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The birth of the rivalry; the remarkable tale of Sunderland’s first FA Cup game vs Middlesbrough

Author and historian Mark Metcalf recounts the extraordinary tale of Sunderland’s first ever FA Cup game against Middlesbrough, played over 130 years ago - the tie that the winners, erm, lost...

Sunderland’s first competitive match against Middlesbrough was in the 1887/88 FA Cup. It proved to be a controversial affair that took two ties to decide on the pitch but was ultimately decided by the rule book then in place, with the loser going through.

Sunderland beat Morpeth Harriers 3-2 in the first qualifying round of the FA Cup in 1887/88. The Wearsiders then knocked out Newcastle West End 3-1 at home after extra time in the second qualifying match played before a 7,000 crowd at Newcastle Road.

Sunderland travelled to face Boro on Saturday 26 November. Middlesbrough are the older of the two clubs and were formed on 18 February 1876, four years before Sunderland.

The match was played at Linthorpe Road and drew a crowd of 7,000 including nearly 3,000 away fans who journeyed south on two special trains.

The game took place on a sticky pitch and conditions were made further difficult for the teams by a strong wind. Having won the toss, Sunderland chose to play with the wind to their backs, the hope being to build up a good half time lead before playing the second period kicking into the wind. With five minutes left of the first half remaining it appeared that such a tactic was misplaced but then following some intricate passing, Cloag beat McNellis in the Boro goal to give his side the lead.

Middlesbrough’s Linthorpe Rd ground in the 1890s
Image: Middlesbrough Football Club

Two minutes later the scorer repeated his earlier feat and at the break Sunderland led 2-0. The restart saw Boro pile forward and the away defence were put under severe pressure, before on 54 minutes McCrie beat Bill Kirtley by lofting the ball over the Sunderland keeper. Six minutes later the tie was all square when Dennis hit a beautiful shot past Kirtley, who was the only Sunderland player from the starting eleven that day who went on to play League football for the club when it was elected to the League in 1890.

It seemed certain that Boro would now go on to beat their opponents. Kirtley’s goalkicks were blown out of touch by the strong wind. Time after time Boro put shots narrowly wide as Sunderland worked tirelessly to prevent the winning goal. The away side was fortunate though when Borrie’s long shot crashed against the post and Bache failed to net the rebound. The game thus ended at 2-2 and despite the dark conditions the referee Mr R Crawford of East End insisted on playing 30 minutes extra time.

The crowd though had invaded the pitch and after it was clear those spectators occupying the playing surface could not be removed the referee left the ground. The teams were later ordered to restart hostilities at Sunderland the following weekend. Each club received £34 7s 9d (£34.38) from the share of the gate receipts and knew before the second match that the winners would receive a bye into the last 16, where they would face London side Old Foresters.

The replay at Newcastle Road again attracted another enormous crowd for the time with around 9,000 present, a then record attendance for the North East. This time it was Middlesbrough’s turn to dominate the first period. The 3,000 travelling fans were celebrating after just two minutes when Wilson’s shot cannoned off the post and over the line to give the away side the lead. Against a strong wind, Sunderland struggled to clear their lines and on 29 minutes a fierce scrimmage in front of the home goal resulted in Ewbank making it 2-0. Thereafter the Sunderland full back and keeper played magnificently to prevent Boro adding to the score before the referee, who had warned the sides beforehand about rough play, sounded the half time whistle with Sunderland remarkably still in the tie.

The original FA Cup

The deficit was cut within a minute of the restart when McNellis fumbled the ball and Monaghan scored and soon after a scrimmage in front of the Boro goal ended when a shot, later credited to Stewart, went into the goal off Miller’s back. On 52 minutes Davison cracked home Sunderland’s third and the home fans went crazy with hats, umbrellas and anything they could find going up into the air. Try as they might after that the away side could not force the Sunderland side back towards their own goal. It was no surprise that with just three minutes left Halliday fired home the fourth for the Wearsiders to make it 4-2.

After the game the teams dined together at the Royal Hotel. So pleased were some of the Sunderland fans that they carried one or two of the players to the reception and remained outside the hotel for quite some time. The celebrations were to prove premature.

Professionalism had been legally introduced into football in 1885 but in 1887 the FA rules decreed that any professional not local to a team had to live no more than six miles away over a two-year period if they were to play in FA competitions. The aim of such a rule was to prevent teams hiring in players to play one off big matches and with League football yet to be started then there was no bigger game than an FA Cup tie. Especially against one of your local rivals!

On 27 December 1887, at the North-Eastern Hotel in Darlington, the beaten Teesside club were able to prove that Monaghan, Hastings and Richardson (first names all unknown), all from Dumfries, were professional players. As they had all arrived together in Sunderland in August 1887 then they had not fulfilled the two-year residency period required to play in the FA Cup. Sunderland were thrown out of the competition and the growing rivalry between the two North Eastern teams began to take on a more negative edge to it.

Boro went on to beat Old Foresters 4-0 but were knocked out in the quarter finals of the FA Cup when Crewe Alexandra won 2-0 at Linthorpe Road. It was to be many, many years before Boro did make it to the semi-final of a competition they have never won.


Want to know more about SAFC’s early history? A good place to start is to collect the two books written by Paul Days on the period 1880-1890. Volume 1 covers the period 1888-87 and Volume 2 covers the years from 1887 to 1890 when the club then entered the Football league.

Many of the players who played in the ties in 1887/88 against Boro are featured in the Vintage Art print of the Sunderland team (at the top of the page) from the previous season and which can be bought online. These prints can also be bought at the SAFCSA near to the Stadium of Light and at the Back Page shop in Newcastle.