Terry Neill’s key signings: Alan Sunderland

Tony Attwood

Everyone over a certain age who claims any association with Arsenal has one picture of Alan Sunderland in their head.  Scoring the winner in the FA Cup Final.  2-0 up, with minutes remaining, Manchester U took us back to 2-2, before Sunderland scored and ran down the pitch screaming abuse – or so it seemed to my inexpert lip reading techniques.

Alan was born on 1 July 1953, and he played for Wolverhampton before coming to us, and then went on to Ipswich.  He also played one game for England.

Depending on which source you use Alan was born in Mexborough or Coinsbrough – or maybe they are different ends of the same town, and rather than play in any non-league club football he went straight to Wolverhampton, and played around 200 games for them, winning the Second Division with them, and the 1974 League Cup.

In November 1977 he came to Arsenal for just under quarter of a million pounds, as a midfielder playing in the number 8 shirt.  He made 23 appearances and scored four goals in the season, playing alongside Brady, Macdonald, Stapleton and Rix.

When Macdonald suffered his career ending injury in August 1978  there was no obvious immediate replacement.  Sunderland kept the number 8 shirt, Stapleton moved to 9 (although not at once) and Price and Gatting for the most part shared the number 10.

This effectively left Sunderland, Brady, Stapleton and Rix as the attacking midfield and forward line, and Sunderland pushed up into the centre forward slot alongside Stapleton.

Sunderland played in the cup final against Ipswich as a warm up to his defining moment scoring in the last seconds of the game, as he combined with Rix and Brady to win the cup.

In the 1979/80 season he played 36 games and scored 14 goals – the top scorer.  In1981/2 he played 38 league games and scored 11 and was again top scorer.  Arsenal were fifth that season but the goal stats (as suggested by the fact that Sunderland was the top scorer) were shocking – 48 for 37 against from 42 league games.  West Brom, who missed relegation by two points, scored only two goals less.

Sunderland stayed until the 1983/4 season when he played 11 times and scored four giving him a league total of 204 games started and 55 goals.

His last game was a 0-3 defeat away to Leicester, on November 26 1983, during the Neill/Howe joint control season – following the arrival of Charlie Nicholas, and in February 1984 he went to Ipswich on loan – making the move permanent in the summer.  It is said that he played also for Derry City after that, although I can’t verify that, and then did the traditional footballing thing – he opened a pub.

Finally he emigrated to Malta where he coached Birkirkara between 1996-97.  Now this is the bit you might not see in other stories about him (unless they are complete biographies).  During that season Birkirkara came second in the island’s top division and was the first time the club had reached such a high position.  As a result the club entered the Uefa Cup for the first time the following season.   Alan only managed the club for that one season, but that season had its impact because the club was runners-up for the following two seasons before becoming champions for the first time.  Also, following Alan’s season at the club the Birkirkara Ultras were formed which co-ordinated support for the club at every game.  The club won the league on 200, 2009 and 2010, and the Cup in 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011. *** (please see updated information in my comments below – I will integrate that information into the main article later).

I don’t know enough about Maltese football to know how much of this subsequent success was down to Alan’s one year, but I like to think it was more than just a coincidence.


This is part of a series on Arsenal’s managers – there is a full index on the Arsenal Managers page.   For details of how Terry Neill did as a manager you might like to refer to these two sections:

Other articles on Terry Neill as a manager at Arsenal.

Terry Neill’s signings:

5 Replies to “Terry Neill’s key signings: Alan Sunderland”

  1. Quite often when I write notes on ex-players I get in touch with other clubs with whom they have been associated, in order to check or expand on some facts.

    Sadly, although a few do reply and some are very helpful, the number that don’t write back is much larger than the number that do.

    But I am thrilled to say that within an hour of my making an enquiry of Birkirkara I received a most helpful reply from Ivan Mizzi, the IT Manager at Birkirkara FC.

    He updated and corrected a few points for me:

    Birkirkara won the League in 2000, 2006, 2010, not as I said. Also the Cup wins were in 2002, 2003, 2005, 2008.

    Further Alan Sunderland is indeed still living in Malta and is a resident of Gozo – the second of the three islands that make up the country of Malta. (Incidentally if you ever go, go to Gozo – it is amazing).

    And some more background…

    With regards to season 1996, the then new B’kara FC president Mr Victor Zammit invested heavily in the Club, and brought in some top players. Alan Sunderland was also considered an impressive signing. It was indeed the year that launched B’kara FC as one of the big guns. They have since always finished in the first three positions of the league, for 16 years running and hold the local record for participating in UEFA competitions for 16 years straight.

    I will do my level best to keep an eye on the club and report how it does in the coming season.

  2. Tony,
    You didn’t need to be a lipreader to follow Alan’s reaction to his winner against Man Utd. Whatever he said will for ever remain unprintable in The History of Arsenal.

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