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In conversation with... The Bilbao Black Cats

Sunderland and Athletic Bilbao have a historical connection dating back over a century - and now we have a supporters group to mark the relationship

Lee and Jonny are the founders of the Bilbao Black Cats

Sunderland AFC have spawned supporters branches around the world, with thousands of overseas fans following the lads.

One of the newest branches to be created by our hardcore fans is located not quite as far away as Australia and the UAE, but it is one that the founders are keen to use to represent the historical links our club has with their (now) home town.

The Bilbao Black Cats has been set up by two Sunderland fans originally from County Durham to bring together Sunderland fans in the region, to promote Sunderland, and to strengthen the historical links between Sunderland AFC and Athletic Bilbao.

Jonny and Lee spoke to Roker Report about their exciting new branch, the history between the two clubs, and how fans can get along to meet-ups.

A trip to Trafalgar Square pre-Wembley

Roker Report: First up - what are your names, where are you originally from, and how did you end up in Bilbao?

Jonny: Hi, I’m Jonny. Well, I guess it was destiny that I live abroad now. I was born in Zambia as my father worked for NEI Reyrolle and have travelled all around the world.

My family is from Usworth/Castletown. I came home in 1983 to live in Sherburn Village and due to mates, I was baptised as a Sunderland fan, fighting at primary school in Gilesgate for the recognition that Sunderland ruled!

“First match at Roker Park against Liverpool soon after, I became a regular in the clock stand.

I adored Gabbiadini and dreamed of living abroad with an exotic sounding son! So Bilbao it is with our Jack!

Lee: I wish I could top Jonny’s journey but sadly mine is a little bit more simple than his. I’m Lee, I was born in Bishop Auckland hospital and raised in a little mining town called Willington in County Durham.

I’ve been a Sunderland fan for as long as I can remember. According to my dad, my first game was at Roker Park when I was 3 years old, though, he’s forgotten who it was against.

I have a vague memory of being hoisted up and passed around people in the clockstand so I could watch the match. My boyhood hero was Craig Russell then on to Magic Johnston and Julio so I guess I had a thing for left wingers.

I left England aged 20 in 2005 to look for something different which I certainly found and ended up combining jobs as a delivery driver for a pizza company and an English teacher in Vitoria-Gasteiz, known for Deportivo Alaves.

I moved to Vizcaya (Biscay) in 2013 and have since developed a deeper affection for Athletic Club Bilbao.

The city, the people and the club constantly give me reminders of both my upbringing in County Durham and the pride of being a supporter of a unique club.


RR: Why did you want to set up the branch?

Lee: To tell you the truth, it’s something that’s been in the pipeline for several years but with the pandemic and everything it just got put on the back burner up until recently.

Jonny and myself first met in 2013. We’re both Sunderland mad so I suppose eventually we just had to create something.

We’ve always had a soft spot for Athletic due to the links with Sunderland from the very early days of football in Bilbao, which are briefly mentioned on Athletic Club Bilbao’s website in the history section and the red and white stripes of course.

We’ve also noticed a massive spike in interest in the club since the release of Sunderland ‘Til I Die so basically we’d like to try and build on that and create something special over here.

Jonny: I guess as Lee alluded to, we’ve been getting together for years to watch matches, often being a shoulder to cry on for each other :). So it’s kind of a natural evolution.

That said, there have been two pivotal points which made me feel, we have to do something more:

Seeing the lasting memories I created with my mates from Bilbao who I took to watch Sunderland V Swansea at the Stadium of Light 5 years ago and by watching my son grow up as a Sunderland fan even though he’s a born and bred Bilbaino.

The logo of the new branch

RR: How did you go about creating the branch?

Lee: “It was quite simple really. We just got in touch with Chris Waters, the supporters liaison officer for the club and he was extremely helpful as always which everyone probably already knows. He’s an absolute credit to the club.

Whenever we’ve had a question or an issue, he’s always been swift and precise with his responses. Keep up the great work, Chris!

Jonny: Ditto - Cheers Chris!

RR: Have you got any plans for the branch this season?

Lee: Well, first of all, 2 of the branch members will be in attendance for the Coventry game and then the 4 founding members (Jonny, myself and our kids) will be in attendance for the QPR game.

We’re looking into organising a trip to the Stadium of Light for the Millwall game in September and are hopeful of getting a few of the newest members to come along, most of whom are locals.

Apart from that, we’ll be looking to hold regular meetups to watch games, have lunch and plenty of beverages.

Jonny: I guess what we’re really trying to do is establish a community for the branch and perhaps move venues now and again, as much as we like our sofas it’d be nice to upgrade!


RR: How can people get in touch to join?

Lee: If anyone wants to find us, our email address is bilbaoblackcats@gmail.com.

We also have our Twitter page Bilbao Black Cats Twitter. We’re working on an Instagram page too which will be mainly used for photos and memories.

We’d also like to give any SAFC fan visiting the Bilbao area a warm welcome and a mini tour of the city and a taste of the local gastronomy which we’re sure they’ll enjoy.

The first record of an associate football match in Spain was between “Barmston Rangers” and “Abydos and others” on 29 June 1889, with details appearing in the Sunderland Echo in July 1889.
Sunderland Echo & Shipping Gazette, Thursday 04 July 1889

RR: How many people are on board in the branch so far?

Lee: Originally, it was just Jonny, his son Jack, myself and my eldest daughter Julia. However, we’ve added a Welsh Mackem called Chris, who lives over here, to our ranks.

My youngest daughter won’t get out of being a member in the future that’s for sure.

We actually met three local lads on the plane over to London for the final and they told us that they became Sunderland fans after watching Sunderland ‘Til I Die and actually had tickets but in the Wycombe end which they obtained through a Spanish YouTube channel with links to Wycombe Wanderers.

Anyway, those three lads have found us on Twitter and have been in touch about joining the branch. We’ve also got a number of local friends here who have expressed an interest in joining the branch, especially if it includes football, food and beer. We are confident that the number of members in the branch will rise quite quickly.

FC Barcelona v Athletic de Bilbao - La Liga Santander Photo by David S. Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images

RR: Are you keen to mark the historical links between Bilbao and Sunderland?

Lee: Absolutely! There is a huge connection between the cities of Sunderland and Bilbao and not to mention County Durham's mining history, which we think people in Sunderland and surrounding areas are more aware of than people from here, which is why Jonny, myself and the rest of the Bilbao Black Cats would like to raise awareness of that link to the locals over here as they often associate their red and white shirts to Southampton and not Sunderland which we believe is a mistake after doing some digging on this topic.

Sunderland Echo & Shipping Gazette, Tuesday 16 July 1889

If you go back to 1910 when Athletic changed to red and white stripes, Southampton was only a regional team and not as well-known whereas Sunderland was one of the best teams in England having won the league 4 times between 1891-1902 and finished in the top 3 several times up to 1910.

Apart from that, the design of the stripes on the shirt that Athletic wore in 1910 was much more similar to Sunderland than Southampton.

We believe there’s some confusion as for Spanish speakers, the pronunciation of Sunderland and Southampton is quite similar on the first syllable.

The link to Southampton is purely based on the fact that the boat on which the Athletic directors took, went to Southampton. So, that’s why we think fans associate their shirts with Southampton but as we’ve mentioned before, there’s a difference in the stripes design.

We both actually have contacts who work directly for Athletic Club and we’re extremely hopeful of being part of some sort of relationship between the two clubs so all we can say for now is watch this space…

Seamen from Sunderland played football in Bilbao in 1890.
Sunderland Echo & Shipping Gazette, Saturday 11 January 1890

Jonny: I’d say that in answer to this point, this is written into the branch’s DNA and one we’re passionate about doing. I’ve always found that the people here have been good to English people, and they’ve made me aware of the historical links to England.

Jack’s grandma here is adamant it was the miners who played a part in forming Athletic Club and as Durham is rich in mining heritage I’d love to find out that this is true!!

Not only that though, lots of people still talk about the time Athletic Bilbao beat Newcastle in the 90’s, referring to it as a very special atmosphere. And what I really want them to say is wow, those Sunderland fans, we thought Newcastle fans were good but these Mackems are something special - Passion, Pride, Wearside!

BILBAO V NEWCASTLE UTD

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