Sunderland’s visit to Villa Park on Saturday is just another Premier League match, a rather humdrum one, in fact, which would arrive on Match of the Day near the witching hour were it not for the bulk of the weekend’s best matches being shifted to Sunday. There was a time, however, when it would have been the centrepiece of a media build-up, with hourly injury updates from outside the respective training grounds, breaking news on team selection, detailed pre-match tactical analysis and live television coverage.
Sky Sports News was not, however, even a gleam in the eye of university student John Logie Baird when, a century ago, Aston Villa versus Sunderland was the biggest football match in the land. In a gripping week in April 1913 the teams contested the Double. With six championships and four FA Cups already to their name, Harry Hampton’s Villa were the most successful team in the country. But free-spending Sunderland had four titles and Charlie Buchan in attack.
On 19 April 1913, a crowd of 120,000, a gate only exceeded in England by the 1923 FA Cup final, watched Villa beat Sunderland 1-0 in the FA Cup final at Crystal Palace. Four days later 70,000 packed Villa Park to see Sunderland raise themselves to snatch a 1-1 draw that effectively clinched the title.
The 100 years since have been a tale of slow decline for both clubs – even the ignominy of descending to the third tier – interrupted by occasional heights. Sunderland, despite breaking the British transfer record in 1922, 1925 and 1948, have won a single title since, in 1936. They added the FA Cup the next season but the last 76 years have brought home only another FA Cup, albeit sensationally, in 1973. Villa have had more success, but not to the degree their heritage demands. They lifted the FA Cup in 1920 and 1957, but it was not until 1981 that they won their seventh title. While that was swiftly followed by the European Cup, the only subsequent silverware has been two more League Cups, taking their collection to five.
It is this history that Paul Lambert was referring to when he described Villa as a “bigger club” than West Bromwich Albion before their meeting on Monday, and despite Albion’s recent superior league finishes. “Aston Villa is a massive club,” he said. “I don’t think anyone can ever dispute that. It’s a club that’s won a European Cup, league titles, has a massive fan base and has a bigger stadium.”
All true, but Brian Moore’s commentary of Peter Withe’s goal that heady night in Rotterdam, emblazoned on the North Stand, acts as a daily rebuke as well as a homage. It was the same on Wearside when the 40th anniversary of Wembley ’73 was commemorated in May. The warm, fuzzy memories of Jim Montgomery’s double save, Ian Porterfield’s volley and Bob Stokoe running on to embrace his goalkeeper are not much to sustain such a passionate football region.
Clubs with rich histories tend to flaunt them, as they should. White Hart Lane is one of several places where a pre-match video exalts the glory years. Among the growing band of football statuary are Bobby Robson at Ipswich, Billy Bremner at Elland Road and Bobby Moore at Wembley, all marking increasingly distant triumphs. When he became manager of Derby County, Nigel Clough even arrived at Pride Park to find a photograph of himself as a boy at the club with his father, which must have been disconcerting.
Villa and Sunderland are no different. There are photographs and souvenirs everywhere of the golden years. Managers have differing responses to this wallowing in past success. Some believe the weight of history is too onerous for the current generation to bear and remove memorabilia in areas used by their squad. Others hope the images of past glories will inspire the present bearers of the shirt.
It is not a new issue. Brian Clough removed pictures of Raich Carter and Steve Bloomer when he arrived at the Baseball Ground. Nor is it restricted to English football. Partly in response to a much shorter history, North American sports often pay the past exaggerated respect, establishing Halls of Fame long before it was fashionable here and retiring shirt numbers. That did not prevent Tim Leiweke from removing photos of former players by the dressing rooms when he became CEO of Toronto Maple Leafs, one of ice hockey’s most storied franchises, but one which has not won the Stanley Cup since 1967. It caused a stir, but he was seeking to make the point that the club was no longer “selling our history” and the current crop of players needed to create their own legacy.
The managers and players of Villa and Sunderland are under similar pressure. They, too, are now under American ownership and have in the last few years chewed up a series of decent managers, including Martin O’Neill at both clubs. At Villa, Randy Lerner initially tried to break into the elite, spending heavily on players and wages, but having failed to complete the upgrade from Europa League to Champions League he has cut back. Since January 2011, when Darren Bent arrived for £18m – a panic buy to stave off relegation, albeit a successful one – Lerner has only bought players below £10m, usually ones from lesser overseas leagues, or the lower divisions, who have modest wage demands.
“Randy has been great but we won’t be able to do what you would call a massive signing,” said Lambert of the impending transfer window. “We won’t be able to go out and buy the big players. We have to look at the market, the young lads. We give them an opportunity and, hopefully, they take it.”
Ellis Short, at Sunderland, appears to be following a similar path, belatedly reining in spending after forking out large sums on the likes of Asamoah Gyan and Adam Johnson.
The problem Lerner and Short share is that a rich history has limited marketing potential in the modern era. A century ago these clubs rose to prominence on the back of huge crowds; the modern economies of Wearside and the West Midlands cannot be milked so readily. But clubs that have done little more than tread water in the top flight for 30 years, at best, have limited leverage in a global market that, Liverpool’s European Cup fame apart, thinks English football began with the Premier League. Somehow Lambert and Gus Poyet have to square the expectations of a support which has grown up believing their club has a right to challenge for top honours, with financial realities that make this very difficult.