past Everton, the side that went on to win the League, 1-0 before a record Newcastle Road crowd of 21,000, with Campbell scoring the winner with a thunderous shot that John Angus had no chance of preventing.
Victories against Darwen and Nottingham Forest then set up a semi-final against Notts County. A crowd of 22,000 packed out Bramall Lane. 3-2 down Campbell produced another thunderous finish to earn a replay. Sunderland though played poorly and were to suffer a 2-0 defeat.
Sunderland started the following season at home to Wolves. The away side had taken an early lead when Campbell scored his first of the season when he powerfully headed John Murray’s free kick past Billy Rose. His second was a real beauty giving Rose no chance with a powerful drive from around 20 yards. It was enough to turn the game and in the second period Sunderland attacked strongly with Campbell’s colleague James Millar, a fine inside forward who later won the Scottish League on two occasions with Rangers, scoring a hat-trick in a 5-2 win.
Penalty kicks had only been introduced at the start of the season and on October 24th 1891 John Campbell became the first to score one for Sunderland when he stroked the ball past WBA’s Bob Roberts in a match that was won 4-0 and in which he scored three times.
Darwen were struggling at the bottom of the league when they arrived at Newcastle Road on December 12th 1891. Sensing an opportunity the home side pressed from the kick off. Campbell’s two helped Sunderland record a 7-0 victory that cut the gap on leaders Bolton to five points. When victory at Everton on Christmas Day followed, Campbell getting the second, it was clear the Wearsiders were now title contenders.
The following day Sunderland played Wolves away. The Molineux side had only lost once at home, and with Sunderland’s reputation growing there was a healthy 12,000 crowd present. The away side had a fine afternoon, and when news of their 3-1 victory was received back on Wearside there was ‘jubilation as this match was regarded by many as a particularly hard fixture and the result was most satisfying.’ Newcastle Daily Chronicle.
Sunderland were now just two points behind leaders Bolton and despite Campbell’s absence through injury when the sides met it was Sunderland who won 4-1. Against new league leaders Preston North End Campbell scored in a game that despite a heavy snowstorm attracted the season’s biggest gate so far of 12,000. Another 4-1 home victory was the fans’ reward for having risked the elements.
Aston Villa had put Sunderland out of the FA Cup but travelled north after losing to near neighbours WBA in the final. Another 12,000 crowd packed out Newcastle Road to witness a cracking encounter and when the Villa centre forward Jack Devey equalised in the 85th minute 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 Daily Chronicle)
April 2nd 1892 was therefore a big day for a club playing only its second league season. Victory at home to Stoke would set up manager Tom Watson’s side for the title. Campbell was clearly determined to start the match quickly. On two minutes he ‘got possession to spin round and bang in a lightning shot that that flew past Rowley’s despairing dive to put Sunderland one up.’ His second on the stroke of full-time confirmed the home side’s superiority in a 4-1 win that meant they could afford to lose two of their remaining four fixtures and still win the League Championship.
At home to Blackburn Rovers, Campbell was in fine form, hitting the opener with a powerful drive on eight minutes. It was the first of his four as Sunderland virtually confirmed the title in a 6-1 demolition. Three more followed in a 7-1 victory at Darwen before the season was completed when Sunderland won 2-1 at Turf Moor, Campbell scoring once. Champions Sunderland had scored 93 times in 26 matches with Campbell striking 32, three ahead of Villa’s Jack Devey.
Sunderland were favourites to make it two in a row when the 1892-93 season got under way with a six-nil hammering of Accrington. Campbell opened the scoring and added another two by the end. The Scotsman was also first on the score sheet the following weekend in a 2-2 home draw with Notts County.
Having hit six in their first away game Sunderland repeated the feat in the second at Aston Villa. Again Campbell was in fine form scoring his side’s second on five minutes. It came in the following fashion - ‘The game had hardly been restarted when J.Campbell got possession and cleverly beat Cowan to lash in a hotshot that left Dunning helpless.’ [Newcastle Daily Chronicle] He added a second as Sunderland won 6-1.
Campbell was now playing the best football of his career, two more followed against Blackburn Rovers including a twenty yard ‘hot-shot’ that flew past the famous ‘keeper Herbie Arthur. When he then scored against Stoke City the following weekend it meant he’d put the ball into the net in all five Sunderland games so far to record nine goals. Absent from the scorers list at Everton, Campbell then took the opportunity to grab six in the next two home games including a hat-trick in what was then Sunderland’s record league victory, 8-1 against WBA.
Away to Sheffield Wednesday Sunderland took the lead when
‘Campbell got possession just over the halfway line and set off for the Wednesday goal. As he closed the range he unleashed a surprise snapshot that flew past Allan to open the scoring.’ Despite the advantage Sunderland faded and lost their first game of the season 3-2. Campbell had now scored fifteen times in nine games. By early December his total was up to twenty.
Newton Heath, the league’s new boys, had remarkably beaten Wolves 10-0 but were struggling at the bottom. Nevertheless the draw of watching Sunderland was enough to attract a record crowd of 15,000 to Heath’s North Road ground on March 4th 1892. The away side did not disappoint them and after Campbell swept home the opening two in the 24th and 25th minutes Sunderland continued their search for goals winning 5-0 by the end with the Sunderland centre-forward running off with another hat-trick to his name. When he then notched another double in the following match at home to Derby County his overall total had risen to 29.
It became 31 when bottom club Newton Heath made the return journey. It would have needed a miracle for Preston North End to overtake Sunderland at the top. Ten points behind and with five games remaining the Lancashire side also needed Sunderland to lose their remaining three games. There was never any chance of that happening especially once John Hannah swept the ball home on eleven minutes. A 6-0 home win confirmed the Championship would be returning to Wearside. Campbell got two, his second a ‘grand shot’ just before the end of the game
The result gave Sunderland a chance of becoming the first side ever to score a hundred league goals in a season and after drawing 1-1 away at Derby they did just this by winning 3-2 at Turf Moor with John Harvey grabbing the final and 100th league goal of the season. Of which John Campbell had scored nearly a third at 31 league goals.
Hopes of a third successive title were to remain unfulfilled in 1893-94. Sunderland started the season poorly and in the seventh game suffered a 7-1 defeat away to Everton.
A 6-0 success at home against Wolves raised supporters hopes, and with Campbell missing through injury it was Millar who did the damage with a hat-trick. Both men were on the score-sheet on New Year’s Day when the largest league crowd of the season, 12,000, saw a marvellous match that ended with Preston beaten 6-3 with Campbell scoring two blistering goals.
Sunderland were to go on and finish the season in second place with Aston Villa six points out in front. Campbell, with 18 goals, found himself outscored by Millar who notched
Sunderland began the 1894-95 season with a bang. With Campbell scoring three times Sunderland stormed to their then record victory, 8-0, against Derby County. In the third game of the season Sunderland travelled to face the champions Aston Villa. One down they 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.
When Sunderland went on to beat WBA 3-0, with Campbell opening the scoring, the Wearsiders had begun the season with maximum points from four games. By the time Campbell grabbed his seventh league goal of the season Sunderland were on fifteen points from eighteen and racing towards their third title in four seasons. His eighth in a 4-0 victory over Bolton Wanderers came as follows: - Moments later Campbell tried a shot from 20 yards that struck Somerville. Catching it on the rebound Campbell let fly with a shot that flew well out of Sutcliffe’s reach and high into the net to put Sunderland 3-0 up. (Chronicle)
Against Liverpool Campbell spun on a loose ball in a 3-2 home victory that helped ensure Sunderland had 20 from a possible 24 points. Amazingly when Sunderland then won the next game 7-1 at home to Small Heath Campbell was absent from the scorers. It didn’t take him long in the following game, scoring in the first minute as Sunderland beat Blackburn Rovers 3-2.
Sunderland’s early season form was, however on the wane and after beating WBA on Boxing Day the following four games yielded just three points. Campbell failed to score in these games and his name was also absent from the list of scorers at home to Nottingham Forest on January 5th as the game entered the final quarter of an hour with the away side 2-1 to the good. Defeat and Villa would go top.
But cometh the hour then cometh the man when ‘out of the blue Sunderland grabbed an equaliser. Scott and Hannah swept upfield and passed to Campbell who was almost 30 yards out. He let fly with an absolute beauty that flew straight as an arrow into the top corner of the net to level the scores after 75 minutes.” (Newcastle Journal)
It was clearly his best goal of the season and definitely his most important as a revived Sunderland then journeyed to Molineux to beat Wolves 4-1 with guess who grabbing a couple? Two more followed at the Victoria Ground, Stoke in a 5-2 victory. The first was a darting 60-yard run that left defenders trailing behind him before a fine finish beat Clawley.
Sunderland were at the top of the table as they looked forward to the start of the 1895 FA Cup. Playing Fairfield at home was new territory, but the unknowns from Manchester proved no threat and were hammered 11-1, a victory that remains Sunderland’s record victory to this day. Campbell failed to score!
He was though on the scoresheet as Sheffield United were beaten 2-0. He then scored Sunderland’s second in an important 3-1 win over the Wednesday that established a four-point gap at the top of the table. Sheffield United though showed there was still work to do when they thrashed Sunderland 4-0 at Bramall Lane.
Two weekends later, after suffering a disappointing FA Cup semi-final defeat to Aston Villa, Sunderland faced a tricky fixture at Olive Grove. And when Alec Brady equalised for Wednesday just after half time the away side were looking for inspiration. It came from John Harvey who making space found Campbell on 54 minutes who smartly drove the ball home to ensure a 2-1 success.
Two days later Sunderland were faced with another difficult encounter, away at Anfield against Liverpool. Campbell opened the scoring and Sunderland squeezed to a 3-2 victory in what all the papers agreed afterwards had been a brilliant match enjoyed in particular by away fans who’d journeyed to the game on a train special.
Still with Everton refusing to concede the title Sunderland faced a third tricky away match on April 13th 1895, this time at Turf Moor. Backed by a travelling following numbering a total of three Sunderland gave each of them a goal to cheer. Campbell didn’t score but it meant that when the away side ran off the title was as good as theirs as Everton were four points behind. With the teams set to play each other the following weekend Sunderland knew that even a draw would end the contest.
Such was the clamour to watch the match that far too many people were allowed into the Newcastle Road ground which was packed beyond its agreed 18,000 capacity with the gate later given as 20,000.
With Sunderland determined to finish the season in style Everton had done well to stay with them at 1-1 when with just ten minutes left ‘Campbell got possession near the halfway line beat Holt cleverly and set off towards the Everton goal. As Arridge and Kelso dashed across to try to check his run Campbell steadied himself and then let fly with a tremendous shot from 15 yards. Hillman seemed to be taken by surprise, was late with his dive and the ball flew past his left hand and crashed into the net to restore Sunderland's lead. It was a great goal even by Campbell’s standards and the crowd roared their approval.’ (Journal)
Campbell had scored the winning goal to clinch the title, Sunderland’s third in four seasons in which he had personally triumphed by finishing as the league’s top scorer - again!
The 1895-96 season witnessed a decline in the ‘team of all talents’ and Campbell struggled at its start, taking eight games to score his first goal. His, and Sunderland’s best game of the season was against West Brom in January when he, and Millar, with three cracking shots, both scored hat-tricks in a 7-1 hammering of the Baggies. A late season finish saw Campbell end the season with 15 goals and the only player to finish in double figures.
The 1896-97 season was to be Campbell’s last at Sunderland. He and the side struggled. Manager Tom Watson had moved on to manage Liverpool and in his place came Robert Campbell, John’s brother. It wasn’t until the ninth game that a league game was won, whilst it wasn’t until the twelfth match before Campbell got on the scoresheet in a 2-1 defeat away to Nottingham Forest. After sixteen matches it was his only goal. Crowds had collapsed and there were only 3,000 for the December home game against the [Sheffield] Wednesday. It finished 0-0 and John missed a host of opportunities. On Boxing Day a new signing for Airdrie, Hugh Morgan, was selected to play against Everton at centre-forward with Campbell moved to inside left.
In early January Campbell was left out of the side to face Aston Villa, who were to finish as League and FA Cup winners at the end of the season. It proved to be Sunderland’s finest performance of a troubled season with Morgan hitting a final minute goal in a 4-2 victory that thrilled a large crowd of 12,000. When Campbell returned to the side it was at inside right and after scoring against Stoke in a 4-1 home success he struck Sunderland’s equalising goal in a 1-1 draw at home to Burnley.
It was a result that virtually ensured that the Turf Moor side would occupy one of the bottom two places in the league. The question was would Sunderland accompany them into the test matches [playoffs] against the top two from Division Two to see who would play in Division One in the following season.
Morgan struck the winner against West Brom but a 2-2 draw at home to Nottingham Forest really needed to be turned into victory. Campbell scored his final goal for Sunderland away to Bury in a 1-1 draw but by finishing fifteenth Sunderland were pitched for the first time in to the test matches.
After losing one and drawing two matches things looked bleak. Campbell had played without scoring at centre-forward but for the final match at home to Newton Heath he was asked to play wide on the left. Lying bottom of the table Sunderland won 2-0 and when news came through that Notts County had beaten Burnley survival was ensured - but only just!.
“With the news that Notts County had won 1-0 at Burnley there was great rejoicing on Wearside with the realisation that Sunderland had preserved their 1st division status. Burnley were relegated to be replaced by 2nd division champions Notts County and Newton Heath remained in the 2nd division.’ The Journal newspaper.
Campbell signed for Newcastle United in May 1897 and helped the Magpies to win promotion the following season. Campbell remains the fifth highest goalscorer in Sunderland’s history with 150 goals in just 215 appearances. He was just 36 when he died in June 1906. Surprisingly Campbell never received international recognition for Scotland.