In January 1890 Sunderland AFC was a decade old and not yet elected to the newly formed Football League, but still were feared as one of the best sides in England and had ambitions of winning the FA Cup.
Previous seasons had seen Sunderland competing in the preliminary rounds, including our first competitive game against Redcar in 1885, and in 1889 they withdrew from the competition rather than face breakaway rivals Sunderland Albion and provide James Allen’s amateurs with a lucrative payday.
Their playing schedule in the years before their admittance into the League consisted of County Cup matches and friendly “test matches” or “ordinary” ties against clubs from across northern England and Scotland. Regular opponents included Newcastle West End, Glasgow Rangers, and Glasgow Celtic. The first game they played in the 1889-90 season was a home tie against the mighty Blackburn Rovers, which Sunderland won 1-0 with a goal from Johnny Campbell.
So when in 1890 we travelled to Lancashire to take on Rovers on their home turf a few months later in the First Round (Proper) of the FA Cup, they were confident of giving them a good game and, by all accounts, hopeful of forcing a money-spinning replay on Wearside against the already three-time winners of the competition.
Tom Watson, the club secretary, had made quite an impression on the people of Blackburn, coming down on the Thursday prior to the game to prepare for the arrival of his squad and their supporters on the 10pm train the night before Saturday afternoon kick-off, who had left Sunderland earlier on the Friday along with their rivals Albion, whose own cup tie was at Bootle.
The mill towns north of Manchester, as well as the industrial English Midlands, were the hotbed of the game and their clubs formed the entirety of the League at the time. As such, it was no surprise that also staying in town on the same evening was the West Brom side that was due to take on Accrington Stanley in the cup. By all accounts, a merry time was had at the Baggies’ lodgings at the White Bull, with Watson recounting stories of the buzz the game had created back up in the North East to the local press.
The game kicked off at 2.30 pm the next day, was described in the Sheffield Evening Telegraph:
At Blackburn, before 10,000 spectators, including host from Sunderland. Both teams had their full strength. The Rovers won the toss and played with tbe wind. For first half hour the Rovers pressed hard, but Kirkley in goal was really grand, while the defence the visitors was fierce. Once or twice Sunderland broke away. From a fine rush by the Rovers Townley scored the first goal amid cheers. Score at half-time Rovers, 1 goal; Sunderland, 0.
After resumption, in the first five minutes Hannah raced away, and after hitting the post equalised for the visitors amid tremendous excitement. Lofthouse spurted for the Rovers, and passing to Townley that player scored again for the Rovers. Not be beaten Hannah equalised for Sunderland. The game continued exciting. At the usual time the game was even. Extra time was played. The Rovers scored in a scrimmage, and scored again from a corner. Result:
BLACKBURN ROVERS... 4 goals.
SUNDERLAND... 2 goals.
All was not right with the outcome, according to the visitors. Sunderland ended the game with Will Gibson and Johnny Campbell “in the hands of the doctors” and the playing surface was not conducive to a game played by association rules.
The following week, Sunderland captain John Auld accompanied Watson to London to lodge an appeal with Football Association to have the result overturned and the tie given to us on account of an “unplayable pitch” at the Leamington Road ground. The appeal was, however, rejected by the officials, and Sunderland were ejected from the competition.
Sunderland Albion managed to beat Bootle 3-1, but their Merseyside opponents lodged their own complaint with the FA and were awarded the tie on the grounds that Albion had fielded two ineligible players.
They would only last another three years (until being reformed in 2020 as an amateur side in local Wearside football) whereas Sunderland AFC’s prowess, exemplified by taking one of the game’s giants to extra time, resulting in us being the first team elected to the Football League the following year - a competition we would then dominate for much of the rest of the final decade of the nineteenth century.