It’s that time of year when, with few league or cup fixtures to look back on, our historical eye turns to those curious fixtures Sunderland sides have played on tour in decades and centuries gone.
A year before rising tensions between the European great powers turned into the most horrendous military conflict the world had ever experienced, one that condemned to death or trauma a generation of young men from across our continent, the English Champions - at that point possibly the greatest football team on the planet alongside Aston Villa - travelled on a tour of the Hapsburg and German Empires.
It was not the first time that Bob Kyle’s legendary Sunderland side had gone on a mission to bring the message of football to cities and peoples whose rulers would soon make them Britain’s sworn enemies, but it was a tour that ended on some very sour notes.
The expedition started in Budapest on 4th May, a hotbed of football in the early 20th century, with a game against the famous Ferencvárosi TC that the Lads won at a canter, scoring nine without reply. A tougher test came three days later with a 3-2 victory over a combined Hungarian XI, before a Vienna XI was beaten 7-0 in front of 10,000 in the Austrian capital.
Sunderland’s Charlie Thompson would later report that the style of play in Austria-Hungary had greatly improved in the four years since their previous tour in 1909, although Bob Kyle reported back in a letter home that there had been some more physical play than in previous encounters with the proto-Danubian school of football.
After a particularly rough game against Budapest Athletic Club in Bratislava on 12th May, some of the Sunderland players declared that they would never come on another Continental tour again.
Nevertheless, an exhibition match against Blackburn Rovers back in the Hungarian capital was won 3-2 with the winners receiving a trophy worth £25 (over £3,000 at today’s rates) and medals worth £2 (c.£250 now) each, before they journeyed on to Berlin to play a combined Hertha Club and Berlin Club XI.
The Berliners played an attractive style whilst going down 7-0 to their English visitors in front of 9,000, and Then it was on to the seventh and final leg and the port city of Hamburg, almost due east from Sunderland.
When we think of football in the Venice of the North, there are two clubs with which we’re familiar - the big boys of Hamburger SV and the pirates of FC St Paul. However, it was two now less famous names, Altonaer FC and Eimsbutteler Turnverband, who provided the bulk of the players for Sunderland to face off against at the Stadion Hoheluft in front of a crowd of around 6,000.
Altonaer, or Altona 93, one of Germany’s oldest football clubs founded in 1893, can trace its origins back to a cricket club and is still well supported to this day. Eimsbutteler Turnverband began as a gymnastics club in 1889 that took up football in 1906, and by 1910 was supplying players for the German national team.
24-year-old Adolf Jäger of Antona was considered Germany’s greatest goalscorer of that era, he had represented his country at the 1912 Olympic games in Stockholm and was described by his national team coach Otto Nerz as “one of the greatest geniuses of German football and creator of modern combination play.”
It was he who took the brunt of Sunderland’s players’ frustrations in this game. Shoulder charging was commonplace in the English game, but less so amongst the Germans. However, the Sunderland players complained of the persistent kicking they received from their hosts, and Jimmy Richardson was given his marching orders by the local officials for retaliation.
Contemporary reports from the Reuters news agency claim that the great Charlie Buchan was also sent off before the end of the game, but in a later interview given by Charlie Thompson he may simply have taken himself off in protest at the treatment being meted out by the German side.
The notes even claim that such was the hostility shown to the Lads, umbrellas had to be employed as shields to protect them from objects lobbed by the crowd as they left the pitch.
“Complaints Against Sunderland Players” claimed the Birmingham Mail the next day. “Sunderland Players Ordered Off” wrote both the Yorkshire Post and the Manchester Courier on 20th May, with claims made by the Germans of unfair play and attacks on Jäger being relayed across the newswires, although the local press reports in the north east seem to leave out the finer details.
In an interview later in the month, however, Thomson gave his side of the story:
In Germany, charging is not allowed, but they can kick you into the air and bite you when you are coming down, and nothing is said about it. That is German football. The next English team that goes to Hamburg ought to be fitted up with armour suits.
He also claimed that the referee “did not want to get his boots dirty” and stood by the side of the pitch rather than in the middle of the field. It seems, be these accounts, almost incidental that the Brits had won the match 5-0.
This would be the last game that we played against German opposition for 41 years, militarism, mechanised war, fascism, and industrial slaughter put pay to the outward-looking evangelist spirit of early twentieth-century English football.
Indeed, the match in Hamburg was the last game we played outside of the UK until 1951 when our foreign tours re-started with a return to Vienna, and Sunderland didn’t return to Germany until May 1955, seven months after welcoming Borussia Dortmund to Roker Park in 1954.
Jäger himself went on to have a glorious career for club and country, but was killed aged 55 whilst trying to defuse an allied bomb on the banks of the River Elbe after an air raid on Hamburg on 21st November 1944. In 1999, he was named in the German team of the 20th century by Taz newspaper and Altona’s ground now carries his name - the Adolf-Jaeger-Kampfbahn.