League leaders Sunderland welcomed reigning champions Aston Villa to our Newcastle Road ground on this day in 1895 for a match that would turn out to be one of the most famous in our history.
In a game that featured two of the biggest names in the emerging sport, the sides played out a cracker, and aptly so in the circumstances, as an illustration of the action has since become a major focal point in the football world.
Having played another big gun the day before in Preston North End, who we defeated 2-0 to go top of the table, the Lads were in confident mood come kick off at 2:15pm.
Indeed, spirits were so high that when Villa took the lead, the goal was loudly and sportingly applauded by the home supporters, although exactly who scored the header is subject to debate. Reported in the following day’s Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette as Denny Hodgetts, most other sources attributed it to Steve Smith.
There were more cheers when Tom Watson’s men levelled a little over ten minutes later.
Harry Johnston played the ball upfield to James Gillespie, who controlled and backheeled it smartly past goalkeeper Willie Dunning, but once level, we were soon caught out when from our own corner, Villa broke out and Smith steamed through to finish smartly.
Both teams were playing well and going for the victory but it seemed as if the visitors were in pole position when a foul on Jack Devey led to a penalty that was dispatched by Jack Reynolds.
The exact timing of the strike isn’t known, and neither was the one that followed, but at some point before the half time break, we got ourselves back into the game when James Hannah scored following a goalmouth scramble.
This was our third game in five days and playing against the wind in the second half and facing a side that had enjoyed a ‘nice quiet week of training’, according to the Echo, we knew that getting out of trouble would be a hard task.
We dug deep however, and forced a spell of pressure on the hour mark that brought the equaliser, with Jimmy Millar quickly putting it away when Villa were unable to clear their lines.
From there, it wasn’t long until the Lads were able to go ahead for the first time, when Peter Meehan (also known as Meechan) pumped a free kick into the box.
Several Sunderland forwards charged onto it, and it was Gillespie who managed to stick out a boot and connect, but before the restart it was clear that this wasn’t the end of things.
Some of Villa’s players notably ‘tucked up their sleeves’ and amid a ferocious struggle in the final minutes that was claimed to be in ‘a style which has never been surpassed at Newcastle Road’, both sides gave their all.
A strong penalty claim by Johnny Campbell that could’ve sealed our victory was waved away and Howard Spencer blocked a goalbound effort as his side fought desperately to stay in the match.
They were grateful for the intervention too, as a terrific solo goal at the other end soon followed to make it all square. Hodgetts again looked like he may have had the glory taken from him and whilst the Echo enthusiastically credited the goal to the England international, many other records point towards Devey.
It was now our turn to battle hard in order to protect our goal, and in the end the draw seemed about right.
These really were two giants of the game, with the Lads going on to lift the league title and Villa winning the FA Cup, and they had been worthy opponents.
It feels right, therefore, that the fixture is the subject of what’s believed to be the oldest known football painting in the world, a work that hangs majestically at the main entrance of the Stadium of Light almost one hundred and thirty years later.
Commissioned by club officials, the painting was produced by renowned artist Thomas M.M Hemy, who attended the match in person and focused on a moment of high drama as the Lads defended a corner.
His portfolio included other significant output inspired by the town, and whilst he spent much of his youth growing up on Tyneside, the Echo described him as ‘practically a Sunderland man by sympathy’ in the days that followed.
Although known primarily for his exquisite maritime pieces, Hemy had recently displayed a rugby-themed artwork at Mawson, Swan & Morgan, a renowned bookseller, picture framer, printer and stationer’s firm based in Newcastle upon Tyne.
It appeared as though his most recent muse had piqued national interest and it was well received in September when making its first public showing- peculiarly enough in Newcastle, at Mawson, Swan & Morgan.
Prior to that, it had been viewed privately and by the press at Henry Graves and Co.’s Pall Mall gallery and in November it was moved, according to the Worcester Journal, to Birmingham for exhibition.
Known by several names over the years, at that stage it was referred to as ‘The Fight For The Championship’, and it doubtless attracted the attentions of Aston Villa fans.
Once the painting eventually made its way to Sunderland, it spent a period hanging in The Bells, a public house and restaurant located on the corner of Bridge Street and West Wear Street that was owned by the family of John Potts Henderson, who was club president and then chairman.
Henderson subsequently oversaw the move to Roker Park, where Hemy’s piece eventually settled prior to Sunderland moving again in 1997 under Sir Bob Murray CBE.
In 1989/1990, before Murray was knighted or had even come to the decision that another change of stadium was needed, he approached the Sunderland AFC Supporters’ Association and asked them to spearhead a fundraising drive so that restoration work could be carried out on Hemy’s masterpiece.
The cost was initially set at £7,000 and the restoration was to take place in London, with Charlie Hurley and Steve Cram CBE among the famous names to recognise the painting’s importance and to contribute to the restoration.
It was money well spent as even now, the work remains a proud symbol of the club’s glorious past.
Wednesday 2 January 1895
Football League Division One
Sunderland 4 (Gillespie 23’, 64’, Hannah (?), Millar 62’)
Aston Villa 4 (Smith 12’, 30’, Reynolds pen (?), Devey 80’)
Sunderland: Doig, Meehan, McNeil; Dunlop, McCreadie, Johnstone; Gillespie, Millar, Campbell; Hannah, Scott