In 1891-92, when Sunderland won their first Championship, they played 58 matches, winning 46, losing nine, and scoring 217 goals. In 1893-94 they played 68 matches.
Why did they play so many more than the present team? Arranged matches were the norm—like present-day club rugby, although not so prepared. You could invite opposition more attractive than some of the League clubs, and Sunderland themselves were much in demand.
They could receive a guaranteed fee greater than their home gate when playing an unattractive League side. Only about 3,000 people saw Sunderland‘s biggest win of 1895-96, 7-1, over West Bromwich.
Even so, by 1896-97 the old-type friendly was losing its appeal. The greatest attendances were for the meetings with other early renowned clubs, such as Preston, Villa and Everton.
But it all began when Grayston went to Newcastle and found Tom Watson, down-at-heel, in a pub. Watson jumped at the chance, and eager, clean and in new clothes he was presented at Ellerslie Terrace that evening and given the job with a house to live in. Grayston, writing in the Sunderland Weekly News more than forty years later, in 1931, said he was paid £150 a year. Watson's brother said it was two guineas a week.
Grayston knew the man to go for. Watson had made Newcastle West End one of the leading clubs, helped to get their ground, later St. James' Park, and was then induced by Newcastle East End to do a revitalising job there. He was a Newcastle man, born in Heaton Terrace, not far from where East End played.
He believed in "Scotch" footballers. There was nothing original in that, but what he and Samuel Tyzack, the treasurer, did on their trips was to go for the best, usually young internationals. The game in Scotland, although advanced, was amateur. Sunderland were offering good money for playing, plus a job. They got three players from Renton: Johnny Campbell, David Hannah and John Harvey, and before they'd kicked a ball Everton wrote to the three offering £2-15/- a week all the year round, a job, and £20 signing-on fee.
Johnny Auld, Scotland's young centre half, from Third Lanark, got, in addition to wages, £170 signing-on fees, and a shop for a boot and shoe business in Union Street, with fixtures put in and the yearly rental of £50 paid by Sunderland. The shop was ready for the 1889-90 season.
Shipbuilding was behind the club. The committee in 1889 was nearly all shipbuilders and their managers. Even the trainer, Joe Bell, was a shipyard foreman who had coached runners and oarsmen. The trainer of the three Championship sides was Tommy Dodds, who was at Newcastle Road full time by 1891. The new side played the best opposition possible in England and Scotland, winning 34 of their 47 matches. Two hundred supporters went with them to Edinburgh, and two thousand down to Middlesbrough.
They had hopes of going far in the Cup to help their intended League application, but they were drawn away to Blackburn Rovers, the eventual winners, and knocked out in extra time. Sunderland's team for this first F.A. Cup tie outside of qualifying rounds was: Kirtley; Porteous, Oliver: Gibson, Auld, Stevenson: Smith, Harvey. Campbell, Hannah and Scott.
The back three were English, although Tom Porteous had come from Kilmarnock. He was the first player to be capped when with Sunderland. Oliver was to play for North against South.
After the second League season, Notts County, Burnley and Stoke applied for re-election, and Darwen, Grimsby Town, Newton Heath, Sunderland and Sunderland Albion for election. At the meeting in the Douglas Hotel in Manchester on 2 May, 1890, James Marr and the Rev. Robinson Hindle of Eppleton Vicarage were Sunderland‘s delegates.
So it was a cleric, not a teacher, who pleaded Sunderland's case. On playing ability no one could deny them, they had beaten six League clubs in the past season. But they were very much geographical outsiders. It was the expense of travelling to Sunderland which was the drawback. Mr. Hindle pointed out that Sunderland would have to make eleven long journeys, the others only one, and that ten of them had already visited Sunderland.
What clinched it was his guarantee of average travelling expenses. This guarantee was unnecessary after the first season. Sunderland's travelling was four times the average of the others. Sunderland were elected in place of Stoke. (Stoke got belated revenge in this centenary year by scoring two minutes from the end of their last match.
Before the season started Watson signed Jimmy Millar and Hughie Wilson. Both were to play on into Roker Park days, Wilson as captain. His contract at the beginning did not look good for him, although he was only twenty. £70 signing-on fee and 25s/- appearance money, plus 5s/- for a win, and half a crown for a draw, and he had to obey the commands of Samuel Tyzack. But soon £3 became the usual weekly wage.
It was said of Doig, who was given a job in the North Sands shipyard time-office, that he was wonderfully slippery when opponents were trying to charge him and that his fists-out were as safe as punt kicks. He covered his baldy head with a cap held by an elastic band under his chin, and once when it was knocked off he was more concerned to get to it than to the ball. Sunderland were beaten only once at home in six seasons after Doig's coming. The singular defeat was by Blackburn Rovers, 3-2, on 9 December, 1893.
In 1891-92, their first Championship season, they won all thirteen home games, averaging slightly better than 4-1. Before the greatest occasion in their first season, the visit of Everton in the Cup, Auld received a letter from a mentor back home: "Husband your team’s strength, rather than expend it in a lump. Grasp the weak points of your opponent’s armour and there apply your strength. Hold what you have got if leading, rather than risk too much in getting more; end never desert the ball for the man."
Bustling, stocky Johnny Campbell got the only goal. Sunderland nearly met Albion in the Third Round but after draws at Blue House and in Nottingham, Albion were beaten by Forest at Bramall Lane. The next season, Albion, badly managed, deteriorated. When Sunderland at last went to the Blue House Field, dispirited Albion were beaten 8-0 and only 2,000 people were interested.
At the start of that season, 1891-92, Jimmy Hannah had switched from Albion to Sunderland, and Donald Gow, captain of Rangers, replaced Oliver who went to Middlesbrough Ironopolis. Gow captained Scotland when he was nineteen. Sunderland now had eight internationals.
They rushed to their second Championship, in 1892-93, scoring 100 goals. No other club got near that number. Villa were beaten 6-0 and 6-1, but Villa had sounded retaliation the season before in the 1892 semi-final beating Sunderland 4-1 at Bramall Lane, a scoreline that wasn't believed when it was flashed to Sunderland. Villa hit back for generations, especially in the Cup: they have won seven of the eight F.A. Cup meetings. Sunderland usually overcame Preston, the first dominant side, and there has been a see-saw of stirring games with the other early pacemaker, Everton, who were the first club to put up a big League score against them, 7-1 in 1893-94.
By the end of 1894-95, Sunderland had won the Championship three times and been second once. They'd been knocked out of the Cup three times in semi-finals, twice by Villa. Andrew McCreadie and Harry Johnston came into the side for the opening game of 1894-95 when Derby were beaten 8-0.
Bob McNeill was new too. McCreadie from Rangers joined after playing against England and he took over from Auld at centre half. Only 5'5", he scored more than a dozen goals in his first season.
But in 1895-96 Sunderland scored only 52 goals and finished fifth. And in 1896-97 the unbelievable happened: Sunderland finished second from bottom. What went wrong?
The press of the day talks of their getting stale, and no wonder. James Crabtree, who saw them, said they had lost their dash and enthusiasm, and that they passed too much, which could be almost saying the same thing. And other clubs knew them well now. There were injuries, Scott was out all of the season. Five new men were signed but only wing half Matt Ferguson could hold a place. (Ferguson died young in 1902.) And one would think that changes among the men who ran the club affected the players.
In 1892, when expenses were rocketing there had been a call for guarantors. One of the first to come forward was Councillor J. P. Henderson, a wine and spirit merchant, whose firm owned the Bells, next door to the old Echo office in Bridge Street. He was elected onto the committee, became vice-chairman, and when Robert Thompson resigned as president he took that office. In the close season of 1896 the club needed still more money so it was decided to form a limited liability company with a share capital of £5,000. Sunderiand's success had come too early, too quickly, for the club to amass money. Newcastle's great run, later, from 1904-05, was economically just right.
The prospectus said the club had made known the town of Sunderland. Assets, including two freehold houses; timber and stands and earning power, were given as £3,123. Liabilities were £1,742.
The ground was held on lease from year to year, but if the freehold could be obtained a track would be laid down for cycling and athletics. The qualification of a director would be at least fifty shares and no director would receive any remuneration in respect of office. After eight days the list was closed with an issued capital of El,700.
So, men with money were cautious of putting it into the club. J. P. Henderson, chairman, had his brother James; Robert and C. E. Thompson and Samuel Wilson on the new board. At this time Liverpool offered Tom Watson double what he was getting from Sunderland. Watson, who had a tobacconist's shop in North Bridge Street opposite Monkwearmouth Station, went to Grayston to talk it over and Grayston advised acceptance.
Bob Campbell, the "A" team's secretary for four years, was moved up into Watson's place. Campbell came to Wearside in December 1889, shortly after his younger brother, Johnny. He got a job at J. L. Thompson's and helped in training at first. In 1895 he had declined the secretaryship at Newcastle United. Midway through the unhappy season which followed, with no recovery made and attendances down to two or three thousand, there was a row about player discipline between Henderson and Tommy Dodds, and Dodds was sacked. He later became Newcastle United's trainer.
Billy Williams then arrived and maybe his reputation as a disciplinarian was established by initial instruction from Henderson. But he was accepted by the players. He was fair, sensible and concerned. There was no need to rebel or sulk. Years later Fred Taylor said it wasn't easy to keep the men fit in the early days, but Williams did so.
Also a decision had to be made about the ground. Probably a stadium could have been built at Newcastle Road but, evidently, matters did not go satisfactorily with the Misses Thompson and Henderson looked about for a site for a new stadium. He couldn't get the freehold of the new site, although maybe they couldn't afford it. When Lord Londonderry opened Roker Park, he said the Henderson brothers "had delivered Sunderland from the misfortune of being without a football ground," so it seems matters went very wrong with the Misses Thompson.
The club owes J. P. Henderson much. He saw that changes should be made, and he made them.
In the test matches the Talents lost the first, then drew two, and had to win the last, at Newcastle Road against Newton Heath, to stay in. This they did 2-0, then the great side, which had been the most famous and feared in the land, dispersed. Only Teddy Doig and Hugh Wilson of the early team were retained, although Jimmy Millar came back later after picking up more international caps with Rangers.
There were new players, Hughie Morgans—smaller than Campbell, but as brave—Sandy McAllister, Phil Bach, Colin McLatchie. Sunderland were soon back, not so brilliant but strongly-knit, disciplined. With the best defence they finished second in 1897-98, their last season at Newcastle Road.
Hugh Wilson gave tremendous service. Powerful, busy, intercepting, setting attacks going. He fed Campbell, especially. The early nineties half back line of Wilson, Auld and Gibson was usually regarded at the turn of the century as the best there had been up till then.
John Middleton Campbell was very popular. A "hell for leather" centre forward. Although but 5'7" he once charged the mountainous and unpredictably-tempered Billy Foulkes of Sheffield United over his line for wee Johnny Harvey to score. Campbell put on weight towards the end, but in the early years his dash and vigour brought him many goals, probably about 75 in 1891-92 alone. Crabtree thought Campbell scored more than that, that season.
He said he was the most dangerous centre forward in the first fifteen years of the League. Then there were the clever, tricky passers and dribblers. Jimmy Millar,or seasons looked upon as the best inside forward in the game, Jimmy Hannah and Johnny Harvey. The great team appeared out of the blue and brought new feelings and pride to the area. They made the North East a famed football place. They were the gifted models, inspiring the youngsters.
The early days of the century seem to be in the shadow of the Talents. One seems to jump over them to the 9-1 win at Newcastle; to Holley and Bridgett; to the 1912-13 season. It was nearly otherwise. Sunderland could have had three Championships in a row. And, but for the near-shattering suspensions of 1904, life at the top would have continued. The dismissed Alex Mackie was near to being a secretary-manager of renown.
For the opening match at Roker Park on 10 September 1898 the team was: Doig, Bach, McNeill, Ferguson, McAllister, Wilson, Crawford, Leslie, Morgan, Chalmers and Saxton.
In February 1899, the Ireland international was allocated to the new ground and Phil Bach was capped for England. That day Sunderland brought in Andy McCombie at right back and Bach lost his club place. He was later chairman of Middlesbrough and an international selector.
Burnley, the first League side to win at Newcastle Road, were also the first to win at Roker Park, 1-0, on 10 December, 1898. Newcastle also won their first League visit, a fortnight later. Opposition supporters in strength were a new experience at Sunderland. Previously relations between the clubs had been almost paternalistic on Sunderland's part, playing friendly after friendly at St. James' to help the finances there.