How it all began: 1879

Club historian Rob Mason and his fellow ‘Sunderland The Complete Record’ author Mike Gibson explore the earliest days of the club.


Some debate exists concerning the earliest days of what we now know as Sunderland AFC. Keen supporters and historians Paul Days and Mark Metcalf have made the case for the club to be dated from 25 September 1880 instead of the long accepted date of October 1879.


Along with the descendants of club founder James Allan: Ray and Brendan O’Donnell, combined with the co-author of the club’s official statistical record, ‘Sunderland: The Complete Record,’ Barry Jackson, we hold the view that the origins of the club date from 1879. There are also a detailed and well researched set of resources on


The view on the club’s start date is a matter of definition of the words ‘formed’ or ‘founded’. A dictionary definition of ‘Found’ is ‘to lay the basis of, to build’ and a ‘founder’ is ‘one who founds or originates’ while a definition of ‘Form’ is ‘to give shape to, create, mould to a particular pattern, conceive or imagine.’


What is certain and acknowledged as a key date in the history of the club is that its existence was formally announced to the wider world on 25 September 1880. On that date there was a meeting of the Sunderland and District Teachers’ Association. This meeting was not called for the purposes of the football club but James Allan and his associates took advantage of being together for the meeting to announce that they had formed a football team.


This was reported in the Sunderland Echo on 27 September 1880. However, was this the very start of what we now know as Sunderland A.F.C.?


Does a relationship begin when it is announced to the world in the formal setting of a marriage, or even an engagement – or does it commence when the couple meet, are attracted to each other or go on a first date?  Does the existence of a ship begin the day she is launched, the day shipbuilders start work on it or the day plans are drawn up?


What preceded the announcement of the football club to the world in September 1880? Clearly the people making the announcement did not do so on a whim at that moment. Where had this desire come from?


It is known that the founding father of SAFC was James Allan. He was a Scottish school-teacher who came to Sunderland to take up a position at Hendon Board School on 1 April 1879. At the time rugby was being played in Sunderland, but not the round ball game of Association Football which was increasingly popular north of the border, and which Allan had been exposed to and had played regularly whilst at Glasgow University.


The town of Sunderland had already played a massive role in the establishing of the association game but this was nothing to do with the football club. Born in Sunderland on 2 December 1842 was C.W. Alcock who became creator of the FA Cup, international football and for good measure international cricket. He moved south as a child and along with his elder brother John formed the Forest (Not Nottingham Forest) club. This club later became the famous Wanderers, who won the FA Cup five times, including in its inaugural season of 1871-72.


A lesser heralded Alcock brother, John, is recorded at being at the first meeting of the F.A. at the Freemasons Tavern, Great Queen Street, London on 26 October 1863 representing the Forest club of Leytonstone. This was the first of six meetings over two months at which a unifying set of Laws were established for the embryonic game of association football as it became distinct from rugby football.


Despite these gigantic early contributions to what is now the world’s most popular sport the town of Sunderland only began to witness the game of association football after James Allan arrived from Scotland. Having arrived in the town as a keen young sportsman he is known to have initially joined Sunderland Rovers rugby club as a spectator member. Sunderland Rovers played at The Blue House Field which would later become the first home of the new association football club.


Eager to make his mark in his new job and new home, Allan returned from a holiday back in Scotland with a round ball. His first opportunity to return home would have probably been in the summer of 1879, Allan thereby bringing a first soccer ball to Sunderland on his return. Having brought a round ball to Wearside Allan evidently began to introduce friends and colleagues to the sport of association football. As with any new sport this would take some time.


One of Allan’s colleagues was a John Grayston. Born in Halifax on 21 March 1862 he arrived in Sunderland in 1877 as a pupil teacher at Hendon Board School. Only since 1870 had children aged between five and ten had to go to school and as records of school meetings show – when they weren’t discussing football! – attendance was often very poor. Most teachers in these Day Schools were unmarried women which is why when you went to school female teachers were almost invariably addressed as Miss regardless of their marital status. It also meant James Allan didn’t have an awful lot of male teachers to call upon for football. As a pupil-teacher young Grayston was teaching younger pupils as well as continuing his own education, having shown an aptitude for education.


Grayston also had an aptitude for recording the history of the club and while some of his later memories are known to be chronologically inaccurate, were it not for much of Grayston’s articles even less would be known about the club’s earliest years.


Writing in the Sunderland Weekly News in 1931 by which time he is approaching 70 and remembering things from when he was 17, Grayston recalls experiences at Hendon Board School Yard saying, “This is the actual and spiritual home of Sunderland Association Football.” Acknowledging his own fallibility of detail he adds, “and though all the memories of later and more scintillating years may come between, my clearest memory is of my first game in the play yard.”      


It is likely although not definite that James Allan was one of seven new members admitted to the Sunderland and District Teachers’ Association at their quarterly meeting recorded on 13 September 1879. This would have given Allan the opportunity to sound out any interest in playing association football. Indeed in the obituary of Walter Chappel in 1898 it was stated that Chappel, a fellow teacher at Hendon Board School, was the first gentleman approached on this subject.


As interest in the game developed along with the proficiency of those playing in Sunderland the possibility grew of staging games against other teams. This was not a simple task as besides having to get their own team organized, given the various demands there would be on teachers from different schools and living in various parts of the town, as Grayston noted they, “found difficulty in getting fixtures, many of our Saturdays being spent in practices.” Not that it seems Allan’s troops were ready for stern opposition as Grayston added, “I must confess that we needed these Saturday practices very much, but we were very conscientious in our training.”


What seems to have been the catalyst for those joining James Allan in playing football to declare themselves ready to face other teams is an advert that was published in the Athletic News on 22 September 1880. This pointed out that the closing date for entries to the Northumberland and Durham Cup was on the 25th of the following month. Three days later at the Rectory Park Schools meeting came the announcement that Sunderland had a team with elected officials.


This is a significant date in the history of the club but it is the belief of the modern day club that this was not the beginning of the club but simply the day that the hard work of James Allan in fostering the sport on Wearside reached a point where its existence was announced in readiness for entry to a competition. Had the club simply started on 25 September 1880 surely they could not have been ready to play a game they had no experience of in a competitive setting within a matter of weeks. Notably the Sunderland Echo of 9 October 1880 records the ‘first practice match of the season’ rather than ‘first practice match’ or ‘first practice match ever.’


There is no record of Sunderland playing a game until 13 November 1880 against Ferryhill but that is not to say football was not being played. It is possible but unlikely that a formal full size game was played against any other club prior to that Ferryhill game. Even in practice matches there were unlikely to be sufficient players to make 11 a side games possible. If any did take place they are likely to have been the exception rather than the rule.


Interestingly match reports in both The Sunderland Echo and The Newcastle Journal fail to mention that the Ferryhill match was Sunderland’s first ever game but both do state that Sunderland were without their five best men. Quite possibly the reporters had been fed this information by a club official but if this was a first ever game how would anyone know who the five best men were?  A report in the Athletic News does state that Sunderland staged its first match but this is not completely clear as to whether it is a first match ever, a first match of the season, or most likely a first match against different club, but not the first match at all. Notably no fewer than four of the members present at the September 1880 announcement: Grayston, Sewell, Elliott and Coates, were not in attendance for this game and if it was a very first match would it not be more likely that having put so much effort into getting a team up and running they would be there and eager to play?


Despite many mentions in the press over the following couple of decades when the formation would have been fresh in the minds of so many, the original date of 1879 was not questioned. For instance following the death of Councillor Robert Singleton; the club’s first captain and treasurer, in 1895 an article in the Sunderland Echo stated of Singleton, “He presided over the first meeting held for the purpose of forming a club, the other gentlemen present being Messrs J. Allan, W.C. Chappel, E. Watson and W. Elliott. The meeting took place at the British School, Norfolk Street in October 1879. A club was then formed under the title of ‘The Sunderland Teachers’ Association Football Club.’ By a co-incidence CW Alcock had been born in the same street as the British Day School and today both buildings are marked with blue plaques.


It would appear from this that the October 1879 meeting was “the first meeting held for the purpose of forming a club”. Quite possibly further meetings were held, perhaps informally to discuss the progress being made with playing the new game until the stage was reached in September 1880 when they were ready to take part in organized competitions. ‘The Rise of the Leaguers’ by the editor of the Athletic News, James Catton, published in 1897 states, “…a number of schoolmasters and pupil teachers resident in Sunderland formed a team for their own amusement.”


While it is believed the original title was in fact ‘The Sunderland and District Teachers’ Association Football Club the stated date of the initial meeting of October 1879 in the Echo article of 1895 was not challenged at the time. Nor was it challenged a decade later in a book by Alfred Gibson and William Pickford called, ‘Association Football and The Men Who Made It’ – published in 1905. In this book the opening sentence on Sunderland says, “It was in the year 1879 that ‘The Sunderland School Teachers’ Association Football Club’ was formed with no more serious purpose than to provide amusement for the members who were drawn from the schools in the town.’


Gibson and Pickford’s explanation that the initial purpose of the club was simply to provide amusement for the town’s teachers illustrates that initially that is what the club was for. It would seem that as interest in the sport developed it was decided to take this interest further.


Mysteriously and quite possibly erroneously there is also a mention in the Sunderland Echo of 14 August 1939 which refers to a Hendon Teachers’ Football Club which the article states, ‘was started before the Town club.’ The ‘Town club’ would seem to be Sunderland. Perhaps there was a previous attempt by Allan to set up this team? The 1939 article claims this club became defunct during the war ‘when the field was dug up for trenches.’ Presumably this was World War One. It is known – and reported in the Sunderland Echo that in 1916 trenches were dug in Fulwell Dene but evidence that trenches were dug in the Hendon area in that period is not known. If there was a Hendon Teachers’ Football Club ‘started before the Town club’ the chances are high that this would be Allan trying to get the sport off the ground, but if it continued until the war surely more would have been known of the club? Nonetheless this fleeting mention of this early club raises another fascinating lead into the origins of football in Sunderland.


In trying to summarise what inevitably becomes a complicated subject, as fragments of information of approaching a century and a half ago are studied, the origins of Sunderland A.F.C. are held as:



  1. An initial meeting was held in the British School in Norfolk Street in October 1879.
  2. This followed the club’s founder, James Allan, bringing a round soccer ball to the town and introducing the people of Wearside to the game of association football.
  3. The early schoolteacher players gradually developed their interest until they reached the point that when fired by the prospect of entering the Northumberland and Durham F.A. Cup competition they revealed their presence publicly on 25 September 1880.
  4. The club states that it continues to recognize October 1879 as the date it began life and that 25 September 1880 is also a very important date in the history of the club.
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