Only four years prior to our day in question, at the end of the 1894-95 season, we had just won our third League championship in our first five years since becoming an affiliated Football League side, and in doing so had firmly established ourselves as one of the big hitters of English football.
Only two years later however, at the end of the 1896-97 season, we required success in the relegation/promotion Test Matches (an early form of play-offs) to continue life in the top flight.
The season following our near miss with the drop, which was our last at Newcastle Road before moving to Roker Park, we maybe surprisingly finished runners-up to Sheffield United, finishing five points behind the Blades.
Our inaugural season at Roker Park that followed, concluding in April 1899, was by comparison, an unusually uneventful season as we finished a respectable 7th in Division One.
This meant that Sunderland found themselves in a period of transition in the summer of 1899.
Only two members of our previous championship-winning side remained, and we were also beginning life under a new club Secretary/Manager in the form of Scottish-born Alex Mackie.
To provide an early test to gauge the speed of this transition, our season opener saw current champions Aston Villa travel to Roker Park.
The 2nd September 1899 saw the kick-off of the new football season that would take us into the 20th century, as Sunderland went down by a single goal to the current champions.
But the estimated 27,000 within Roker (which despite being low due to issues with the railways, saw takings for the game at £730 - only bettered by the Roker Park’s opening game the previous September), departed with hope for success for the season ahead, as reported in the Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette.
Though disappointed at the result of Sunderland’s opening League fixture I don’t think there is anything to be cast down about.
When one looks at the array of famous players that represented Aston Villa it seems really surprising that they could only manage to defeat the Wearsiders by what was undoubtedly a luck goal.
A widely reported incident also occurred involving a Sunderland fan and the Aston Villa squad on their journey home:
On the same day as our home defeat to Aston Villa, a football team arrived in Southampton from Bloemfontein in the Orange Free State in South Africa.
They arrived on the Union Steamship Company vessel the SS Gaika, and the side comprised of 16 black South Africans who were an amateur football team of Basuto. They were affiliated to the Orange Free State Football Association and were scheduled to play around 49 fixtures in Great Britain and Europe over the course of four months.
It was the first-ever football team to tour abroad from South Africa, and with the political situation as it stood, the team attracted attention from the contemporary British press, who consistently referred to the tourists as the “Kaffirs”, a term now banned in South Africa, but at the time readily used by the press and the players themselves during the tour - as the Hampshire Advertiser reported their arrival:
Their arrival awakened much interest, and the physical proportions of the dusky warriors created a very favourable impression. Later, they left in the Union Company’s special train for London.
They open their season on Wednesday next against Newcastle United, and on the following day will journey to Sunderland, where they will fulfil a fixture. They are stated to be a first-class combination, but whether they will be able to hold their own against the foremost league clubs is a matter open to doubt.
Football was introduced in South Africa mainly due to the discovery of diamonds and gold in the latter half of the 19th century, which was then popularised further by the British military, who were stationed there during the Anglo-Zulu War and the Anglo-Transvaal War in the late 1870’s and early 1880’s.
In 1897, the popularity of football in South Africa was enhanced and capitalised on when the Corinthian Football Club toured the country, which was the first foreign tour undertaken by a British football team.
As discussions were underway in early 1899 to schedule the tour, the Football Echo were already questioning the validity and the choice of side that were rumoured to be touring, with questions such as “what sort of football will these dark beauties play?” and suggestions that a “Boer Football Association” might be more suitable opposition.
These articles were repeated across the British press of the time, and the tour was even reported internationally in the Chicago Tribune and Brooklyn Daily Eagle in the United States and the Evening Post in New Zealand.
White officials M. D. ‘Toffy’ Roberts, Lionel Nathan, Percy Day and Arthur Moss, who were representatives of the Orange Free State Football Association also toured with the team, where an incentive behind the tour was an agreed payment of 50% of any gate receipts acquired during the four months of fixtures that lay ahead.
To emphasise the environment the team from South Africa had entered as they arrived in Southampton, we can take the example of Frank Fillis’ (a lesser-known form of P.T Barnum) circus that during 1899 - at the same time as the team arrived - was performing at Earl’s Court in London.
It was advertised as an exhibition of “Savage South Africa” where 200 black South African “performers” were on “display” to the public in what was named as a “Kaffir Kraal”.
The Daily Mail would eventually call for the show to be closed, and not due to the savagery of whole thing, but because an attractive white woman, Florence Jewell, had met and fallen in love with the star performer Prince Lobengula.
The Daily Mail report on the matter included a belief that “such behaviour would weaken and lead to the downfall of the Empire”. It’s a story worth following up on in exchange for five minutes of your time.
And despite everything, those 16 young men from South Africa, who simply travelled for a game of football, got their tour underway on the 5th September at St James’ Park in front of a crowd of around 6,000 and were beaten 6-3. The touring side was described in the Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette as “evidently lacking in condition after the long voyage”.
The following evening, they made the trip to Roker Park to face what on paper was a Sunderland reserve side, and in what was reported as beautiful September sunshine, they wore “red jerseys and dark knickers” in front of around 4,000 (although reports vary from 3,000 up to as many as 6,000).
The game would end in a 5-3 victory for the home side in what at times had the feeling of an exhibition game, as described once again in the Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette:
The Kaffirs were no match for the weak team that represented Sunderland. Physically they are a fine lot, and played with any amount of energy, but exhibited an elementary knowledge of the game.
In the first half Sunderland did little more than amuse themselves, but later the Kaffirs improved considerably, though even then Sunderland were the much better side. The Kaffirs possess a clever custodian in Adolph, who was repeatedly cheered, and a good pair of backs; but, with the exception of Kortie, outside right, and Twayi, centre forward, none of the others gave any real trouble.
It is only fair to the Kaffirs to point out that they have just come from a long sea voyage, and have not had time to get themselves thoroughly fit to meet class teams. There is no doubt they will greatly improve before very long.
Despite defeat in every game across Britain, they gained credit for their effort and endeavour, but an added complication arose as the tour progressed.
They had arrived in Southampton a mere four weeks prior to the outbreak of the South African War, or what is termed the Second Boer War, which was fought between Britain and the Boer states, that included the South African Republic and the Orange Free State.
As tensions escalated, The Football Echo noted that in the case of war “it will be rather a joke if we keep on playing against the enemy”.
But the day before a scheduled fixture for the touring side at Nottingham Forest, war broke out on 11 October 1899 when the British government rejected an ultimatum.
The touring side's captain Joseph Twayi, in one of many similar statements made by members of the team, stated “I like England very much for its freedom. The people are so good to us, and they treat us splendidly. Their kindness makes me rejoice, for we Kaffirs have no freedom allowed by the Boers. If the British fight we fight for them, for we would like our revenge”.
In late November, the South African side played out a fixture with Aston Villa that attracted a crowd of around 4,000 where the takings from the match totalled £61 (~£8,000 today). The South Africans not only suggested this should be donated to the Birmingham Daily Mail Reservists’ Fund in support of the British war effort, but during the game they wore red, white and blue ribbons on their shirts during the game “as a manifestation of their loyalty to the Queen”.
Those 16 young men from South Africa might have only won one of their 49 fixtures during their tour (against French side SC Tourcoing), but that didn’t make a difference. They gained plaudits and credit wherever they travelled, despite the backdrop of unthinkable racism, a generally sceptical, if not humiliating reporting by sections of the British press, and the breakout of war in South Africa during their stay.
They finished up with their final fixture on 2nd January 1900 against Aberdare and boarded their steamer back to Cape Town four days later, as true pioneers and trailblazers as they entered the 20th century.