In a season of such minimal excitement, the rising stock of David Bellion has been one of the few positive aspects. His direct style, which has prompted the chants of “Belli’s gonna get ya” highlights his popularity amongst the Stadium of Light faithful.
Bellion is especially popular with younger fans, being the player they all want to be in the schoolyard. This is even more pleasing because Bellion is black. As little as 25 years ago Sunderland had not had a black player amongst their ranks and, as with all clubs, racism was an issue on the terraces.
Whilst a minority of Sunderland fans still see fit to racially abuse visiting players at times, Sunderland’s own black players have always been judged by their abilities by the fans. Indeed, the best of these players have become some of the most respected and popular players in the club's history.
It wasn’t until a home match on 2nd January 1978 that a black player first represented Sunderland AFC. That man was Roly Gregoire, a teenage Liverpudlian striker who had been signed from Halifax Town. Gregoire had only played five times for the Yorkshire club when he earned his move to Roker with a hat trick against Sunderland reserves for the Shaymen’s second string.
Gregoire failed to make much of an impact at Sunderland, making just ten appearances before having his contract cancelled in 1980 after a long-term injury. His only goal for the club came at Luton during a 3-1 win in April 1978.
The next two black players to play for the club made their debuts in the opening game of the 1984/85 season - Gary Bennett and Howard Gayle. Gayle was a Liverpool youth product who was signed from Birmingham City. He played fairly regularly in his two seasons with the club, usually as an attacking midfielder.
He featured in the early rounds of the Milk Cup run of 1984/85 before losing his place after the 4th round. However, Gayle eventually returned to the team, getting onto the bench for the final. His late appearance could not prevent the 1-0 defeat.
Bennett enjoyed a magnificent career at Sunderland after following his manager Len Ashurst from Cardiff City. He scored after just two minutes of his debut, the first of 444 appearances for the club, and was part of the Wembley line up against Norwich that same season.
Always a hugely popular player, Bennett was the first black captain in the history of British football whilst at Sunderland. He also added to his Wembley appearances whilst at the club, playing in the 1990 Play Off final and the 1992 FA Cup final.
A third black player joined the Sunderland ranks during the 1984/85 season when Southampton accepted an £80,000 bid for fullback Reuben Agboola. The London-born Nigerian international spent seven years at the club, although he often found himself out of the side.
Agboola’s best runs in the team came in Denis Smith’s first three seasons in charge, culminating in Play Off appearances at St James’s Park and Wembley when deputising for Paul “I’m sorry John, was that your head I just clipped?” Hardyman.
Late in the 1985/86 season Tony Ford arrived on loan from Grimsby Town. He came off the bench to score on his debut and then started all the remaining matches as Sunderland finished a disappointing season with four wins in the last seven games.
In April 1989 Sean Wharton became the first and, to date, the only black player to come through the youth ranks and graduate to the first team. However, he played only once, in a 2-0 defeat at Portsmouth. Wharton was released by the club soon afterwards and ended up carving out a career in the Welsh League.
Sunderland broke their transfer record in December 1991 when Don Goodman was signed from West Brom for £900,000.
Goodman quickly became a popular figure as his committed style won the fans over. He notched a hat trick against Millwall not long after arriving at the club and scored a total of 47 goals in 133 appearances before being transferred to Wolves.
Terry Butcher made several criminal signings in his time as manager but he took this to the extreme when signing James Lawrence in 1993. The winger came from Parkhurst prison, where he had spent the previous two years for his part in an armed robbery. Lawrence made just five appearances before moving to Doncaster Rovers, though he eventually ended up, via a circuitous route playing in the Premiership for Bradford and then Leicester.
Having sold Don Goodman, Mick Buxton tried several options to replace him including the loan signing of Paul Williams from Crystal Palace. However, Williams made no impact during his three game spell with the club, in which just one point was taken.
Peter Reid signed his first black player in the summer of 1998. Gerry Harrison arrived from Burnley on a free transfer and had a disastrous spell at the Stadium of Light. His only appearance came in the Worthington Cup against York City, where he was unimpressive. It later emerged that he had been suffering from hepatitis at the time.
Reid’s next signing of a black player was equally unproductive for the club. Milton Nunez’s arrival on deadline day of 2000 was much heralded, but the diminutive (shortarse) Honduran played just twice for the club, both times as a substitute, against Wimbledon and Luton. Nunez, a million pound player, was given a free transfer in the summer of 2001.
David Bellion came from French side Cannes not long after Nunez was released. He was extremely raw when first featuring in the side, but after developing his game under the supervision of reserve team coach Ricky Sbragia, he returned to the team a better player in 2002/03. Bellion scored his first goal for the club against Aston Villa in September.
With Sunderland struggling for goals in 2001/02, Reid brought Cameroonian international Patrick Mboma in on loan from Parma. The experienced striker made his debut against Newcastle and then scored on his first start at Tottenham. However, Mboma struggled with several minor injuries and was often left on the bench as Reid persisted with Niall Quinn.
The two most recently acquired black players both came to the Stadium of Light in the summer. Centre half Phil Babb came on a free transfer from Sporting Lisbon, where he was regarded as one of the best defenders in the league. Despite this the former Liverpool man has yet to convince the majority of Sunderland fans his worth.
Matthew Piper was signed from Leicester City for £3million just after the start of the season. After a low-key start under Reid, Piper was singled out by Howard Wilkinson as being particularly short of fitness. An injury has also hindered his progress at the club.
Whilst many Sunderland’s black players have not made an impact at the club, the importance of the more successful black players cannot be underestimated. The contributions of Agboola, Goodman and particularly Bennett, both on and off the field, did a tremendous amount to help tackle racism at the club. Importantly, they also helped gain a few points on the pitch to boot.
By Keith Watson