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Sunderland and Aston Villa - the two best sides in England do battle in the 1913 FA Cup final

During the late 1800s and the early 20th century, Sunderland and Aston Villa were great rivals that battled furiously over League and Cup titles. Here is the tale of the meeting between the two in the 1913 FA Cup final, which was watched by almost 122,000 people.

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FA Cup final 1913

Sunderland and Aston Villa were football’s first great rivals, with the Wearsiders capturing the League title in 1891/2, 1892/93 1894/95 and 1901-02. Villa won it in 1893/94, 1895/96, 1896/97, 1898-99, 1899/1900 and 1909/10. The West Midlanders also captured the FA Cup in 1887, 1895, 1897 and 1905.

In 1912/13 the two clubs were involved in a battle over both the League title and FA Cup. In the event Villa were to win the cup whilst Sunderland won the title, their fifth of six to date.

The FA Cup final drew a massive crowd of over 121,000, a figure beaten only once in English football when West Ham United faced and lost to Bolton Wanderers at the inaugural FA Cup Final at Wembley in 1923.

In the hours just after dawn Sunderland supporters were greatly in the majority in the capital and it was surprising to see how many had made the long and tiring journey.

Still more surprising to see was how little it had dampened their spirits. They came pouring out of Kings Cross as though 6 or 7 hours of close confinement in a crowded railway carriage was no more than incidental, and single mindedly fell upon the eating houses in the vicinity. They quickly made a marked impression on the huge provision made by caterers who obviously knew something of the capacity of the average excursionist.

One of the most interesting features of the final was the growth of the “rubber necking” industry. Parties of sightseers drove around the town under the tutelage of a stentorian guide to be told exactly what was what in tones that commanded attention. There must have been hundreds of such parties, with the newest of motor buses evident alongside the oldest of brakes. There is surely no more gigantic or unrestrained merry making in the national calendar of festivities than this annual trek - and especially when the streets were flooded with sunshine.

Charlie Buchan
The Dribbling Game

To complete a glorious day, the tournament at the Crystal Palace produced one of the best games, perhaps even the best game ever to be played in the shadow of that glazed monstrosity. It gathered together an enormous crowd. The peculiar shape of the Palace pitch makes it rather difficult to judge the pace of the game but there was never any doubt about the pace at which both teams set off. Neither side was playing their customary game and for the first few minutes Sunderland seemed all at sea. There were plainly traces of nerves in all three ranks of the team and Villa were clearly out to score early.

Hampton and Thomson began their eagerly anticipated duel early on and with neither of them standing on ceremony the exchanges were the most conspicuous if not the most pleasing incidents in the first half. Thomson once deliberately made a back for Hampton who fell heavily and Mr. Adams found it necessary to caution the Sunderland man. It was a glaring infringement but in fairness it must be said that the Villa player was constantly jumping for the ball in a way that might easily have been penalised as dangerous play.

The Villa forwards were quite distinctly better at the long passing game that both sides were employing. Hampton sent some beautiful passes out to the wings and gave Wallace opportunities that were put to such good use that the Roker defence was often severely taxed to master the rushes that followed his centres. In one of these onslaughts, Gladwin brought Stephenson crashing to the ground in the penalty area and there were groans of disappointment when Wallace sent the kick yards wide of the left hand post.

Villa had another disappointment almost immediately afterwards when Hampton put the ball into the net but the point was rightly disallowed for offside. When the Sunderland forwards did get going they reversed the Villa methods. Their halfbacks were too hard pressed to be able to pass accurately but occasionally Cuggy and Low managed to send the ball to their wing men. They were often quick to see Richardson well placed and the centre forward made ground rapidly but was always checked by a half back who was playing with more energy than skill.

By the interval Villa had the better of a well contested 1st half, but for a while after the restart Sunderland were just as much on top as Villa had been in the opening stages. All the best play was seen in a tense 20 minutes of absorbing football. It began with Martin sprinting in to catch Hardy with the ball and in the subsequent challenge the keepers left knee was so badly hurt he had to leave the field. Harrop took his place in goal and the Sunderland forwards were soon swarming round him.

Twice he extricated himself from dangerous situations in a way that had only its success as its excuse and the run of play must have raised high hopes amongst Sunderland supporters. Hardy returned after about 10 minutes with a limp and a heavily bandaged leg. He was greeted with cheers that served to put fresh heart into Villa and they attacked immediately with Wallace forcing a corner off Ness. It was placed to perfection, at just the right height and with an awkward swerve to keep it clear of the defenders.

The 1913 Sunderland FA Cup final team

It sailed hard and true to where Barber was standing and there was a hurricane of applause when the halfback promptly headed it out of Butlers reach and into the net. The game was drawing rapidly to a close when the goal was scored and Villa took no chances by kicking out from every position that threatened trouble. The forwards helped them by striving as hard for another goal as though the match depended on it. Near the close Hampton made a great attempt to hustle Butler over the line.

Although Sunderland were playing with every ounce of energy at their disposal they seemed incapable of making any impression. Martin had the goal at his mercy but his shot struck an upright and this failure sealed Sunderland’s fate.

The winning side

It is impossible to deny that Villa deserved to win. Their margin of superiority was nevertheless very slight and a little bit of luck might have decided the match either way. The Villa forwards were better but behind them there was little to choose though Thomson’s fine defensive work tipped the balance in favour of Sunderland’s halfback line.

Both sets of full backs played strongly if not brilliantly and Lyons who alone had twice prevented goals while Hardy was off injured was the best defender on the field. Altogether it was a game to live in football history.

Cup Final Stories

As you would imagine there were one or two stories that would subsequently emerge in the years after the match that are worth noting.

Walter Tinsley

George Holley had been carrying an ankle injury and was not expected to play in the Cup Final. Indeed there is a very famous picture of the Sunderland players in civilian clothes, lining up at leisure the day before that shows Holley wearing football boots rather than normal shoes. Charlie Buchan later explained that he was testing his ankle out constantly to see if he could be fit enough to play but in the end looked to have succumbed to defeat.

However in the hour before the game Walter Tinsley - Holley’s replacement - was rumoured to be so overcome with nerves having seen the massive crowd that Holley was an 11th hour team member, passed fit to play.

Tommy Barber

Barber was a Geordie who was born in West Stanley towards the outskirts of the Newcastle City limits. For him it was a poignant moment to score the winner against Newcastle’s arch rivals Sunderland AFC.

The Aston Villa goalkeeper had dreamt before the final that Barber would score the winning goal, and so it transpired. For Barber though near tragedy would strike during his service in WW1.

At The Somme, Barber was carried from the battlefield, presumed dead, and so a myth perpetuated that he had indeed passed away. In fact, although poisoned by mustard gas Barber made a recovery, turning out for non-league teams such as Stalybridge Celtic and Crystal Palace when hostilities ended. Barber did return to league football briefly with both Merthyr Town and Walsall but it didn’t last long, the gas taking its toll on Tommy’s body. He died in 1925, aged just 39.

Charity Shield

The Charity Shield was first played for in 1908 and was an evolution from the original Sheriff of London Shield played between the League Champions and the amateur equivalent (Southern League Champions). Due to the furor surrounding the events of the FA Cup final the FA did not invite Sunderland to play Plymouth Argyle in 1914.

Penalty Miss

The FA Cup Final penalty miss by Wallace was ultimately inconsequential. However it was a rare feat and would not be repeated for another 75 years.

The Crystal Palace

FA Cup finals were held at the Crystal Palace from 1895 to 1914.

Disgraceful Authorities

Following the match the Football Association’s handling of the fixture was lambasted by the media and public alike. Over 2,000 spectators were turned away from what was not an all ticket match, with many injured trying to gain admittance. One newspaper was quoted as saying: “The arrangements were of a primitive type and a disgrace to the authorities. Imperfect terracing was in a shocking state, the foot holding being treacherously insecure”.

This is a report on the 1913 FA Cup final which is taken from my co-authored book with Paul Days of Ryehill Football on the 1912/13 Sunderland side, which you can buy by clicking here.

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