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When Sunderland first played at Bramall Lane, the ref sat on the touchline & there were no nets

Sunderland have been to Bramall Lane loads of times over the years, but the very first visit was in 1891 for an FA Cup Semi-Final.

Bramall Lane

Sunderland make the trip to Bramall Lane today for a Boxing Day clash at a famous old football ground. The Wearsiders first competitive visit to the oldest stadium in the world still to be hosting professional association football was in the 1890/91 FA Cup, facing Notts County twice in the semi-final of the competition.

Sunderland were enjoying their first season of League football in 1890/91 when they thrashed non-League Nottingham Forest 4-0 in the quarter finals of the FA Cup to set up a last-four tie against League side Notts County in Sheffield on 28 February 1891. Having also beaten County 4-0 a few weeks earlier, a side managed by Tom Watson was confident of making it through to the final and capturing what was until WWII the most sought after trophy in the world.

Sunderland trained close to home on Roker beach and the exercise ensured that they matched their opponents as far as stamina was concerned. On the day of the game trains, which it was estimated brought 10,000 to South Yorkshire, began arriving soon after midday in Sheffield and although the kick off was not until 3.30pm, shrewd spectators set off for the ground immediately anticipating the problems in getting a good view that many latecomers experienced. Brakes, trams, and conveyances of all descriptions were soon bowling along to Bramall Lane while many thousands prepared to shank it from the centre of town. Special stands had been erected and the crowd was to total 22,000.

Tom Watson - Sunderland’s most successful manager

The game proved to be a thrilling one, with County taking the lead through Andrew McGregor when Ted Doig, believing the Notts forward to be well offside, allowed him to sweep the ball between the posts only to discover that a goal was given. Sunderland’s appeals for offside fell on deaf ears.

The North Eastern side struck back by scoring twice through John Smith and John Harvie only for Tom McInnes to hit a powerful shot that roared past Doig before hitting the post and entering the goal to make it 2-2, which was the score at the break.

County retook the lead when John Oliver mis-kicked, and picking up the loose ball Scottish international Jack Oswald beat Doig with a shot that hit the crossbar before bouncing just beyond the goal line. In an era when the match ended on exactly 90 minutes, Sunderland were to be frustrated by County’s time wasting after that but did force a replay when John Scott got possession and swung over a good centre that found arch predator Johnny Campbell, who spun round and sent a thunderbolt flying between the posts to bring Sunderland level at long last.

Sunderland’s Jonny Campbell
Image: Mark Metcalf

The second game between the sides took place on Wednesday 11 March. With no such thing as legally paid holidays at this time, and it being a working day, very few fans of either Sunderland or Notts County could make the trip for the match. The attendance was down to 18,000 with the vast bulk being locals from South Yorkshire.

Most Sunderland fans felt that with regular first teamers Jimmy Millar and John Auld replacing Harvie and William Gibson respectively that Sunderland would win and the heavily laden excursion train that left Sunderland departed with an air of confidence. Some 300 supporters braved the stormy elements and made the journey with a considerable sprinkling from South Shields and Darlington joining the party.

Those that did make it to the match from the North East would have returned disappointed as Sunderland played poorly and lost 2-0. County attacked from the start and it was no shock when Oswald swept the East Midlanders into the lead on 26 minutes.

Then, just before the break, County made another rush and McGregor sent in a shot that appeared to go just past the post, but a goal was claimed and after consultation with both umpires the referee awarded a goal.

The difficulty that the officials had in deciding if the ball had entered the goal was because at the time nets had yet to be formally introduced to the game. An increasing number of incidents about whether a goal had been scored or not had led to Liverpool civil engineer John Brodie taking out a patent for his “net pocket”.

The Bramall Lane sports ground

They were first employed on 17 January 1891 in the North versus South trial match that was used to select the England side for the forthcoming Home Internationals. As they were made on Merseyside then it was appropriate that a player from there was the first to put the ball into them – Everton’s Fred Geary scoring for the North after quarter of an hour.

It was widely agreed the nets were a success and The Football Field reported on 17 January 1891: “Mr Brodie’s goal nets are likely to be generally adopted.”

By the start of the following season every major team were using them. Yet goal nets are not compulsory and despite being mentioned as a necessity in all competition rules a game could go ahead without them.

‘Nets may be attached to the goals and the ground behind the goal, provided that they are properly supported and do not interfere with the goalkeeper.’

- Laws of the Game 2008–09, FIFA

Brodie Avenue in Liverpool is named in John Brodie’s honour and an English Heritage blue plaque is positioned at the late Victorian detached villa he occupied in suburban Ullet Road.

John Brodie’s Blue Plaque

In 1871 that match officials were incorporated into the rules so that an umpire was appointed for each half of the field, although only when a player appealed could they decide if there was an infringement. However, in situations where the umpires, one of whom was nominated by each side, disagreed with one another then a referee - sitting on the touchline - would make the final ruling.

The growing number of occasions when the umpires failed to agree was creating increasing demands for the referee to assume full control of games — after all, it would undoubtedly lead to improved decision making, as has proven the case ever since!

On 4 October 1890 the Gainsborough game against Lincoln City in the FA Cup became a landmark match when the referee was given complete control of events. When this experiment and others that followed were successful then it was permanently introduced for the start of the 1891–92 season and was also combined with the introduction of neutral referees and linesmen to end accusations of favouritism against match officials.

Perhaps left downhearted by a goal that wasn’t, Sunderland thereafter seemed to lose heart and if it was not for Doig in their goal then the defeat would have been heavier. County moved on to face those great cup warriors Blackburn Rovers in the 1891 FA Cup Final at the Kennington Oval. Rovers were to capture the FA Cup for a fifth time by winning 3-0 before a crowd of 23,000. It was to be another 46 years before Sunderland managed to win it for the first time and in 1892 they were back at Bramall Lane again in the semi-final and were heavily beaten 4-1 by Aston Villa. Bramall Lane also proved to be a graveyard for Sunderland sides seeking the League title in 1897-98, 1922-23 and 1954-55, but that’s a story for another day.


Want to learn more about the early years of football? Pick up a copy of Mark’s well received book FLYING OVER AN OLIVE GROVE: the remarkable story of Fred Spiksley. Plans are moving forward on making a documentary film based on the book. Copies available from the ALS shop, Back Page shops in the Metro Centre & Newcastle or via Waterstones.

Many of the Sunderland players from the 1890s are captured on a series of vintage art prints that feature on www.thedribblinggame.com site.