Since our beginnings in 1879, Sunderland had enjoyed exceptional growth to become one of the game’s early giants, but by this point in 1896, we were enduring a rocky period of transition.
In need of a boost and by a curious quirk of fate, we were offered the chance to get back to winning ways on what’s thought to be a key date in our then fledgling history.
The 17th of October is believed to be when James Allan and his colleagues had first decided to establish the ‘Sunderland & District Teachers’ Association Football Club’.
It would eventually become the finest team in the land and had recently developed into a limited liability company having just converted ahead of the latest campaign. John Potts Henderson was installed as the first chairman of the new structure, and he would spearhead the eventual move to Roker Park.
However, of more immediate concern were results on the pitch following the departure of another integral figure, Tom Watson.
He’d been in charge as we entered and then conquered the Football League but under replacement Robert Campbell, early results were poor. Without a win from the new season’s first eight fixtures, we were joint bottom of Division One when we welcomed back Watson and his new club Liverpool on this day.
It had been a dismal start to the season but if anybody knew what the Wearsiders were capable of, it was Watson.
Although admittedly ageing, the players still had something about them and this was our moment to show it. Exactly one hundred and thirteen years later, the Lads were aided by beach ball against the same opposition, but on this occasion, we came flying out of the blocks and did it all ourselves.
With just a few seconds played, a free kick was lifted into the box and Sunderland took the lead when Jimmy Hannah blasted home.
There was an erroneous claim in at least one match report that the opening scorer had actually been Andrew Hamilton, but the vagaries of football coverage over a century ago meant that mistakes weren’t uncommon.
Indeed, ‘The Sporting Life’ referred to the Lads’ ‘Tynecastle Road’ ground in their article the following Monday.
It was a classic example of why old print clippings shouldn’t always be taken as verbatim, but least the consensus in the press was that Sunderland did well once ahead, and by half time there was no doubt that we’d gone on to build a commanding yet deserved advantage.
Campbell’s half-brother Johnny was particularly unlucky when he carved out an opening but there was no let up in the initial exchanges.
Meanwhile, Hamilton did get on the scoresheet with a quickly taken shot, and just before the break another free kick into the danger area led to a third, when amid a melee and some rather forlorn cries of offside from the visiting defence, the grounded Hannah was still able to manoeuvre himself and cleverly roll the ball into the net.
There was a touch of fog during the proceedings and a stiff breeze in the air, but with the rain holding off, a large chunk of the second half descended into a tense midfield battle, only for things to pick up again in the final stages.
Archie Goldie’s long range free kick with just over fifteen minutes remaining was far from a consolation for Liverpool, although they fell behind again when Hamilton grabbed his second and was given a hefty whack for his troubles as he did so.
Seconds earlier, Donald Gow had seen an effort ruled out for a foul on goalkeeper Harry Storer, and then in the aftermath of Sunderland’s fourth, his full back partner Robert McNeill conceded a penalty.
McNeill was let off the hook when George Allan hit his attempt badly wide, but the Scot responded well with a quick fire double that left Sunderland hanging on despite having dominated for so long (however, some sources credit one of the strikes as a Gow own goal).
It was a pulsating end that summed up the Lads’ plight: we could still produce the goods in fits and starts but were unable to do so consistently.
Victory over the Reds was quickly followed up with another win, but further joy proved elusive and it was only a resurgence during the end of season Test Matches that kept the club in the top tier.
Relegation battles would become depressingly familiar in later years, but in 1896/1897 this was unchartered territory, with the team losing more league fixtures at home than we won for the first time ever.
This was despite clinging on against Liverpool, and whilst beating them meant that a formative anniversary could be positively marked, the Sunderland story still had its first chapter of struggle to record.
Saturday 17 October 1896
Football League Division One
Sunderland 4 (Hannah 1’, 44’, Hamilton 13’, 76’)
Liverpool 3 (Goldie 72’, Allan 85’, 88’)
Sunderland: Doig, McNeill, Gow; Ferguson, Dunlop, Wilson; Gillespie, Harvey, Campbell; Hannah, Hamilton.
Attendance c. 6,000