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Exploring the links between Sunderland AFC, Bilbao and the famous red and white stripes!

Research carried out by both Sunderland AFC and Athletic Bilbao historians could dispel one story of how Bilbao came to play in red and white, writes Paddy Hollis

Lee of the Bilbao Black Cats and Bilbao historian Borja Valle

The historic links between Athletic Bilbao and Sunderland AFC are rich and plentiful, with the first recorded football match in the Spanish city taking place way back in June 1889. At the time, it was reported that British sailors from several ships played a match against each other.

The game was between Barmston Rangers (who were believed to belong to the crew of the Sunderland-built SS Barmston), and British sailors from the steamships Abydos, Harven, Nina and Dawdon, the latter two of which were also built on Wearside.

There’s been more and more solid evidence of the fact that Sunderland was involved in the first match in Bilbao, yet new research discovered by historians and Sunderland fans who are part of the supporters’ group ‘The Bilbao Black Cats’ may just shed light on another Wearside link.

A clipping from the Sunderland Echo advertising Murton’s shop in Sunderland

The research team has collected plenty of details to counter what’s perhaps one of the most well known theories behind exactly where Bilbao got their red and white stripes from.

A Bilbao student named Juan Elorduy visited England around Christmas in the early 20th century and during this visit, it’s said that he was unable to find the blue and white shirts that the club had asked for.

Following this, he set sail back to Bilbao with red and white shirts from the city of Southampton, which was all due to a lovely coincidence, according to the researchers.

Now, studies carried out by Basque sports researcher Borja Valle and members of Sunderland AFC’s official supporters branch in Vizcaya (Biscay), the ‘Bilbao Black Cats’- Lee Thirkell, Jonny Cockburn, Mark Beston and Ekaitz Muñoz- have highlighted a new version of how the Bilbao red and white came about.

In November 1909, Athletic Club took up the invitation to play a match against San Sebastian to mark the opening of their new stadium.

Crawford was the English goalkeeper for Athletic, and he complained about the fact that both sides had the same coloured kit, meaning it was very hard to differentiate between the two (the poor weather also contributed to this).

The debate over which team should change their colours raged on through the month. Each said the other side should change their colours, but as San Sebastian were the defending cup champions, it should be Athletic who made the switch.

A mention of the Sunderland Echo article which covers the match between British sailors pictured in the Bilbao Football Museum

The next key figure in the path towards Athletic Club opting for the famous red and white was Juan Arzuaga Anitua, their second honorary captain.

He made it known that in the event of changing colours, Sunderland AFC- one of the best and most historic English teams of the late 19th and early 20th centuries- had a stunning kit with red and white vertical stripes, one which should be looked at.

He also had a close link to the shirts through his experience of living in Gateshead at the turn of the 20th century.

The momentum shift towards the red and white was also helped by William Llewellyn Dyer. Born in Sunderland, he was a strong advocate of Bilbao taking on the red and white kits and he believed they’d be ideal for the team.

December 1909 saw the first major breakthrough.

Arzuaga informed the club he’d contacted a friend of his in Sunderland who could purchase some red and white shirts from Henry A. Murton Ltd’s Shop on Fawcett Street.

However, the next issue was to be logistics, and just how the shirts would get from Sunderland to Bilbao in the year 1910.

Sunderland v Athletic Bilbao - Premier League International Cup
A rare clash between Sunderland and Athletic Bilbao
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

The answer was provided by former player and future president Pedro Astigarraga Amezaga.

His siblings had a ship which would sail to Sunderland at the start of December 1909, and the Hijos de Astigarraga returned to Bilbao in time for the next match in January 1910.

The momentous day, according to the international researchers, was January 3, 1910. The ship docked with its cargo of red and white shirts, they were handed out three days later and were worn by the club for the first time before the end of the month.


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