It is 130 years since Sunderland played arguably one of the most highly anticipated games in their history. Tom Watson’s reigning Football League champions welcomed table toppers Preston North End to Newcastle Road on this day in 1892, when football fever swept through the town on a scale rarely seen before.
It was clear in the build-up just how big an occasion this was expected to be. The club committee decided to increase admission charges and lay out what was reported in the press as the “most elaborate arrangements” for entry into the ground, whilst several train providers and newspapers looked to cash in on the event too.
A host of ‘specials’ were organised, with the first direct service leaving Preston at 06:15 and extra trains also coming into Sunderland from Newcastle upon Tyne, South Shields, Bishop Auckland, Darlington, Hartlepool, Saltburn and Stockton-on-Tees. The Central Post Office in John Street was in full swing too, with additional telegraph officials being drafted in as staff looked to uphold the fine reputation they had already garnered nationally for their football communications.
Several titles ordered descriptive accounts of the match, with one Preston reporter being expected to telegraph 3,000 words alone. Private telegraphs were also dispatched back to Lancashire every 15 minutes, but sadly not all of the arrangements ran smoothly.
Two days before the game the Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette had to clarify ticketing details following some “misunderstanding” amongst fans. Supporters wanting to watch from the north stand were to pay at that entrance (1s 6d for the wings, 2s 6d for the covered section and 5s for the vice-presidents area), whilst those entering the field elsewhere had to initially pay 6d and could then elect to either go behind one of the goals (east and west stands) for no extra cost or pay an additional charge for the south stand (6d for the wings, and 1s for the centre).
Members and subscribers were able to gain entrance as usual, but another long-standing practise was treated with some suspicion by the visitors, who arrived on Wearside the day before the fixture and were contacted by Watson at their lodgings. As was standard from host clubs during the era he offered his services as a courtesy yet was roundly ignored – North End seemingly fearing it was ruse of some sort despite this being a common occurrence.
It all added to the big-time sense however, and thankfully for Watson his own side were much more amenable towards him. Preston looked relaxed during the warm-up and had a team made up of powerful athletes, and whilst they were in the ascendency during the first half Sunderland started to dictate the pace the longer things went on. Ted Doig had been in the thick of things as he defended the ‘road goal’ before the break, but it became one way traffic once the Lads had switched halves.
Fans could sense that Preston were tiring, and with the opposition starting to rely on rough tactics to stay in the game the noise from the crowd intensified. The volume rose further still when Sunderland went ahead with only seven minutes left, although it did take some sections a moment or two to realise what had happened after Johnny Campbell had poked the ball home during a frenzied goalmouth scramble. The Echo later stated that when the penny dropped “wave upon wave of cheers” immediately followed, with “hats being raised and FLUNG FRANTICALLY in the air, regardless of consequences”.
If the telegrams mentioned earlier were the 1890s version of goal alerts on your smart phone, the celebrations would probably be described now as ‘limbs’. They heralded an important goal and moments later the scenes would be repeated as Jimmy Hannah hit a clean shot past goalkeeper Jimmy Trainer to avoid any last-minute tension and wrap up a vital victory. He and Campbell had both scored a week earlier in a friendly at Middlesbrough but this time it was for real, and the win was huge for Sunderland.
Victory brought them within two points of league leaders Preston but with three games on hand over their rivals. 1892-93 would eventually end with another title being achieved, but in the immediate aftermath people were able to look back on a significant occasion for the both the team and the town. The following Monday’s edition of the Echo gave over several column inches to the match and everything that surrounded it, starting with the grandiose comment that “No football event of the present season, and few of any times, ancient, medieval, or modern, has created so much PUBLIC EXCITEMENT as that between these celebrated exponents of the dribbling code.”
It then went on to detail some of the numbers involved, with local businesses enjoying a boost in trade thanks to an influx “of strangers”. Some of the specials were noted as having brought in the following numbers: Preston (300), Newcastle upon Tyne (600), Darlington (700), Hartlepool (800), Saltburn (400) and Stockton-on-Tees (300), whilst ordinary timetable trains also saw boosted passenger figures with 1,2000 being conveyed from Newcastle over the course of the day, 1,000 heading across from Shields and 800 from Durham.
The club clocked up big numbers too, posting what was thought to be a record league attendance of around 18,000 – of which 800 were members. This resulted in takings of over £600, the previous record receipts having been £420 for a cup tie against Everton the year earlier. The monies also dwarfed those taken when Preston had last visited, with the £390 being brought in on that occasion having been Sunderland’s previous league record.
The stats and anecdotes provide a fascinating insight into what football was like over a century ago, but the hullabaloo surrounding the fixture was secondary to the main event – and on this occasion Sunderland did the business.
Saturday 17 December 1892
Football League Division One
Sunderland 2 (Campbell 83, Hannah 86)
Preston North End 0
Sunderland: Doig; Porteous, Smellie; Wilson, Auld, Gibson; Gillespie, Harvey, Campbell, D. Hannah, J. Hannah.
Newcastle Road, attendance c. 18,000