In the five years since becoming a member of the Football League ahead of the 1890-91 season, Sunderland had established themselves as one of the powerhouses of the game.
Those five seasons resulted in three League titles and one as runners-up, with the lowest position of 7th (in a league of 12) coming in the inaugural year.
At the end of the 1895-96 season, the manager who had presided over that early success, Tom Watson, left to take charge at Liverpool and in the sixth year as a member of the Football League, things went a little wrong.
As a punishment for finishing second bottom in the table, the Lads had to fight it out in the promotion/relegation test matches against the top two from Division Two - and only stayed up by winning the final game 2-0 against Newton Heath.
It was a close shave, and more was expected of manager Robert Campbell the following season. A host of players left the club in the summer as the squad was rebuilt.
Off the pitch, it would also be the last season that Newcastle Road hosted Sunderland AFC – and the ground had witnessed much of that early success in the club’s history.
Three days before Sunderland were scheduled to get their season under way, the newly assembled side played a ‘friendly’ to prepare for the season ahead against neighbours Newcastle United at St. James’ Park.
Played in wet weather in front of a crowd of around 10,000, the visitors surprised most onlookers when they ran out 3-1 winners as they looked ahead to a trip to South Yorkshire, where they hadn’t had the best of records - with one victory in six at Olive Grove - with both aspects discussed in the Edinburgh Evening News:
Sunderland, who have surprised most of us by a good victory over the United at Newcastle, meet the Wednesday at Sheffield and it will remain to be seen whether the new lot from Wearside will break the spell which hangs over the club in its visit to the cutlery town.
News of Sunderland’s rebuild spread, and in the morning ahead of the season opener against Sheffield Wednesday, the Newark Herald discussed how they thought all of the top-flight sides would fare in the season ahead, including thoughts on Campbell’s new boys and the fact not as many had followed Watson to Liverpool as was expected:
I note that none of Tom’s old team at Wearside have transferred their services to the Mersey port, as was said last season would be the case. Tom knows a thing or two. Sunderland have very considerably revised their team, although I think it will be found that the importation of a lot of juniors from minor Scottish clubs is hardly a correct policy.
A pity the old combination could not have been kept intact just for one more season! As it is, I cannot predict much of an improvement over the team’s record at the end of of last April. They only just cleared the test games.
As Sunderland played out their ‘friendly’ in the midweek, Wednesday began their season at the previous season's league champions, Aston Villa, which ended in defeat in Birmingham against a side that were much fancied to retain the title.
Around 8,000 were in attendance at Olive Grove on an “unsettled and rainy” in South Yorkshire as the sides took to the field - with five players making their debut in the Sunderland XI. The away side won the toss and decided to play with the wind in the first half - but didn’t gain an advantage, and it was goalless at the break.
The second half was more lively with chances at either end, but the home side especially threatened to break the deadlock. This lasted until just three minutes from time when Hugh Morgan, signed from Airdrieonians the previous year, scored the winner for Sunderland.
But reports in the Empire News & The Umpire suggested the Lads had Ted Doig between the sticks to thank for taking maximum points back up to Wearside:
Sunderland, the wooden-spoonists last season, have commenced in a most auspicious fashion. They had to meet Sheffield Wednesday at Sheffield, and to the utter surprise of the Blades secured a well-earned victory by 1 goal to nil three minutes from time.
Doig was in fine form in goal, and to a great extent he must be given credit for staving off defeat, for the Wednesday attacks were several times dangerous.
Campbell’s Sunderland would end up having a much more successful season than the one it followed by finishing as runners-up to Wednesday’s neighbours Sheffield United, who themselves were involved in a curious incident on the same day as the Lads beat Wednesday - as was described in the Manchester Evening News:
A curious thing happened during the Sheffield United v Derby County match. Almond, for United, shot so hard that he sent the ball through the netting. The referee at first appeared to give a goal, but afterwards, on consultation with the linesman, gave “no goal”.
A similar occurrence marred an English cup-tie at Olive Grove a few seasons back, but the referee then though the defender’s side were trying to “jerry” him, as he phrased it, and hence allowed the goal.
Saturday 4th September, 1887
Sheffield Wednesday 0-1 Sunderland
Sunderland: Doig, Bach, Boyle, Ferguson, McAllister, Wilson, Bradshaw, Leslie, Brown, Morgan, Chalmers
Sheffield Wednesday: Massey, Earp, Langley, Brandon, Crawshaw, Stevenson, Dryburgh, Ferrier, Davis, Brady, Spiksley
Attendance c. 8,000