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Sunderland AFC and the origin of Athletic Club De Bilbao’s red and white colours

Extensive researched carried out by the Bilbao Black Cats branch of Sunderland supporters has unearthed some interesting information about the famous Bilbao red and white stripes, and how it all links back to Wearside.

1st red and white kit of Athletic Club.  (Archive from the Biscay Provincial Council) 

The passing of time makes stories fade away. The men who were once heroes for the Athletic Club faithful, have today almost been erased from memory. Those tales that were passed on by word of mouth in the streets of Bilbao are no longer even known today. Nowadays, we are no longer even aware of their existence.

The first recorded football match played in Bilbao was June 29th, 1889, between Barmston Rangers (believed to be members of the SS Barmston, built in Sunderland, 1888) and British sailors from the steamships Abydos, Harven, Nina and Dawdon.

The latter two were built on Wearside. It is said that British miners also took part in the game.

The match was reported in the Sunderland Echo & Shipping Gazette on July 4th 1889.

The first record of an association 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

However, it is the origin of Athletic Club’s red and white shirts which has been the subject of numerous debates throughout its history. Different theories circulate as to how, by whom and why the colours were changed in January 1910. The most widely held theory is that the bearer of the shirts was a student from Bilbao called Juan Elorduy.

It is claimed that on an alleged Christmas trip to England, when he could not find the blue and white shirts based on Blackburn Rovers which were ordered by the club, he set sail back to Bilbao with red and white shirts from the city of Southampton, which was all due to a lovely coincidence.

Recent 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, give a version that differs from those known to date.

If we want to understand the story better, we must travel back to the end of 1909.

Match between Athletic Club and La Sociedad de Football de San Sebastián in San Sebastián 1909 (Archive from the Biscay Provincial Council)

At the beginning of November in 1909, Athletic Club once again visited Donosti (San Sebastián) at the invitation of “Sociedad de Football San Sebastián” for the inauguration of the new Ondarreta ground. Due to the constant rain throughout the morning, the pitch was extremely wet. The new stand facing the sea was completely drenched. From the moment the match got underway, the rain started to fall once more and it only got heavier as the match went on.

The Goalkeeper, Crawford, who according to newspaper archives seems to have come from Queens Park Rangers, was the number one in that match for “Athletic Club”. During the game he complained about the continuous confusion created by the blue and white shirts of both teams worn at that time. The English goalie was unable to distinguish the players of the two sides due to the downpour and the poor visibility during the match.

This is how it all began. Throughout the month of November in 1909, attempts were made to get the team from San Sebastián to change their colours because of what had happened to the Athletic goalkeeper in the previous match. Athletic Club pointed out that it should be the team from Gipuzkoa that changed its colours because the side from Bilbao had been founded earlier. However, the “Sociedad de Football de San Sebastián” argued that as they were the Cup champions from the previous season, it ought to be Athletic Club that should change kits.

Match between Athletic Club and La Sociedad de Football de San Sebastián in San Sebastián 1909 (Archive from the Biscay Provincial Council)

In subsequent meetings, Juan Arzuaga Anitua (Bilbao, 1880), second Honorary Captain of Athletic Club, made it known that, in the event of changing colours, “Sunderland AFC”, one of the best historic English teams of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, had a stunning kit with red and white vertical stripes. What better choice!

William Llewellyn Dyer (Sunderland, 1883), a historic player of Athletic Club in its early years and who at that time was training with the second team, also considered that they could be the ideal shirts for the Club. “Luke” Dyer had been born in Sunderland and was well acquainted with this kit on Wearside.

Arzuaga knew the shirts first hand. He had been living in the vicinity of Sunderland in his youth. From 1898 to 1902. In 1901 he was listed in the census as a lodger at Balmoral Terrace in Gateshead. His profession was listed as an apprentice naval engineer. He had been playing football at school but had excelled mainly at Rugby. First at North Durham and then at Rockliffe where he played in the three-quarter line alongside future England international winger Tom Simpson. References seem to suggest that he was a particularly good kicker and extremely quick. He was known as “Jack”. Before his return to Bilbao he even received a gold medal from the Club in appreciation of his services.

It was on the 5th of December in 1909, in the Lamiako dressing room with its rusty nails, that Arzuaga shed light on the progress made. It would be at the end of the match and after yet another victory for Athletic Club against the Scottish sailors of the “United S”. Juan Arzuaga had contacted a friend of his in Sunderland who could purchase some red and white shirts from the “ Henry A. Murton Ltd’s Shop” located in Fawcett Street, Sunderland. The problem then was how to transport them to Bilbao in order to arrive in time for the opening match of the Amute ground in Irun at the beginning of January 1910.

Juan Arzuaga. (Archive from the Biscay Provincial Council)

Pedro Astigarraga Amezaga (Bilbao, 1882) found the solution. He had previously been a player, was a director and would be the next president of “Athletic Club” in 1910. There was a ship belonging to his siblings, the “Hijos de Astigarraga” shipping company, which was sailing to Sunderland from the 1st of December in 1909. It would return to Bilbao at the beginning of January in 1910 in time before the opening match in which the Club had been invited. Captain Arrotegui of the steamship, Bachi, of the Astigarraga shipping company, had already been told to pick up a package with the new red and white shirts. The decision had been made. It was just a matter of waiting.

During the whole month of December in 1909, no more matches were played against any team outside Bilbao. However, the image of the fields in Lamiako during those days was quite spectacular. Nothing like it had been seen since the years when the historic matches between Bilbao FC and Athletic Club were played.

The members of the team from Bilbao had responded to the Club’s call to train in order to try to bring the 1910 Cup to Bilbao. They had been able to field up to 7 full teams that played every weekend, Saturday and Sunday, on the fields in Lamiako. Among the players in these teams we can find, in addition to the players of the first team and former founders of the club, a very young Rafael Moreno Aranzadi “Pichichi” (Bilbao, 1892). Also, students from Madrid who came to spend their Christmas holidays in the town. Among the latter was Juan Elordui Saracibar (Bilbao, 1888), who was a member of the Madrid branch of Athletic Club.

On the 3rd of January in 1910, the steamship, Bachi, captained by Captain Arrotegui, finally docked in the port of Bilbao, carrying in its hold the aforementioned red and white shirts, just as expected. These were handed out on the 6th of January in 1910 to the players of the historic match in which they were to play a few days later in Irún. The history of Athletic Club and Sunderland AFC would therefore be united indefinitely through the colours of red and white.

This is where the story of the origin of Athletic Club’s red and white shirts ends and with it begins the real story of the Madrid branch’s shirts. However, that will have to wait for another day.

Note: Acknowledgement and gratitude to the British historians Rob Mason, Keith Gregson, Andrew Smithson and Mike Gibson.

Author: Borja Valle Sarasketa - Basque Sports Researcher

English Translation: Lee Thirkell - Bilbao Black Cats


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