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On This Day (24th April 1915): Sunderland play final game before football stops for war

We’ve played on the final day under nail biting circumstances, but back in 1915 we played our final fixture before football was suspended due to war.

Photo by Central Press/Getty Images

We’ve all experienced fixtures on the final day of a season having extra meaning for one reason or another, but back on this day in 1915, Sunderland were taking on Tottenham Hotspur at Roker Park in the knowledge that football would be suspended due to war.

It had been almost a year since Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated on the 28th June 1914 and when German troops crossed the Belgian border that saw the declaration of war on 4th August 1914.

Within the first two months, Kitchener’s ‘new army’ had almost one million recruits who had enlisted voluntarily for a conflict that would ultimately claim the lives of almost one million soldiers.

But controversially, football continued.

Within days of Kaiser Wilhelm’s decision to escalate proceedings in August 1914, eventually capturing Liege within two weeks of crossing the border, the committee who managed the Football League convened to discuss the next steps - and decided it would make no impact to what would be the 1914-15 season.

There was a feeling around the decision that although the season would begin as planned, it would be halted fairly soon after the opening day. The thinking was a similar one that was behind the effort to continue with the football calendar throughout covid. On some levels, it didn’t make sense but from a perspective of moral and focus, it has merits.

There were opponents to the decision who spoke out publicly such as WG Grace and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who said:

If a footballer has strength of limb, let them march and serve in battle.

But, the show went on as planned and incredibly the whole season was played out, despite public opinion turning against the continuation as the season progressed. Some players left to join the war effort and crowds dropped by more than half of the prior season, which meant the season became a non-event under the backdrop of war.

Two years earlier Sunderland had experienced, what is still to this day, our most successful season when we came within a defeat to Aston Villa in the FA Cup final away from completing the league and cup double.

The following season wasn’t quite as spectacular as we finished 7th in Division One, so even under the circumstances, manager Robert Kyle was aiming high ahead of 1914-15. But most of the season was spent bouncing around mid-table until a late run took us up to 6th at the beginning of April.

A run of five games without a win extinguished any hope of a late push to threaten the top of the table - we would only finish five points behind eventual title winners Everton - which led us to the final fixture of the season against Tottenham Hotspur at Roker Park.

In the days prior to the fixture there was an advert place in the Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette, placed by the Chief Recruiting Officer in Sunderland, notifying readers the recruits were “URGENTLY NEEDED” and “when finally approved, will be sent direct to their regiments”.

On the day of the game, a letter was posted to the same publication, titled “A Soldier’s Plea”, that began:

A word of advice to all young men of Sunderland - join at once, don’t let the Germans get to England; beat them now. You would if you had seen what I have seen.

On the pitch, we were left with the aim of signing off the controversial season on a high on home soil, but Spurs were battling at the bottom of the table and had to win to keep their hopes alive of staying in the top flight.

Reports of the attendance varies with some reporting a crowd of around 5,000 and other stating numbers were as high as 10,000, and the weather was “dull and threatening, but the ground was excellent”.

Charles Buchan
Charles Buchan
Photo by Central Press/Getty Images

It took only four minutes for Sunderland to take control when Charlie Buchan, who spoke in later years that he would have left earlier for the war effort had it not been for contract obligations, opened the scoring. Three more were added before the break, with Buchan doubling his tally.

After the break, the home side took the foot off the gas and only added one more to the total, with that man Buchan completing his hattrick.

Buchan, along with many others, immediately joined the war effort, serving the the Grenadier Guards and then the Sherwood Foresters, was awarded the Military Medal in 1918, but many didn’t return.

Saturday 24th April, 1915

Division One

Sunderland 5-0 Tottenham Hotspur

[Buchan 4’, 26’, 75’, Crossley 32’, Philip 42’]

Sunderland: Scott, Hobson, Ness, Cuggy, Thomson, Low, Mordue, Buchan, Philip, Crossley, Martin

Tottenham Hotspur: Jacques, Clay, Pearson, Weir, Stell, Lightfoot, Walden, Minter, Fleming, Bliss, Middlemiss

Attendance c. 10,000


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