When Sunderland left Roker Park for the Stadium of Light in 1997, Asics gave them a retro-fuelled shirt which debuted a brand new badge for the Black Cats.
Roker Park had been home to Sunderland for 99 years before the club’s move to the Stadium of Light, built on the site of the former Monkwearmouth Colliery, and at that time England’s largest new ground since the Second World War.
To honour the prestige of the occasion, Sunderland released a glorious set of kits that referenced their past and commissioned a brand new badge for their brave new era.
But first of all, having consigned Roker Park to demolition, it wasn’t seen as appropriate for the club to carry on referring to themselves as the “Rokerites” so officially at least, for a while the club had no nickname. A later public vote saw supporters choose “The Black Cats” ahead of the “Light Brigade,” “The Miners” and a name that will forever be used by friends and foes alike; “The Mackems.”
Toasting their new home, Sunderland’s old ship crest from 1977 was replaced with a modern, yet at the same time traditional looking badge, featuring a 4 quartered shield, a colliery wheel and an inscription declaring their Pursuit of Excellence in latin.
Two big Black Cats, long time symbols of the club and a reference to a battery of Wearside gunners who’d served in the Napoleonic wars, stood guard either side of the crest’s shield.
Heralding Sunderland’s first season in their new home, Asics produced a set of classic looking 1920s-inspired shirts which would ultimately correlate with a triumphant return to the Premier League under Peter Reid.
Worn between 1997-98 and 1998-99 the shirts were complemented by local brewers and long-term Sunderland supporters Vaux, who placed their Lambton’s brand’s beer mat style motif directly beneath Sunderland’s new crest right in the centre of the jersey.
There was a simple elegance to Asics’ 1990s kits as witnessed by Leeds United, Blackburn Rovers and dare we mention their name, Newcastle United.
Generously cut with clean lines, straight stripes and proper collars, there were no gimmicks, no fussy patterns or over-sized logos. For their time, Asics‘ great looking kits in bold colours perfectly satisfied the brief of what supporters and players wanted to see in a football shirt.
Companies like Toffs had made retro shirts popular terrace wear in the 1990s and the influence of the past continued to the crisp button-up collar, and Asics moved their own logo there so as to save the look of the red and white stripes.
Whereas today’s footballers prefer a tight-fitted superhero style shirt, 1990s footballers like Kevin Phillips often looked like they were wearing a two-man tent.
Phillips himself scored 52 league goals in the two seasons he wore that shirt, and formed a lethal tall-man/small-man strike partnership with fellow Sunderland hero Niall Quinn that would continue into the Premier League.
Having finished the 1997-98 season in 3rd place with a 90 point haul, Sunderland’s first Stadium of Light season ended in play-off final penalty shoot-out heartbreak, as Clive Mendonca and Charlton Athletic denied them promotion following an epic 4-4 struggle in the Wembley sun.
Unbroken, Peter Reid’s Black Cats returned to dominate the 1998-99 Division One season amassing 105 points in a season where they also made the League Cup semi-finals.
Thomas Sorensen, Kevin Ball, Michael Gray, Alan Johnston, Nicky Summerbee, Danny Dichio and Michael Bridges all starred as Sunderland achieved promotion to the Premier League by mid-April, before being confirmed as Champions in a season where they lost just 3 league games.
After promotion, the Black Cats firmly established themselves in top-flight football finishing 7th in each of the following 2 seasons.
More recently, Sunderland fans have had to endure rather than enjoy their football at the Stadium of Light and after the misery of back to back relegations from the Premier League and Championship, they currently find themselves chasing down promotion from League One.
Sunderland have had a wonderful range of shirts down the years and a legion of loyal supporters to wear them.
Twenty years on from that glorious season under Peter Reid, the simplicity of these no-nonsense Lambton’s shirts that matched the city’s proud industrial heritage and allowed their red and white stripes to star, should be the inspiration for future Black Cats kits.
Nobody ever said supporting Sunderland was easy, but getting their shirt right should be.