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The tale of Hugh Wilson; the greatest half back Sunderland ever had who went onto Bristol City

Described as a “man amongst men”, Hugh Wilson was a true great of the game and an early pioneer. Regarded as the greatest half-back Sunderland ever possessed, he later played for Saturday’s opponents Bristol City.

Image: Tour Scotland

Bristol City were the second Southern side after Arsenal to enter the Football League when they played Blackpool on 7 September 1901 in a Division Two match. Aside for a brief spell, when the Robins enjoyed a five year stint in Division One between 1906-11 and a four year period between 1976-1908, the Ashton Gate club have played all their football in the lower leagues. With Sunderland having continuously remained in Division One between 1890 and 1958 then the number of games between the sides up until the ‘60s was relatively few.

There were though a number of players who represented each club and arguably the best was Hugh Wilson, the wing-half who captained the Sunderland ‘Team of All the Talents’ side of the 1890s that three times won the League in 1891/92, 1892/93 and 1894/95.

With professionalism not officially allowed in Scotland until 1893, the Ayrshire born Wilson came south from Newmilns to sign as a professional footballer for Sunderland only days before the Wearsiders were set to play their very first League match against Burnley on 13 September 1890.

Sunderland 0 v Chelsea 1 Old League Division Two match Photo by Palmer/Mirrorpix/Getty Images

Sunderland, formed in September 1880, had been elected to replace Stoke at the end of the 1889-90 season and now needed better players if they hoped to survive. They certainly got a good player in Wilson and he was to become the only man to play in the club’s first ever League game and also the first match at Roker Park on 3 September 1898.

The Scotsman was already capped for his country and had scored against Wales in a 5-0 victory in March 1890. Wilson was, in fact, despite his fine form over the following decade only selected once for his country in an 1897 match that saw Scotland beat England 2-1 away to take the Home International Championship title.

His lack of caps was due to the fact that until the late 1890s the Scottish selectors refused to allow ‘Anglos’, those who had moved over the border to ply their trade in England, to represent their country. Wilson was to play twice more for Scotland when he returned back over the border in 1901. Theses game saw Scotland beat Wales 5-1 in 1902 and draw 1-1 with Ireland in 1904.

Wilson (the furthest Sunderland player from the left in the middle row) can seen as part of the Sunderland AFC and Aston Villa line up before the 1893/94 encounter on Wearside.

The first Rory Delap

Wilson was notorious for his one-handed throws and the distance he could project the ball eventually led to the authorities changing the law to introduce the current two-handed variety.

Wilson’s first match saw Sunderland lose 3-2 and the new club initially struggled but by the time the Wearsiders beat Derby County 5-0 on the final day of the season, the club had risen to seventh in the table. Wilson netted his second goal for Sunderland in the game and he was to achieve the highly respectable total of 45 goals from 258 first team appearances by the time he left to play for Bedminster in May 1899. What aided Wilson’s scoring record was the introduction of penalty kicks at the start of the 1891-92 season and he duly scored Sunderland’s first penalty in the third match of the season against Bolton.

Again, Sunderland initially struggled but a then record 13 game consecutive winning streak between November and April set up Tom Watson’s side to win the title for the first time.

At the start of the 1892-93 season, Sunderland beat Aston Villa 6-1 at Wellington Road. Wilson scored and after the game he must have been delighted when William McGregor, the Aston Villa chairman whose idea it was to set up the Football League, entered the winning dressing room to offer his congratulations and dub Sunderland “The Team of all the Talents.”

Sunderland won the League by a then record 11 points and also scored a hundred goals. After finishing in second place in 1893-94 to Aston Villa, Sunderland captured the Division One title again in 1894-95 with centre forward Johnny Campbell finishing top scorer in Division One for the third time. Wilson scored six goals during the season including both goals in a 2-1 victory against PNE in the FA Cup. His fine passing, drive and energy were a constant part of a Sunderland side that often overran other teams.

Wilson was a man who liked to win and perhaps disappointed at events on the field at Stoke in March 1896 (Sunderland lost 5-0), he let himself and his side down by insulting the referee, the well-known Mr Kingscott of Derby, and became the first Sunderland player to be dismissed.

Wilson scored just once in the 1896-97 season and Sunderland only just avoided relegation. The 1897-98 season saw Sunderland rise back to the top and the side finished in second place behind a fine Sheffield United side in which Ernest Needham, the Blades best ever player, was outstanding.

Wilson’s final ever game for Sunderland was away to Newcastle United in April 1899 and his side won 1-0 to finish a credible seventh place in the table.

The Scotsman then left to play and skipper Bedminster in the 1899-1900 season. His new club were a professional side and played their matches at Ashton Gate. At the end of the season Bedminster merged with the then amateur club Bristol City and Wilson stayed for another season at the end which Bristol City, who played in the Southern League, were elected to the Second Division under the managership of Sam Hollis.

Having scored 29 goals in 88 matches, Wilson left Bristol to play for Third Lanark and later Kilmarnock. He eventually retired but never lost his love of Sunderland.