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When Sunderland And Middlesbrough Changed The World

Sunderland’s game against Middlesbrough this weekend may only be a sideshow in a Premier League which now regards the North East as something of a footballing backwater, but in 1905 Sunderland and Middlesbrough were at the centre of the biggest story in football, as Millfield born forward Alf Common became the world’s first £1,000 player.

Common, a forward who had joined Sunderland in 1900, had been part of the team which finished Division One runners up in 1900-01. Joining Sheffield United in October 1901 for £325, Common played three seasons in the Steel City, scoring 21 goals in 67 league games as a regular in the Sheffield United side. It was also whilst at Bramall Lane that Common won the first of his three England caps.

Refusing to sign a new contract at Sheffield United, Common returned to Sunderland in 1904, citing existing "business interests" in the town as the reason for his desire to return to the North East. Sunderland had to shell out £520 to bring the diminutive forward back to Roker Park, but Common must have barely unpacked in Sunderland before he was on the move again, this time for the famous £1,000 fee.

Common moved to Ayresome Park on Valentine’s Day, February 14, 1905. Common’s signing led to questions being raised in the House of Commons, criticising both Middlesbrough and Sunderland for engaging in what was described as "a new type of white slave trade". It was the second time in a year that the North East had seen a record transfer, Andy McCombie’s 1904 move from Sunderland to Newcastle setting the world record of £700 which Common was to break.

Common proved an invaluable player for Middlesbrough, spending five seasons on Teeside and becoming club captain before moving on to end his career at Woolwich Arsenal and Preston North End. Common’s transfer was the last time that Sunderland were the selling club in a world-record transfer, but Sunderland would go on to break the record three times in the next five decades.

The 1922 signing of Warney Cresswell from South Shields set the record at £5,500, whilst three years later Bob Kelly joined from Burnley for £6,500. Sunderland’s final world record signing was that of Welsh international forward Trevor Ford from Aston Villa in 1950 for £30,000, the last time a North East team would be involved in a record signing until Alan Shearer’s £15million move from Blackburn Rovers to Newcastle United in 1996.

As for the famous Alf Common, he left Middlesbrough after an incident of "drunkenness and violent behaviour" which saw him stripped of the captaincy. Following his retirement from football in 1914 he became landlord of the Alma Hotel in Cockerton. Common lived through both world wars, before passing away in his Darlington home on April 3, 1946.