On this day 115 years ago, a round of big money spending amongst the north eastern teams continued, as the FA confirmed Alf Common’s return to Roker Park.
Common was born in Sunderland in 1880, and grew up in Millfield just outside the town centre. As a youth he played for South Hylton FC Juniors and then Jarrow, before signing as a Sunderland player for the first time, aged 20, in 1900.
Sunderland finished second in the league in his first season, and the club was persuaded to sell their young forward to Sheffield United for £325 the following summer. He went on to win the FA Cup with the Blades and was selected for the national side in May 1904, scoring twice on his debut against Wales in Wrexham and then again in his next game against Ireland. Common was now hot property.
Sunderland funded the purchase from the sale of Scottish right-back Andy McCrombie - who had been embroiled in a dispute with the club over a business loan and the takings from a benefit match, which led to huge financial scandal - to local rivals Newcastle United for a record-breaking £700 in February 1904.
Despite winning the FA Cup in 1901 and scoring 24 goals in 79 appearances over four seasons with the Bramall Lane club, Common longed to return to the north east, turning down a new offer from United and an approach from big-spending Blackburn Rovers in order to force a move back to Sunderland.
We paid £520 to bring him home, as Sunderland looked to regain their status at the top of Division 1 during a period of change and upheaval at the club, although the reported fee received for McCrombie earlier in the year calls into question the commonly held belief that we had broken the world transfer record in making this deal.
Common wanted to settle down, planning to run his father-in-law’s business back on Wearside, and earlier in the month was reported to be taking wickets and scoring runs in the Sunderland District League for Fulwell Cricket Club. This was very much the era of footballers putting on their whites during the summer months, and Alf was joined in his transfer from Sheffield United by renowned Somerset wicketkeeper, Albert Lewis.
Lewis had been brought in to replace the legendary Sunderland goalkeeper Ned Doig, who was due to follow his former manager Tom Watson down to recently relegated Liverpool. However, Doig’s £150 transfer was blocked by the FA because he’d already been offered the maximum wage by Sunderland, but it eventually went through. Player power existed even then.
The cricketing westcountryman Lewis would, however, only play the opening four games of the new season, last featuring in an away defeat to Wolves and never playing again for the club. Sunderland then used several other goalkeepers as they yet again failed to challenge for the title in 1904-5. It was a period of rebuilding all round at the club, but maybe that's a story for another time.
Common scored 6 in 20 for Sunderland that year, but his second spell was cut short as he certainly did gain the status of the world’s most expensive footballer, when Middlesbrough, in a successful gamble that his goals would see them survive relegation, broke the £1,000 barrier to bring him to North Yorkshire in February 1905.
The amounts of money being spent on footballers in the early twentieth century may pale into insignificance nowadays, when £100m fees are being negotiated for England centre-forwards. At the time, Commons’ transfers attracted the opprobrium of the press in much the same moralistic way as today’s fees do in the tabloids, his move to ‘Boro famously being described as “flesh and blood for sale”. There is, it seems, nothing new under the sun.