Sunderland’s match on this day 126 years ago was billed as a truly grand occasion; with the two finest sides in England battling it out for a place in the most prestigious football match in world football at the time, the FA Cup Final at the Crystal Palace in London. As the reporter on the Nottingham Football News explained:
It is a long time since a football match aroused such keen and widespread interest as did the meeting between the two giants of the football field. For once in a way the Cup competition of this year has been a remarkably good test of the merits of the competing clubs.
The Lads’ cup run had began with an 11-1 victory over Fairfield, in which Jimmy Millar scored five, and they proceeded through the next few rounds with home victories over top-flight rivals Bolton Wanderers and Preston North End. For the Semi Final, Tom Watson’s men made the journey to Lancashire to face Aston Villa at Blackburn’s Ewood Park on the day of the match, arriving at midday as league leaders and undisputed kings of the north.
Like Sunderland, reigning league champions Villa were challenging at the top of Division One and had also been drawn at home in their previous three games in the Cup, beating Derby County, Nottingham Forest and then second division Newcastle United 7-1 in their Quarter Final. They came into this game with confidence from that match and a little extra motivation, with a win bonus promised by their club committee of £5 each for a victory in this match and £30 for winning the tournament overall, news of which reportedly irked the local spectators gathered for the game. They were also treated to hotel accommodation and had a night at the theatre in preparation for the match.
The game also reprised the epic encounter between the two teams earlier in the year depicted in the famous painting by Thomas Hemy that hangs in the grand entrance hall at the Stadium of Light to this day, which had ended in a 4-4 draw.
The Sunderland Daily Echo & Shipping Gazette that day reports that the playing conditions were excellent, bright and sunny overhead with little wind and firm surface for the “finest two sides in the kingdom” to play on. An estimated crowd of 33,000 had been catered for by Blackburn Rovers, but in the end only 15,000 - still one of the largest crowds we had entertained all season - made it to the game.
Several thousand Brummies made the journey, as did many other day-trippers from around the country drawn by the spectacle, but a 4pm kick off time, train schedules and steep ticket pricing set by the FA meant many devoted Sunderland fans were unable to make it to the big game, and its thought only 300 hundred supporters followed the Lads down from across the north east.
Sunderland had lost four-nil against Sheffield United the previous week and made one change, bringing in McNeil for Meehan in the back line. Our breakthrough came with only 7 minutes on the clock, Jimmy Hannah poking home following a melee in the box after a long throw-in from Hughie Wilson, leaving the ‘keeper with no chance. But it was Villa who had the better of the opening exchanges overall, with their halves combining well with their forwards, drawing fouls from the Wearsiders’ stout defence.
We had further chances of our own, with Millar heading just wide from a Johnson throw-in and Donald Gow forcing a save from the Villa keeper Wilkes. But Villa kept up the pressure on Ned Doig’s goal throughout the rest of the first period, with Devey going close on a number of occasions.
Villa had to be summonsed back onto the pitch by the officials after the break, and shortly after Sunderland felt aggrieved as Hannah’s header from on the line was ruled out. The red and whites then missed a golden chance to put the game beyond the Midlands side, as John Scott’s shot was parried by Wilkes into the path of Johny Campbell, but the Edinburgh-born forward was unable to convert from close range.
Off-side decisions seemed to go against us throughout, Scott also having one chalked-off in the second half, and the tide in the game had turned. Villa then pressed hard at the Sunderland goal, leading to the equalising goal from little Steve Smith, the outside left, on 54, converting a ball in from Hodgetts. Sunderland protested for offside “not quite unreasonably” according to the Echo, and mounted a “terrific onslaught” in response, with Harvie and Miller being denied by the lucky Wilkes.
It was now end-to-end stuff, exactly what was to be expected of the biggest game of the season with the winners nailed-on to win the final. Each goal was peppered with shots and the penalty areas resembled rugby scrums at times, but it was Smith who popped up again with a beauty with twelve minutes remaining to win the day for the men in claret and blue.
The Echo concluded that the game, despite its disappointing conclusion for Sunderland, had just about lived up to the pre-match hype:
The game was far beyond the average cup tie for the skills and science displayed, and four-fifths of it was capitally contested, the crowd applauding both sides impartially. That the Villa had slightly the pull in both halves cannot be denied.. [and] all the Birmingham men seemed in perfect fettle, a thing that could not be said of the Wearsiders, some of whom certainly played below their usual form and were obviously unfit.
The expectant Sunderland fans who did witness the game were sent home with nothing but frustration at the performance of local referee Mr Lewis, and in the aftermath he was sent a threatening letter from an anonymous Lads fan, which after calling out his poor decision-making stated that were he ever to set foot on our Newcastle Road ground an organised attack would be made on him. Mr Lewis, the Echo reported later in the week, was wholly unmoved by the threat and said he’d referee wherever he was required by the league.
So many things don’t change in football, whatever era you take a look at; and from this classic encounter it seems inconvenient kick-off times, inflated ticket prices, pampered and overpaid players, bad refereeing or violent post-match threats made by angry fans have been an ever present in the English game.
Villa went on to win the Cup, beating their local rivals West Brom, and Sunderland went on to take both the league title and the World Championship match against Scottish champions Hearts later in this glorious season. In a further twist to this FA Cup tale, in September of that year the trophy itself was stolen from Birminham - never to be recovered despite a £10 reward being offered by the authorities.
Sunderland: Doig, McNeill, Gow, Wilson, McCready, Johnston, Hannah, Harvey, Campbell, Millar, Scott.
Aston Villa: Wilkes, Spencer, Welford, Reynolds, Cowan, Russell, Athersmith, Chatt, Devey, Hodgetts, Smith.