The rise and fall of Sunderland Albion - Sunderland's other football club
Like Manchester, Glasgow and Sheffield, Sunderland was once a two-club town.
For a brief period in the 19th century Sunderland AFC weren’t the only big club on Wearside.
There was a time, shortly after the birth of football in this country as we know it, that Sunderland AFC’s nearest rivals were a lot closer to home in the form of Sunderland Albion.
The two clubs origins are intrinsically linked and both can be traced back to one man.
Here's a run-through of the rise, and fall, of the not-so-mighty Sunderland Albion.
In the beginning…
Sunderland AFC was founded by a Scottish-born teacher who taught at Thomas Street Boys’ School in Hendon, James Allan.
Allan was a rugby aficionado, but his real love was for a better game and in October 1879, he and ten other teachers attended the inaugural meeting of the Sunderland and District Teachers’ Association Football Club. Sunderland’s first football club.
Most of the 10 teachers would play for the team, Allan himself was a left winger who once scored 12 goals in a 23-0 win over the mighty … Castletown.
The club soon needed more revenue (there is nothing new under the sun) and, in order to attract interest from the wider community, ie. non-teachers, it dropped the “and District Teachers” part from its name.
Another money-spinner was a raffle in which the top prize was a committee member’s canary.
But it wasn’t all glamour and SAFC’s first known game was on November 13, 1880, when they faced Ferryhill at home in the Northumberland and District Challenge Cup at the Blue House Field in Hendon. Ferryhill won 1-0.
Sunderland AFC played in blue and wouldn’t adopt their famous red and white stripes until 1887.
SAFC steps into the big time
The Football League began in 1888, but Sunderland was not among its 12 founder members.
The first league title was won by Preston North End, who didn’t lose in either the league or FA Cup that season and became known as The Invincibles, although it should be noted around this time Sunderland beat them 4-1 in a friendly.
Sunderland applied to join the Football League in 1889, but were turned down, at the time all 12 clubs were from either the North-West or the Midlands and the teams didn’t fancy the arduous journey to Wearside.
But in 1890 sense prevailed and Sunderland replaced Stoke in the league, finishing seventh in their first season. This was only after SAFC agreed to pay the travelling expenses of every visiting club.
A hard bargain, but worth it. They were champions of England in 1891-92 and again the following season. Sunderland were a football superpower.
But although James Allan should have been thrilled, an almighty feud had broken out.
Sunderland Albion are formed.
In December 1887 Sunderland AFC beat Middlesbrough 4-2 in an FA Cup tie, but the Teessiders took exception and appealed.
Earlier in the season, Sunderland had paid the train fares of three players to bring them from Scotland to Wearside. Middlesbrough huffed that this made them “professionals” and that Sunderland should consequently be chucked out of the competition, incredibly, the Teessiders got their way.
For some reason James Allan, then club treasurer, was infuriated by Sunderland’s handling of the situation. He stormed off in 1888 to found a rival club: Sunderland Albion.
Albion played their home games at the Blue House Field, which had been vacated by SAFC who began playing at Newcastle Road in 1886 (Roker Park would not open until 1898).
It was not a friendly rivalry. For a start, Allan took seven Scottish players with him, including the three “professionals” at the centre of the initial rumpus.
Albion had serious ambitions, firstly was to establish themselves as the top team on Wearside.
Sunderland’s underhand tricks on Albion.
There was a certain inevitability that the two clubs would be drawn together in a cup tie and they were due to play in the FA Cup in December 1888. Albion were delighted; it meant a great deal to them financially.
Sunderland responded by simply withdrawing from the competition (having already played in two rounds), citing spurious reasons about the inferiority of cup football.
This gave Albion a bye into the next round, but they were furious. The incident was duplicated when the clubs were drawn together in the Durham Challenge Cup.
Sunderland eventually and reluctantly bowed to a local outcry and the teams met on December 1 in a “friendly” before a record 18,000 crowd at Newcastle Road. Albion mischievously suggested that Sunderland, who won 2-0, might like to give their share of the gate receipts to charity.
After an exchange of “extremely discourteous” letters, the teams lined up again at Newcastle Road on January 12, 1889 amid a large police presence. The game was expectedly bad tempered.
Albion led 2-0 at half-time. But Sunderland fought back to win 3-2, with Albion vociferously disputing that the winner had actually gone over the crossbar (the blindingly obvious idea of using nets was not though of until 1891).
James Allan was a linesman that day and required medical attention after a stone was lobbed at him.
Albion’s four-year existence comes to a crashing end
Albion’s headquarters in North Bridge Street was also stoned and they lodged a formal complaint which was rejected at an FA meeting at the Grand Hotel in Fawcett Street.
Sunderland defended themselves by bringing James Allan’s own behaviour into question. Allan later responded by, quite understandably, telling the Echo that SAFC owed their very existence to him.
Despite all the ill-feeling, Albion were keen to play their rivals again on a neutral ground, but Sunderland felt they had nothing to prove and weren’t interested.
Two more Wearside derbies would take place, both in April 1892. However, these were non-events. Sunderland were about to win the Football League and a glorious future awaited. They won both fixtures, 6-1 and 8-0.
Sunderland now had every conceivable advantage over the newer club and Albion were finished. They still hadn’t been allowed into the Football League, and their rivals’ famous “Team of All Talents” would win the league three times in four seasons.
The larger club had trampled them into the ground. Compounded by financial troubles, Sunderland Albion FC were dissolved in August 1892.
What might have been
What if Albion had survived? This would have required a slightly better team, or less powerful local rivals.
Sunderland AFC might not have been the force they became (until World War Two inconveniently ended their glory days, bar one) had Albion diluted Wearside’s impressively large football support.
Being a two-team city has arguably hindered the pursuit of glory for Sheffield, Bristol and Dundee. Although Merseyside, Manchester and Glasgow haven’t done badly from being home to two teams.
Sunderland supporters of today might have different social circles, if their friends supported a rival a couple of miles away, and Sunderland fans’ rivalry with them up the road at St James’ Park might not have become so fierce.
The rest of James Allan’s life
Sunderland fans today have much to thank (blame?) James Allan for.
He spent the rest of his days in the town and continued teaching, including a stint as headmaster at Hylton Road School.
He held this role when he died of apoplexy, on October 18, 1911, almost 32 years to the day after forming one of England’s greatest football clubs. He was 54.
Sunderland AFC did at least sent a wreath to the funeral.
James and his wife Priscilla are buried together in the centre of Bishopwearmouth Cemetery. The headstone bears no reference to football. In fact the main name on the grave is Stephenson, the surname of four others who share it.
But James Allan undoubtedly left his mark and a little of the spirit he showed 141 years ago might come in handy today.