Although it is now a major part of life for many, football didn’t really start to take a stranglehold in the area until the end of the 19th century. Nowadays, Sunderland AFC helps form the essence of the city itself, but it wasn’t until this day in 1880 that the wider public got a first taste of what the game was about.
Before that, rugby was the dominant sport in the (then) town and even James Allan, the man who would found the football club, had initially became a spectator member of Sunderland Rovers rugby club following his arrival in the area to take up a teaching post. It was only after a trip back to his native Scotland for a holiday that he saw the attraction of association football and then set about introducing the sport to his colleagues.
At work and at meetings of the Sunderland and District Teachers Association he encouraged others to take up the game. He is known to have approached Walter Chappell, with whom he worked at Hendon Board School, early on in the process and they were soon joined by John Grayston, a pupil-teacher originally from Halifax who was instrumental in recording the early history of the club following its formation in October 1879 during a meeting held at the British Day School in Norfolk Street – appropriately enough right in the heart of Sunderland.
11 months on there was a public announcement that the club were ready to start competing and shortly after that they opened themselves up to non-teachers; SAFC was now ready for their first recorded match against other opposition and so, 141 years ago today, they welcomed Ferryhill to Hendon. The fixture was held at the Blue House Field, home also to Rovers, and where even now in 2021 football is still played.
Among Sunderland’s XI were both Allan and Robert Singleton, who was the club’s first captain and treasurer. Ferryhill, who were already an established side, edged the game 1-0 and while the Lads could presumably take heart from a narrow loss against experienced visitors little else is known beyond that.
Today a match prompts thousands of words to be written in the media and online, but in the following Monday’s Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette this opener garnered little over a paragraph.
Despite this, interest seems to have grown quickly. Sunderland were back in action two weeks later when they took on Ovingham and a slightly bigger report in the Echo referred to there being ‘a fair attendance’ present. With Grayston now in goal and Singleton playing outfield, the home crowd witnessed a 4-0 win for their fledgling club.
James Allan and co. then had a handful of games over the winter before ending the season with a rematch at Ferryhill. Progress appears to have been made as the return ended 0-0; baby steps perhaps but Sunderland were now well and truly on their way…