So when they renewed their acquaintance with the Premiership this season they might have seen as role models a club like Leicester, who seem to have discovered the knack of prolonged life at the top on limited resources.
While the wealthier clubs use Europe and South America as their employment agency, Martin O'Neill's work-force is made up of a combination of home- grown talent and experienced players who have been around a bit but are not yet ready to take early retirement - a formula with which Peter Reid now seems to be having equal success.
Some may also find it encouraging, given the tendency to blame the failure of the national side on the number of foreigners in the domestic game, that, of the 22 players who started this match, only two were born outside the British Isles.
Not surprisingly, it produced a typically old-fashioned English match, high on pace and power but littered with the errors and fouls that come with the territory. Both sides were relying on that combination of youth and experience up front - Kevin Phillips and Niall Quinn for Sunderland and Emile Heskey and Tony Cottee for Leicester - to tip what was an evenly balanced if not noticeably skilful game.
But in the end it was a red card and a pair of maiden Premiership goals which switched on the electricity in the Stadium of Light and lifted Sunderland above Leicester into an unlikely eighth position.
Gavin McCann had a hand in both goals, floating over the first-half corner which defender Paul Butler converted with a powerful header, and then slotting Phillips' pass beyond an exposed Tim Flowers eight minutes from time. By then Leicester's cause was lost, defender Gerry Taggart having departed following two rash tackles on Phillips.
"Gavin gave a first-class performance. It was his best game for Sunderland," said his manager afterwards. "We have been playing him on the left but I decided to use him inside Nicky Summerbee, which is his best position. The pleasing thing is that we kept another clean sheet and if we can do that we are always likely to get the odd goal. That might sound boring and defensive, but at this level you have to get the basics right."
Goals: Butler (29) 1-0, McCann (82) 2-0.
Sunderland (4-4-2): Sorensen; Makin, Butler, Bould, Gray; Summerbee, McCann (Roy, 86), Ball, Schwarz (Williams, 75); Quinn (Dichio, 79), Phillips. Substitutes not used: Marriott (gk), Fredgaard.
Leicester City (3-5-2): Flowers; Sinclair, Elliott, Taggart; Savage (Gilchrist, 71), Lennon, Izzet, Guppy, Impey; Heskey, Cottee (Marshall, 58). Substitutes not used: Fenton, Arphexad (gk), Zagorakis.
Referee: A D'Urso (Billericay). Sending off: Leicester: Taggart. Bookings: Sunderland: Bould, Quinn, McCann. Leicester: Taggart, Savage.
Man of the match: Summerbee.
Attendance: 40,105.Reuse content