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The History of Football & Sunderland AFC - Part 1: 1879-1918

In the first part of a new series, Rebecca Johnson takes a look at the origins of the game we know (and sometimes love) and how Sunderland fared in the early days of football.

Sunderland Captain Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

Although Sunderland may be going through a rough patch in its history, it hasn’t always been this way. Rolling back through time, we’ve seen the formidable Phillips and Quinn partnership, Porterfield’s FA Cup final goal in ‘73, and a 3-1 FA Cup Final win in 1937. Yet, Sunderland’s history spans further back and as modern football leagues and tournaments were beginning to form and develop into the game we know and sometimes love today, we were actually a half decent team.

Sunderland Toss
Sunderland captain, CB Thompson, tosses up against Spurs in January 1912
Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

Football’s Origins

Football has always been around in some shape or form since the beginning of the twelfth century, but the game really started to develop in the middle of the nineteenth century. Initially, the 1800s had seen football’s popularity embodied by public schools, but this dynamic was beginning to shift.

According to the Football Association’s official history, a chap called Ebenezer Morley helped create the FA after suggesting there should be standardised rules for football as there was for cricket- created by the Marylebone Cricket Club. This led to the official formation of the FA in 1863. From this, the official rules saw changes such as the standardisation of pitch size, the outlawing of hacking and the allowance of a “fair catch” on the pitch.

Early Football
Football in England c.1680
Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In the years that followed, the FA developed its own tournament and the Football Association Challenge Cup was created in 1871. A year later, international football was played with England taking on Scotland at Hamilton Crescent, finishing 0-0 and leading to the formation of the Scottish FA in 1873.

Over the next decade, more teams outside of London began to form and play under FA rules, guided by district and county associations. Subsequently, this led to issues where northern clubs were pushing for professional footballers, whereas the southern clubs preferred playing as amateurs. In 1885, the FA buckled to the pressure of the northern clubs and legalised professionalism. Subsequently, the English Football League was founded in 1888 and consisted of twelve member teams. Preston North End became the first ever league winners in the league’s debut season.

The English Football League also had a rival, the Football Alliance League, which Sunderland Albion were a part of until 1891, but this league ultimately dissolved in 1892 and its fourteen member clubs became the English Football League Second Division. The First Division then expanded to sixteen member clubs, with the Second Division taking twelve clubs, which later expanded to sixteen in 1894.

Soccer - The F.A. Cup - The Trophy
The original FA Cup
Photo by EMPICS Sport - PA Images via Getty Images

Sunderland’s heyday

So, where do Sunderland fit into all of this?

Sunderland AFC (Sunderland & District Teachers’ Association Football Club) were founded in 1879, with its first official recording being in the Sunderland Echo in 1880, leading some to believe that this is the true founding date. After joining the Football League in 1891, the new First Division became dominated by Sunderland, with the Black Cats winning league titles in 1892, 1893 and 1895. In fact, the 1891-92 season still sees a club record for the most consecutive wins (13). After suffering a dip in form in the 1896-1897 season, Sunderland were sat second bottom in the table, but it was bottom club Burnley who slipped into the Second Division. Remarkably, the lads bounced back up the following season to finish second.

The famous painting hanging at the Stadium of Light depicts Sunderland vs Aston Villa at Newcastle Road on 2 January 1895
Credit: searlecanada.org

With the 1898 season came the addition of another incredibly important part of Sunderland’s history, one which saw the bulk of Sunderland’s glories and miseries over almost the next 100 years. Roker Park became Sunderland’s home ground, with James Leslie scoring its inaugural goal in a friendly against Liverpool.

At this point, football was evidently taking shape into the modern formats we see today in terms of league structure. The dawn of a new century saw other clubs attracted to the Divisions, with the likes of Newcastle and Liverpool joining and working their way up the ranks.

Sunderland still sat firm in the First Division as a solid side lingering mid-table or higher.

Thompson
CB Thompson, Sunderland captain (1908-21) at Chelsea in 1913
Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

A new century of football

Arguably, the start of the twentieth century saw the establishment of some of the biggest football sides and saw football really beginning to take off and shape the game we know today.

Between 1900 and the start of the First World War, the Black Cats gained another two First Division titles in the 1901-02 and 1912-13 seasons. The lads also reached their first FA Cup Final in 1913 but lost out to Aston Villa in a 1-0 loss. However, the prewar period is also famous among Sunderland fans for the club’s biggest win away from home, which just so happened to be against out rivals, Newcastle United, thrashing them 9-1 in December 1908.

Soccer
Harry Martin, Sunderland (1912-22) and England
Photo by S&G/PA Images via Getty Images

Yet, just as this was happening, football was forced to take a four year break due to the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. Football’s sudden halt for four years makes one key Black Cats player’s stats even more impressive.

Charlie Buchan joined Sunderland in 1911, and was an integral cog in the 1913 machine that nearly won the double. Between 1911 and 1925, he made 379 appearances and scored 209 goals, an utter goal-scoring machine at the front of the field. Buchan was Sunderland’s leading goalscorer for several seasons before parting ways with the club and opening the door for another club legend, David Halliday, in 1925.

We’ll pick up the story of Sunderland between the wars in the next part of this series.

Goalkeeper Jumps
Sunderland ‘keeper Joe Butler during the 1913 FA Cup Semi Final
Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images