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Sunderland AFC and the black cat

For the majority of its history, Sunderland AFC never had an 'official' nickname.

However, in 2000 there was a vote on the official club website; as the available alternative names were "The Mackems", "The SOLs", "The Miners" and "The Light Brigade", it's not too surprising that Blackcats came out as the clear winner in a poll of over 11,000 people. A smart new logo featuring a rather sleek and muscular cat was introduced, and the Blackcats brand was born.

Notwithstanding some scepticism over modern marketing methods, there is a genuine historic SAFC connection with the nickname "Blackcats", definitely going back over 90 years and possibly longer.

In January 1909, Sunderland were going through what was for them a relatively lean spell. It had been seven years since we had won the League, and the team which was to win the Championship with a record number of points and get to the Cup Final in 1913 was only just starting to come together.

A 4-1 home defeat to Liverpool on New Years Day 1909 left the club in the bottom half of the First Division. When the players came into the dressing room the following day before the game against Bury, they found a stray black cat in residence.

Sunderland won 3-1 that day, despite Harry Low missing a penalty, and this coincidence started the "lucky black cat" story. A fortnight later when we went to Bramall Lane and won 3-2 in the FA Cup after being 0-2 down in the second half, the feline mascot was offically adopted by the players.

By the end of January 1909, the Sunderland Echo reported of the cat: "there has been a big demand for its portrait, more having been disposed of than of all the players put together". The thousands who went to Newcastle for the FA Cup quarter final that season had black cat mascots adorned with red and white ribbons.

 The "lucky" tag didn't last for the remainder of the 1908-09 season; Sunderland lost 0-3 at home to Newcastle in the FA Cup replay, George Holley missing a penalty when the score was 0-0.

However, the club mascot remained popular and was featured in many cartoons and drawings of the period, particularly popular on Wearside when victorious against a magpie (a verminous creature reputed to have been the mascot of some lesser local rival).

For Sunderland's first FA Cup Final appearance in front of a world record crowd at Crystal Palace, many supporters wore badges and pictures of black cats, while the cat featured on much of the souvenir literature of the event.

A picture from 1913 of what is believed to be the original black cat is pictured left, complete with ribbon; there have of course been many variations on this over the years.

Ever since then the black cat has featured as part of Sunderland AFC at all times, whether in early portraits and badges, oversized cardboard cutouts (particularly popular between the wars), the Supporters Association since its formation in the 1960s, the Roker Park club suite, those plastic inflatables of the late 1980s, or of course the Sunderland fans mailing list, which started in 1993.

So, it's certainly not a "made-up" nickname, though for most of its history it was an unofficial one.

Black Cats - alternative origins or myths?

Note: there is emphatically no "axe to grind" in listing the following as being historically uncertain. These explanations are all of very recent origin, and some do appear rather dubious and contrived. If, however, anyone can come up with good historic evidence confirming the origin of any of these, we'd be delighted to correct this article.

Civil War

It has been claimed that "Black Cats" is a corruption of "Blaw Caps", referring to the blue headgear of Scottish troops stationed on Wearside during the English Civil War.

However, no link in usage is known from then to the present, to the formation of Sunderland AFC, or even to the military references below. It has not been possible to confirm that the headgear of any Scottish troops in Wearside was blue.

Napoleonic Wars

There have been various suggestions for a later military origin of the "Blackcats" nickname. Some have been dated to the middle of the nineteenth century, more to the Napoleonic wars.

The official Sunderland club site suggests that "a gun battery in 1805 on the River Wear ... was renamed the 'Black Cat' battery after the men manning the station heard a mysterious miaow from a wailing black cat."

Alternatively, it has been suggested that the "Black Cat" nickname came from the wailing noise the guns made when they were fired, or even the silhouette of the guns against the sky resembling a cat.

Only the last appears plausible, and then only if the cat was dead and on its back with its legs in the air. Do cannons actually wail, or do they just go "boom, boom, boom"? If the cat was mysterious and only heard, how did they know it was black? And wasn't coastal defence during the Napoleonic wars left in the hands of the Sea Fencibles (local volunteers armed with sticks) rather than trained battalions with cannons?

Moreover, all of these suggestions appear to have been first recorded just before or around the time that the club ran its poll on the preferred official nickname in 2000. Certainly, there are no references to any "black cat gun battery" in the local papers of 1909 when the stray cat found its way into the dressing room; these would have been expected if the nickname had been known locally then. And if it hadn't, how is there now a link from 1805 to the present?

If someone could come up with a source for a contemporary reference to a Wearside Black Cat gun battery (or similar) from the start of the nineteenth century, this would be gratefully appreciated. In the absence of this, it is very difficult to accept this story as the origin of a nickname for the football club.

Timing of the 1900s story

There are some sources that place the connection in the early days of the club, mainly in the Edwardian era, but earlier than the 1909 story related above. These are rather more plausible than tales of Napoleonic caterwauling, but there are some doubts which keep them out of the main story for the time being.

The official Sunderland club site says that "in 1905, a black cat was pictured sitting on a football next to Chairman FW Taylor". This is, presumably, the picture on the rear of the first edition of The History of Sunderland AFC by Billy Simmons.

This picture is, as far as we know, undated, also the cat appears to have the same ribbons as the 1913 picture above. In addition, Fred Taylor had only just taken over as club Chairman in 1905; whilst he did a lot to rescue the club from its predicament at that time he wasn't known as "Mr Sunderland", as he was in later life, and he would have been far less likely to have been on a special cartoon at the time he first became chairman.

There is also a 1908-09 team photo which includes the cat and has been claimed to predate the dressing room appearance of January 1909. However, although this photo is titled "1908-09", it includes players signed during that season and was, presumably, produced as part of the optimism generated in the second half of the season.

Neither of the above is anything like a categoric disproval of either story for the origin of the black cat connection, and it is quite possible that the 1909 dressing room visitation came after other "lucky black cat" superstitions around that time. Again, if anyone has any further information, this would be much appreciated.

Miscellaneous

The 1908-09 season was far from being a time of universal gloom. We recorded our biggest ever win, 9-1 at St James Park on 5 December 1908, and finished the season third. However, we also had a record defeat, 1-8 at Blackburn, following on from a bad defeat by an already-relegated Leicester Fosse team. And Newcastle won the League.

Reports of black cat mascots, particularly at away FA Cup games, were common between the wars.

At Leeds in 1927, a portion of the stand was reported as being "a riot of red and white favours with the black cat". However, after we lost 2-3 to a last-minute goal, the Football Echo reported the next week: "the supporters who went to Leeds and shouted themselves hoarse deserved better. However, some of the letters to the club this week are far from polite, and most unhelpful."

A few years later, the midday edition of the Echo on Third Round day featured a picture of a group of supporters including a toothless middle-aged man wearing a mac and carrying a cardboard cut-out of a black cat. The picture was memorably captioned "These are some of the gay boys who went to Bolton today to cheer on their team".

Other animals

An actual black cat does appear to have had a long and happy life at Roker Park, though how many generations there have been is a matter for debate. It probably had better fortune than some other animals connected with the club.

These include a large tabby cat that came onto the pitch during a League match in 1908, one that was made of much sterner stuff. The Football Echo reported: "some of the players went towards it, but it waved its tail angrily and they abstained from touching it".

In 1910, visiting Bradford City supporters brought an FA Cup mascot with them in the form of a live bantam cock. This however escaped onto the pitch during the first half, and the unfortunate bird had its neck wrung unceremoniously by Tommy Tait, which was probably a greater provocation to visiting fans than having your drum confiscated.

Animals (including the occasional black cat) have made their way onto the pitch during matches at Roker Park over the years. Speculation is rife as to why this phenomenon hasn't continued at the SoL, and suspicion currently centres on the content of the Balti pies.

However, the final word on this subject is left to Stan Ternent, who reported of his time at Gigg Lane:-

"We used to have an adopted team cat that was supposed to be lucky. Fans and staff got to know it and would stroke it as it perched in the stand. In reality, the moth-eaten creature spent most of its time shitting on everything we owned and ripping up the kit."

Well, quite.

Dave Hillam
September 2005
safc@dsl.pipex.com

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