After Sheffield F.C. were founded in 1857, there was no stopping the progress of English football. The need for a governing body was identified soon after and six years later, in 1863, the Football Association was born – and with it a new set of rules that built on the original ‘Sheffield Rules’.
The early friendlies between sides that were soon established nationwide were a success, which led to the arrangement of the world’s first international fixture between England and Scotland. This was quickly followed by the formation of the Football Association Cup in 1871.
In the 1870s things started to move fast and it was a decade that began to bash the game into shape. The changing of ends at half-time, the sending off, the defining of the corner kick, the crossbar, the length of a game, the referee's whistle and even shinpads, were all introduced by 1880 – and this new organised approach meant the need for more fixtures.
Once the game could become professional, as legalised by the FA in 1885, the appetite of club owners for a more regular set of fixtures outside the lottery of progress within the FA Cup, was rapidly increasing. Thousands, if not tens of thousands of fans were attracted to fixtures that essentially weren’t competitive – even more were in attendance for fixtures where something rested on the result.
William McGregor, then club secretary of Aston Villa, was the driving force in identifying the potential of a structured season of competition as opposed to merely arranging friendlies where possible (which were quite often cancelled at the last minute for a variety of reasons) and hoping for progress in the cup.
But the league’s origins were controversial, and in a similar fashion to how the bigger clubs seemingly drove the talks around the briefly envisaged European Super League, a ‘big five’ began to make the decisions as to who would join them at the table.
The owners of Preston North End, Blackburn Rovers, Bolton Wanderers and West Bromwich Albion were invited by McGregor to begin discussions on what was described by the media of the day as ‘a mere money-making scheme, a speculation’.
After much deliberation the Football League (not named ‘English’ as they expected to invite Scottish clubs in the years to come) was formally founded on 17th April 1888 at a meeting at the Royal Hotel in Manchester with an initial 12 clubs that weren’t necessarily chosen on footballing merit:
- Preston North End
- Aston Villa
- Wolverhampton Wanderers
- Blackburn Rovers
- Bolton Wanderers
- West Bromwich Albion
- Derby County
- Notts County
Wolverhampton Wanderers, Sheffield Wednesday and Nottingham Forest made last-ditch applications to be admitted to the initial group at that final meeting in Manchester, but it was decided they would not be added to the list. It was also confirmed that the bottom four clubs would be required to retire from the league at the end of each season and apply for re-election along with any other club who wished to apply.
This admission to the Football League by election lasted until the mid-1980s, where the bottom-placed club had to plead their case alongside ambitious non-league clubs who wished to take their place. And not much changed from the way it was right at the beginning when politics and financial aspects were considered as much as the talent on the pitch.
This was demonstrated at the AGM following the completion of the first season of the Football League, when the bottom four were duly re-elected back into the league with the most votes. Mitchell St George’s, Sheffield Wednesday, Bootle, Newton Heath and Sunderland all received votes but not enough to join the elite. Grimsby, South Shore, Nelson and Sunderland Albion threw their hat into the ring without receiving a single vote.
At this point, the two Sunderland clubs made entirely different decisions on what to do next. Albion decided to join the Football Alliance, which was established as an alternative to the Football League to provide a competition for those who had not been permitted entry, and Sunderland decided to take another year playing friendlies.
Tom Watson’s side took full advantage of any chance they had to impress Football League opposition during scheduled friendlies throughout the year. An impressive draw against eventual champions Preston North End and a 7-2 thrashing of Aston Villa did much to impress the right people when Aston Villa club secretary and league founder dubbed us the ‘team of all talents’.
When James Marr and the Reverend Robinson Hindle attended the AGM that followed the conclusion of the second year of the Football League at the Douglas Hotel in Manchester on 2nd May 1890 to present Sunderland’s case, these results provided a solid argument for our next application for promotion to become a Football League club.
However, as is always the case, the politics entered the fray in terms of which sides would require to apply for re-election. Bolton and Aston Villa had finished level on points in 8th and 9th, which was an embarrassment for league founder and Villa club secretary William McGregor and meant that despite the rules laid out, only Stoke, Burnley and Notts County were required to retire and re-apply for their position.
Newton Heath, Bootle, Darwen, Grimsby Town, Sunderland Albion and Sunderland were the list of applicants stating their claim for a place after Sheffield Wednesday withdrew their application late in the day.
One disadvantage that the Sunderland committee had to overcome was of a geographical nature. To solve the issue of how far we were from the rest of the league and how far they would need to travel, we agreed that should we be elected, during the first year we would “make some allowance for travelling expenses to the visitors”.
This swung the vote, and by displacing Stoke City, who finished bottom, we became the first-ever club elected to the Football League, outside of the original founder members - as the Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette reported:
Thanks to the success which has attended the laborious efforts of the Sunderland committee, the town will next season be entertained to even higher expositions of football than it has ever witnessed.
Also decided at the meeting was a decision that a cup of the value of 50 guineas be purchased and would be presented to the champions following each season, it would be held by the club until a new champion was confirmed.
Tow Watson went to work and strengthened the team, by mainly looking north of the border and bringing in the likes of Jimmy Millar to the club and Sunderland were ready for the historic occasion to the extent that the local papers were confident of a top-six finish.
After a decade of playing in friendlies, on this day 131 years ago, we began life as a member of the Football League.
The visitors to Newcastle Road were Burnley, who had found themselves a tad fortunate to still be one of the 12 elite sides making up the illustrious list. They had finished 11th, only three points ahead of Stoke City who finished bottom.
According to reports, kick-off was prompt at 3.15pm in the warm sunshine, although there was a brisk wind that favoured Burnley in the first half, and despite coming back from behind to lead 2-1 after the half hour, we found ourselves 3-2 down at the break where “play continued fast till the interval”.
We had the wind in the second half at Newcastle Road, but couldn’t find a breakthrough, and our first fixture in the Football League ended in defeat in front of a reported crowd of “six or seven thousand spectators”.
This series of events has written 131 years of history that has profoundly impacted generations of families throughout Sunderland and beyond – and long may it continue.
Sunderland: Kirtley, Porteous, Oliver, Wilson, Auld, Gibson, Spence, Millar, Campbell, Hannah, Scott
Burnley: Kay, Walker, Lang, McFettridge, Spiers, Keenan, Oswald, McLardie, Lambie, Stewart, Hill