Tom Cowie: A Sunderland hero or villain? A man who left his legacy on both the club and city

Tom Cowie (1922-2012) was a hugely successful Sunderland businessman who played apart in establishing one of the city and the North East’s most prominent transport companies, Arriva. His name and legacy can be readily found around town, not least in the University Campus that is named after him at St. Peter’s, or the subsequent scholarship it offers in his name, or the fact he received a knighthood from the Queen.

Despite this, the reaction you get may differ according to who you ask, while an important local figure, Tom Cowie’s legacy as the owner of Sunderland AFC is likely to receive negative reactions. That is because, until surpassed in recent years, Cowie’s ownership overseen what was the worst period in SAFC’s history which seen the club relegated to the Third Division.

Cowie came from humble roots. His father, Thomas Stephenson Knowles Cowie, operated a small business repairing and selling bikes on Matamba Terrace, Millfield. Like most people of that generation, the war came and Tom did his service in the Royal Air Force. After the war was finished, Cowie re-established his father’s business as a Motorcycle firm, which became hugely successful.

By the 1980s, Cowie’s moved into the field of buses and became a fully fledged public transport company, including even supplying buses for London. The company was renamed Arriva in 1998, of which he became its life president up until his death.

It was during this time as a hugely successful businessman, that Cowie ultimately became the owner of SAFC, the club he supported as a boy. While this was a dream and an honour for him, his running of the club was ultimately disastrous and the team’s performance suffered. Cowie was also behind one of the most infamous managerial appointments in SAFC history, Lawrie McMenemy.

While seen as an ambitious appointment at the time, and one of the highest paid managers in English football, things turned from bad to worse and he left the club in a rut which would see it get relegated to the Third Division for the first time in its history. This earned him the nickname “Mackemeny”.

Following this decline, Cowie ultimately sold SAFC to Bob Murray, who’s ownership would take the club to some of its postwar highs.

Despite this controversial football legacy, Cowie donated his fortune to many causes throughout Sunderland.

In 2002, that the University of Sunderland adopted his name into St. Peter’s Campus, citing him as an icon of local success, and of course as a donor.

His philanthropy also benefitted Thornhill School and the Bede Campus of Sunderland College. In addition, he also contributed to many charitable causes.

Cowie was also an avid supporter of the Conservative Party and led the local party for years, which he contributed considerable financial resources to (over £630,000).

This may also made him the subject of political disapproval, given he supported the party during the Thatcher era, which was the hardest time for people in Sunderland and the North East.

Yet despite this, he remains a prominent name and local success story in the city, a successful Sunderland business man who made important contributions to his home town, yet ultimately caused more harm than good when it comes to SAFC.