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Sunderland v Nottingham Forest; tales of the early games between the two great clubs

Sunderland first played Nottingham Forest in 1890. Here’s the tales of the earliest encounters between the two clubs brought to you by Sunderland author and historian Mark Metcalf.

The Newcastle Road ground
Image: RokerRoar.com

Sunderland first faced Nottingham Forest on Monday 6 November 1890, in a special game that formed part of the opening of the new Town Hall celebrations - the authorities even commemorated the occasion with a half day holiday in Sunderland!

Struggling in its first season in the Football League, the football club invited Nottingham Forest to play them in a prestigious Friendly at Newcastle Road. The east Midlanders were, at the time, the leaders of the Football Alliance, which had been formed in 1889/1890 as an alternative to the Football League, which had started in 1888/89.

A Local Government Act had given, like in all towns with over 100,000 inhabitants, Sunderland Borough Council, which promised a freer rein in local self-government than had previously been the case. The new Town Hall was viewed by all as a necessary municipal building adequate to the growing size and importance of the town. The architect of the new building was Brightwen Binyon, the son of a large sugar refiner and tea dealer.

The building was in the Italian Renaissance style, 150' long by 96' broad, an average height of 46' and a height to the top of the tower of 140'. In the middle of the tower was the clock standing 85' from the ground. Today the building hosts Sunderland’s Museum and Tropical Gardens.

The Sunderland Town Hall

The game with Forest ended 1-1. Alex Higgins had driven the away side ahead with a low shot after just eight minutes but on 70 minutes Johnny Campbell, signed from Renton in the summer of 1889, drew Sunderland level. Thereafter the home side swarmed around the Forest goal but Brown, its custodian, had a fine match.

The match finished all square when the referee sounded the final whistle, an item which Forest had pioneered - in 1878, their game against Sheffield Norfolk was credited as the first occasion in England where the referee had used a whistle. Four years previously, Forest were the first English side to wear shin-guards, albeit outside of their socks.

Campbell netted twice when Sunderland beat Forest 4-0 later that season in the FA Cup at Newcastle Road and the Scotsman also scored Sunderland’s first goal in a League match against Nottingham Forest, who at the start of the 1892-93 season became part of an extended First Division consisting of 16 sides, up from 14 the previous season and 12 the season before that.

Sunderland, just back from a short tour to London where they faced the Corinthians and Royal Arsenal, were making a determined bid to retain the League title they had won for the first time at the end of the previous season - in which Campbell had finished top League scorer by scoring 32 times. It was a feat he was to repeat in 1892-93 and also in 1894-95 when Sunderland were to win the League for a third time.

On 19 November 1892, Forest, who spent the Friday night before the game at the Three Tuns in Durham, travelled home having unluckily lost a game that was played in thick fog but was decided by a 20th minute opportunist effort from the Sunderland centre forward who poked the ball home after Archie Ritchie miskicked in front of goal. It was Ted Doig who maintained the home sides advantage with a series of fine saves. Scottish international Tom McInnes, in particular, was unfortunate not to score at least once but the Sunderland ‘keeper, the finest in the club’s long history, was at his very best.

The Durham Three Tuns Hotel, now student accomodation

Two weeks later, the sides faced each other again. The match took place at the Nottingham Town Ground, Forest later moving to Trent Bridge in 1898, the year when the club won its first major trophy - the FA Cup.

The home side were easily beaten by a Sunderland side that skilfully overcame a treacherous, skiddy surface. The goals came from outside-right James Gillespie, captain Hughie Wilson and (depending on which match reports you read) either David Hannah and two from Campbell or none by Hannah and three from Campbell, whose final effort came following some fine passing between the Sunderland forwards.

The Wearsiders stayed in second place in the table, but when they beat Wolves 5-2 on 2 January 1893, they rose to top spot and thereafter ran away with the title and eventually finished eleven points clear of second place side Preston North End - in a season where it was two points for a win.

Sunderland finished the season by winning 3-2 at Burnley and the final goal meant the club had scored 100 goals - thirty coming from Campbell - for the first time in a League season.

Sunderland has only achieved this feat once since in 1935-36 when 109 goals were scored in 42 matches. In 1892-93 the League season consisted of thirty matches and having also conceded only 35 goals in it then it was little wonder that the founder of the Football League and chairman of Aston Villa, William McGregor, dubbed Sunderland the ‘Team of all the Talents’ - a deserved nickname that has honoured that era for 125 years.