The foundation of the professional Football League in the late 1880s was centred around two “heartland” areas - Lancashire and the Midlands. The north east of England had been relatively late to the round-ball game, but ten years after James Allan had brought a football down from Scotland for the boys at Hendon Board School, Sunderland had been transformed from a Rugby town to a hotbed of the association rules.
However, two years into the League era, the Sunderland Association Football Club was still excluded from participation despite its growing reputation as “The Team of All the Talents”. The FA Cup was the premier competition and provided all sides in England (and some in Scotland and Wales too) with the opportunity to compete on an equal footing with the league’s dozen founder members.
But we weren’t the only ones to be the victims of the politics of the league, others who failed to get sufficient support for “election” into the private club included Birmingham St George’s - a midlands team nicknamed the Dragons that had reached the Quarter Final stage of the 1888 FA Cup, losing narrowly - and controversially - to eventual winners West Bromwich Albion.
The founding secretary of the League - William McGregor from Aston Villa - had in 1888 decreed that each town could only have one club, much to his own club’s benefit. Whereas Sunderland was initially considered too far north to make our inclusion economical for the other sides, Birmingham already had a team, Aston Villa, which had been playing “illegally” as professionals for years. After on-field violence erupted in a game between Villa and the Dragons in 1890, the two agreed never to play again.
And so St George’s - formed from the merger of an Aston-based church team and a local brewery side - was left out and instead joined the likes of Newton Heath (Manchester United), Small Heath (Birmingham City), The Wednesday of Sheffield, and Allan’s breakaway side, Sunderland Albion, in the rival Football Alliance, which succeeded the failed Football Combination league which ran in 1888-89.
Sunderland had been professional since it was legalised in 1885, attracting many players from Scotland, where providing remuneration to the working-class lads who were entertaining paying crowds was still seen as rather uncouth and unbecoming of a gentleman’s pursuit.
Our club, financed by iron magnate Samual Tyzack, decided that rather than join the Alliance in 1888 (we had initially joined but withdrew rather than give credence to Sunderland Albion) they would instead show both them and the Football League clubs their superiority on the pitch in a season-long series of exhibition games.
By the time St George’s arrived at Newcastle Road in November, Sunderland had already dispatched all but two of their English Football League opponents - a draw with the inaugural champions Preston North End and a 4-0 loss away at Wolves - and Glasgow Celtic and St Mirren had both beaten the Lads in test matches. We had won eight of 13 “friendly” games so far, including a 9-1 thrashing of Middlesbrough the week previous to this one.
This game was, however, the first against Alliance opposition in this season and the first and only time Sunderland would play against this team which, until Villa’s emergence, was the top side in their city. Tom Watson’s team included legends like John Auld and Johnny Campbell (215 games, 152 goals) and, Davy Hannah (92 games, 21 goals).
The day before the game, a letter to the editor of the Sunderland Echo from an “impartial observer”, objected to the claim made by Sunderland AFC that Birmingham St George’s were the “Alliance Champions”. Such was the disarray of the Alliance, nobody was quite sure who was the best team in that league.
It was the combination of Campbell and Hannah that won the game for Sunderland AFC on a sunny day on Wearside. The opening goal came within five minutes from Campbell, but Richards equalised for the visitors with a free kick from just outside the box twenty minutes later, but Hannah reestablished our lead just before the break.
The second half was all Sunderland, and Will Gibson sealed our victory with a header from a corner (although some reports say it was actually a second for Hannah) after which the Dragons ‘keeper Stansbie made a string of impressive saves. The game finished 3-1 and the reported crowd of 8,000 were sent home happy in the knowledge that the upstart league didn’t possess the quality to compete with our Lads.
Sunderland’s record that season against the Football League sides we played - seven wins in 14 games - was sufficient for us to be the first new team admissed into their structures, McGregor was now satisfied that we wouldn’t reduce the quality of the league and claiming we “had a talented man in every position”.
We had beaten his Aston Villa side 7-2 in April 1890 and we’d go on to dominate along with them for a large part of that decade, including gaining our first of six league titles in 1892.
The Alliance lasted another couple of years before being absorbed into the Football League as the Second Division. However, Birmingham St George’s and Sunderland Albion did not make this transition - both folded in 1892 under the weight of debt in the case of the Dragons and the costs and strength of competition for Albion.
Their city rivals in the Alliance, Small Heath, did join the League, and would go on to be the Birmingham City side that Sunderland encounters for the 121st time this Friday evening.