Just over three weeks ago we returned to the Stadium of Light to see us take on Wigan Athletic in what was the first time since 7th March 2020. A gap of around 17 months.
It was an emotional occasion for some following the pandemic for a multitude of varying reasons and it will likely become a day that is talked about in the decades to come. People will talk of how the world turned on its head and freedoms were lost. Then describe how events like the return of crowds at the Stadium of Light on 7th August 2021 represented a sign of returning to our everyday life.
The 30th August also has the distinction of having the significance of life returning back to the people, as well as being the final time a fixture was held at Roker Park before a season was abandoned.
First, we need to go back 106 years ago to the end of the 1914-15 season. Two years after lifting the league title, Sunderland closed the season on 24th April 1915 with a convincing 5-0 over Tottenham Hotspur that saw us finish 8th in the First Division.
What makes the date of this game stand out is that it was scheduled eight months after Great Britain’s involvement in what became known as the First World War.
This was confirmed at 11pm on 4th August 1914, after an ultimatum demanding the removal of troops from neutral Belgium was ignored, resulting in hostilities commencing with Imperial Germany.
Within the first two months, Kitchener’s ‘new army’ had almost one million recruits who had enlisted voluntarily for a conflict that would ultimately claim the lives of almost one million soldiers.
This meant that the 1914-15 season would be played under a cloud of controversy with the question being, ‘how could football continue while soldiers were dying on the battlefields of Europe?’
Once the season was complete, there was no other option than to suspend the Football League indefinitely. Players such as Charlie Buchan, who scored a hattrick in the final fixture with Spurs, went off to serve with the Grenadier Guards and then the Sherwood Foresters. He was awarded the Military Medal in 1918.
The armistice was signed with Germany on 11th November 1918 as hostilities finally came to a halt and in early 1919 football slowly returned in the form of local leagues such as the Northern Victory League, with it being too late in the calendar to resume the usual Football League schedule.
And so, on 30th August 1919, after just over four years without a competitive fixture, Sunderland kicked off our Football League Division One campaign, once again under the guidance of manager Robert Kyle.
Estimates vary but it was thought that 35,000 were present to witness the return of competitive football and it was a sight to behold all over the country as the Evening Chronicle described.
There was a rare zest at the opening of the football season, and great was the eagerness to scan the columns of the football edition of the Evening Chronicle to see how the League teams had fared.
It was quite like the old days before the war, and in its way furnished us with exhilarating testimony that we really were living in peace times once again.
Seven of the Sunderland starting XI were in the side that defeated Spurs back in April 1915, with Charlie Buchan picking up where he left off as he scored the opener in a 2-1 victory over Aston Villa.
Newcastle and Middlesbrough also both managed to win away from home, but South Shields couldn’t make it a clean sweep for the local sides as they were beaten at Fulham in what was their debut in Division Two as once again the Evening Chronicle reported.
As it was, the Seasiders made a capital show at Fulham, only losing by an odd goal after a very hard fought game. “Gan on Sheels!”. We shall await your first home match with interest.
Despite further controversy over an increase in the price of admission, almost a quarter of a million people were present across the 11 fixtures in the First Division. There was also much talk of the attire in the discussion regarding the significance of the day.
It was quite natural that a feature of the crowds should be the almost total absence of khaki. Last season, just after armistice, khaki was everywhere. Now demobilisation has removed the Army uniform, and the spectators wore “civvies” and the familiar cap or bowler.
One thing is quite for certain, and that is that the Army training has given an impetus to public interest in football which will make the coming season a record one in the history of the game.
Twenty-years later the Football Association did not repeat the decision of 1914 to continue despite the outbreak of war, but suspended all divisions almost immediately. On Friday 1st September 1939, Germany invaded Poland and a day later the third and ultimately final fixtures of the season in all divisions were played out with the implementation of the Emergency Powers Act 1939.
That final Sunderland fixture ended in a 5-2 defeat at Highbury in the capital where the kick-off time was moved to 5pm as plans to evacuate children from London were already underway, but three days earlier was our final game played at Roker Park.
The season had got underway as the seeming inevitability of war was growing ever closer.
On the 26th August 1939 Sunderland opened up at Roker Park with a 3-0 victory over Derby County and four days later on the following Wednesday, Huddersfield Town travelled to the North-East, but the football was a poor distraction as all eyes were on the latest news to come out of London.
As the Daily Mirror reported on the morning of Sunderland’s fixture with Huddersfield Town, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and Lord Halifax had been studying the reply which was handed to Sir Neville Henderson in the Berlin Chancellery at 7.15pm the previous evening.
Sir Neville remained in Hitler’s private study for twenty-five minutes. Hitler and von Ribbentrop gave him verbal explanations of the German point of view. Text of the note remains a close secret, but in Berlin it is believed, says British United Press. that the Nazis are showing inclination to negotiate.
Although this had the appearance that a positive outcome was possible, the Prime Minister was preparing the country for war.
I cannot say that the danger of war has in any way receded. Our obligation to Poland will be carried out. We will not abate any jot of our resolution to hold fast to the lines which we have laid down ourselves.
The Prime Minister also announced that all of Britain’s defences are ready to resist attack. The fleet was prepared and the R.A.F. was at war and the Daily Mirror in their editorial summed up the situation.
We have said our last word. We are ready. There is nothing more to be done for the salvation of peace. War, if it has to come, will not be our responsibility. We wait for the the decision: it is with Hitler.
In those circumstances, it is difficult to imagine the thoughts going through the minds of the 16,315 people who were at Roker Park against the backdrop of those events and reports going to print on the same day.
Incidentally, we lost 2-1.