During the 1909-10 season, Sunderland finished four places and four points behind fourth-placed Newcastle, who went on to win the FA Cup against Barnsley at the second attempt.
The new season quickly dawned, and the opening round of fixtures saw the lads take on our Tyneside rivals on a Thursday evening at Roker Park. During pre-season, the players had undergone ‘a severer course of training than is their wont at this stage of the season, and hence the whole 22 players presented a fine physique’.
The kick off was timed to enable supporters to leave the mines and the shipyards and get into the ground, and special trains were put on from Newcastle and South Shields, as well as other stations across the region – as a result, the Journal reported:
Thousands of workmen passed through the turnstiles with begrimed faces, not having had the time to perform their customary abloutions.
And they were treated to an eventful game with a few storylines running through it. The two sets of players caused controversy – particularly with the game's rulers – by donning ‘armlets’ bearing the words ‘Players’ Union’.
The Players’ Union had been formed the previous year to look after the players' interests as professionals. The then-transfer system was a particular bone of contention. However, an application by the Union for players to wear Players Union badges on their shirts had been quickly and firmly turned down because it might ‘incite feeling and perhaps intimidate players who weren’t part of the Union’.
This revolutionary mark of defiance angered the powers that be, with a member of the League Council saying after the game:
This is a serious breach of discipline and the questions will have to be decided as to who are to be masters – the players of the clubs.
As well as the change that was evidently occurring in terms of players’ rights, changes were happening on the field, too.
A new rubber ball was used instead of the traditional leather ball. Between the rubber inner (which was likened to the inside of a golf ball) and the outer layer was some felt, and one of the benefits was the ball wouldn’t change weight during the game due to soaking up water.
Thus players will be saved from severe concussions to both the head and foot.
The game kicked off on a calm early evening at breakneck speed – much to do with the new ball, which moved more quickly than its old leather predecessor.
It took players time to get used to playing with it – in the early stages, they looked ‘bewildered’ but soon got to grips and Sunderland were soon on the offensive, with George Holley and Arthur Bridgett going close, and Jackie Morude and new signing from Everton, Tim Coleman, causing all sorts of problems.
Coleman was, by all accounts, a big personality and a bit of a rebel, and one of the main movers behind the armbands being worn.
At the other end, Sandy Higgins hit the frame of the goal while a Newcastle penalty shout was turned down.
Sunderland responded with force. First, Holley went close again, as did Coleman on a couple of occasions before Holley gave Sunderland the lead.
A loose header by Tony Whitson set Mordue free in behind, who raced to the byline and crossed for Holley, who shot home just before half time.
The second was a little slower than the first, with Newcastle trying to assert some control over the game, forcing a couple of early corners.
Newcastle had a strong penalty appeal turned down when Charlie Thomson pushed Jimmy Stewart over in the box as he was about to shoot, but the referee decided otherwise, and Sunderland countered, with Coleman, Holley and Bridgett all causing problems for the visiting defence.
An equaliser came with just ten minutes remaining, however. A ‘miraculous save’ by keeper Leigh Richmond Roose, who thwarted Jock Rutherford from only five yards out, was only temporary respite, and a cross from the same attacker moments later was handled by Billy Troughear, and Albert Shepherd grabbed the leveller from the spot.
Newcastle searched for the win, and Higgins missed a gilt-edged chance, missing the target with a weak shot from five yards out.
However, in the final couple of minutes, Sunderland won a corner, and new signing Coleman headed home to grab the winner.
2-1 against Newcastle. Not a bad way to start the new season!