On the Sunderland History Trail

It is always pleasing to see a club treating its history and heritage with the reverence it deserves. Few clubs do it better than Sunderland, who have a dedicated fans museum on North Bridge Street, in the former Monkwearmouth railway station building, which houses a plethora of memorabilia.

Furthermore, there are other reminders of their 142 years of history are dotted all over the city, both north and south of the Wear. Each of Sunderland’s seven former home grounds are commemorated with a blue plaque, as is the building where the club was formed in October 1879. This is now the Norfolk Hotel on Norfolk Street, but back then the building served as a boarding school known as The British Day School. The leading light was schoolmaster James Allan and the meeting passed that a new club would be formed, under its original name of Sunderland and District Teachers AFC.

The new clubs’ initial games were played at the Blue House Field in Hendon, adjacent to the public house of the same name, which is still open to this day. Annual rent of £10 was agreed and In October 1880 the club became Sunderland AFC, to open up membership to more than just fellow teachers. The club remained at Blue House Field until 1881. Much of the four field site that made up the Blue House sports area is now covered by the Raich Carter Sports Centre which was opened in 2001. The Blue House Field plaque is sited on the pillar of a wall in Commercial Street close to the junction with Promenade.

After a somewhat hasty departure from the Blue House Field, temporary refuge was sought at The Cedars where four games were played in 1881. The plaque is sited on the wall of 25 Manilla Street, close to the Victoria Gardens public house.

Sunderland’s third ground at The Grove in Ashbrooke, is the only one of their former grounds still in use as a sports venue. The first recorded match at The Grove was a friendly against North Eastern on November 4th 1882, although the match was abandoned following a disagreement between umpires, with Sunderland winning 2-0. The club remained there for the rest of that season and, significantly, it was to be their last ground on the south side of the river. In May 1887, The Grove was renamed as the Ashbrooke Ground, and remains as the home to Sunderland Cricket Club and Sunderland Rugby Club. The magnificent James Henderson designed pavilion was opened in May 1899 at a cost of £600. The Grove’s blue plaque is not easy to spot, being tucked away in a corner of an external wall of the cricket clubhouse.

Sunderland’s first season playing north of the Wear was in 1883/84 when they played for a season at the Dolly Field in Roker. Players would change in the still existing The Wolsey and walk down to the ground in Horatio Street. The field was not popular with the players as it was always heavy and was referred to a “clay-dolly field”. The Dolly Field plaque is sited on 39 Givens Street at the junction with Appley Terrace.

After just a season at the Dolly Field, Sunderland moved to the nearby Abbs Field in Fulwell, where they spent the next two seasons. Annual rent was initially only £2 10s per annum but rose to £15 for the following season. Abbs Field was also their first ground that was properly enclosed, allowing for admission to be charged for the first time. The plaque is situated on the front garden wall of 33 Prengarth Avenue.

After five grounds in their first seven years of existence, their next move was to the already existent Newcastle Road enclosure which would be their first ground of real tenure and substance. The ground would eventually hold over 20,000 people. The ground was owned by the Thompson sisters who had considerable family wealth from the J.L. Thompson Shipyard in North Sands. The move to Newcastle Road would also see the club achieve a sustained period of success. Sunderland’s first recorded match at Newcastle Road was against Darlington and took place on April 3rd 1886. The ground had a grandstand holding 1,000 people and substantial terracing was laid around the remaining three sides, giving a capacity of 15,000. In May 1888, the now long defunct Sunderland Albion were formed by Sunderland members, including founder James Allan, who had become disgruntled with the clubs’ commercial direction. Albion played their first ever game at Newcastle Road, defeating Shankhouse Blackwatch, but would subsequently play home games at Blue House Field. Such was the clamour locally for a match between the two clubs, a friendly was arranged in December 1888. A staggering 18,000 crammed into Newcastle Road to witness a 2-0 win for Sunderland. It was to prove a bitter, but short lived rivalry, after Sunderland’s first League title success in 1892, Albion threw the towel in and went into voluntary liquidation.

Sunderland’s first match as a Football League club, they had gained election in place of founding member Stoke, had taken place at Newcastle Road on September 13th 1890 against Burnley. Later that season on March 7th 1891, the ground staged and England international match against Wales. Sunderland won their first League championship in 1891/92, only their second campaign as a Football League club, finishing five points clear of Preston North End. They would win it again in 1892/93 and for a third time in 1894/95 as well as being runners up to Aston Villa in 1893/94. Under the guidance of manager Tom Watson, the Sunderland team became known as “The Team of All the Talents”, the 1892/93 title win saw the club score an incredible 100 goals in only 30 League matches.

While trophy success had dried up after Tom Watson had left to manage Liverpool, what had become patently obvious was the club had already outgrown the Newcastle Road ground. There was no further room to expand, the ground was hemmed in by Crozier Street to south, Eglinton Street North to the west and Newcastle Road to the east. The rabid demand by fans wanting to see home games left the club no choice but to look for a site with a much bigger capacity. The final game at Newcastle Road was held on April 23rd 1898 when Nottingham Forest were the final guests. The record attendance at the ground had been set earlier in that last season when 22,000 gathered for the visit of Aston Villa in October 1897. The blue plaque is on the wall of the Thompson Park Community Centre and is not easy to see as the centre has now closed down.

The site chosen by the board for the new ground was on farmland back in the Roker area, and Roker Park would become Sunderland’s home for the next 99 years. Initially Roker Park had wooden stands and terracing, but these were soon found to be inadequate, games often getting halted due to pitch invasions, primarily caused by overcrowding. Flush with money following further League championships in 1902 and 1913 the ground started to be rebuilt in concrete. By the mid 1930’s, under the auspices of Archibald Leitch, Roker Park had huge stands on all four sides, the Clock Stand in 1936 being the last to be constructed. Roker Park closed in 1997, following the opening of the Stadium of Light. Roker Park’s all time record gate being 75,118 for a Wednesday afternoon FA Cup replay against Derby County in 1933. A housing estate was built on the site with road names such as Midfield Drive, Promotion Close and Clockstand Close. The blue plaque is on 5 Roker Park Close.

The final Sunderland AFC related blue plaque is sited on the entrance to Silksworth Memorial Park, home of Silksworth Colliery Welfare. The plaque commemorates Bobby Gurney, born in Stewart Street, Silksworth, and the clubs’ all time record goalscorer with 288 goals.

It would be remiss not to mention other Sunderland AFC historical sights like the incredible murals of Frank Styles. The artist is crowdfunded by Sunderland supporters to paint murals of Sunderland legends. The first was Raich Carter on the wall of the Blue House pub in Hendon.

The walls of the Golden Fleece in New Silksworth have two stunning images of Bobby Gurney.

The Times Inn in Southwick, underneath the Queen Alexandra Bridge, has truly incredible murals of Jim Montgomery and Kevin Phillips.

The Stadium of Light was augmented in 2006 by the unveiling of Sean Hedges-Quinn’s bronze statue of legendary manager Bob Stokoe. The plinth is inscribed with his quote “I didn’t bring the magic. It’s always been here… I just came back to find it”.

Few clubs are as diligent with their heritage as Sunderland, I spent a fascinating time looking around it, and can heartily recommend it.

A version of this article first appeared in edition No.107 of the superb football grounds magazine, “Groundtastic”.

Notes From A Small Island 2 – Isle of Man

I am not sure why it has taken me so long to visit the Isle of Man (or Ellan Vannin in the historical Manx language). A crown dependency in the middle of the Irish Sea it’s easy enough to get to, ferry from Heysham or a short flight from Birmingham. The latter sets you down at the Ronaldsway airport in good time for a scoot around the island to check out some of the island’s football grounds with the plan being a 2pm kick off at Castletown Metropolitan followed by the under 18 representative match at The Bowl in Douglas.

With the weather less than obliging it was prudent to check out Castletown ahead of their top of the table clash with rivals Pulrose United. Chairman Patty Quinney was at the Malew Road ground and confirmed the pitch would be no problem despite the weather. A nice little ground, dating from the 1950’s, boasting a small stand and a bit of cover the encounter with Pulrose had a bit of needle as both clubs are striving for promotion. The Isle of Man has a First and Second Division and then two Combination Leagues for second teams.

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Castletown Metropolitan AFC – Malew Street

Our scoot around the island started at Peel’s superb Douglas Road ground which has recently benefited from a new pitch (after sand containing glass was accidentally spread on the pitch last season!) and a make over of the stand with new plastic seats and a liberal lick of red paint around the place. The ground also boasts an indoor 3G surface.

A very pleasant drive up the west coast road found us in Ramsey, their own game had been called off earlier in the week as several of their players were selected for the representative game against Norfolk. What a fantastic ground Ballacloan Stadium is, named after the large house behind the far goal this end of the ground has quite scarily vertiginous stone terracing which sadly has out of bounds signs on it these days. A great shame must have been incredible to stand on these steep but shallow steps. There is also a decent stand with substantial terracing either side. The stadium sits in between a boating lake on North Shore Road and Mooragh Park and is particularly scenic.

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Ramsey AFC – Ballacloan Stadium

Laxey AFC were formed in 1910 and play at the Henry Bloom Moore Recreation Ground on Glen Road near the picturesque harbour. A substantial stretch of terracing is set off by a footpath that disappears up the cliff to higher ground.

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Laxey AFC – Henry Bloom Moore Recreation Ground

Next was the Isle of Man’s equivalent to Cowdenbeath’s Central Park in as much that Onchan Raceway is primarily a motor sport venue with a football pitch in the middle. Home to Onchan AFC it was securely locked on this visit which was a shame as it looked to have a couple of stylish concrete stands.

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Onchan AFC – Onchan Raceway

By now Patty from Castletown had contacted us to say that their game had sadly bitten the dust, not due to a waterlogged pitch but for the fact that the pitch markings had completely washed away despite his best attempts to renew them! A quick decision was made to return to Peel and watch their Combination side take on their counterparts from Colby. A tight first half was succeeded by an avalanche of Peel goals in the second half. The game finished 8-1 with the impressive Shaun Kelly netting a double hat-trick. A very friendly club in a truly wonderful setting.

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Peel AFC – Douglas Road Ground

A quick dash to the island’s capital Douglas saw us in the Isle of Man FA Ground at The Bowl in good time for the 5pm kick off. This was a quarter-final in the FA County Youth Cup and a decent crowd of 279 turned out on a very soggy evening. The stadium was substantially renovated in 2011, and has an artificial surface. There is seating for 3,000 with one side covered with a tented style roof. A well contested game saw the visitors from Norfolk win 2-1 in extra time.

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The Bowl Stadium

Heading back to the airport on the Sunday morning afforded the opportunity to visit one final ground right on the southern tip of the island in Port Erin. Croit Lowey is the home of Rushen United and has a clubhouse on an elevated platform above the pitch and this has a substantial section of cover running the length of the building.

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Rushen United – Croit Lowey

Despite the poor weather it was a memorable trip to this scandalously overlooked island. One can’t help thinking how ideal Isle of Man football would be for an organised groundhop. Decent facilities, friendly folk and a real tradition in football and nowhere particularly far from anywhere else it is tailor made for a groundhopping extravaganza.

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Tubize, or not Tubize, that is the question? (AFC Tubize)

The current AFC Tubize is the result of a 1990 merger between F.C. Tubize and Amis Réunis de Tubize. The former had begun life in 1919 as Athletic Club Tubizien while Amis Réunis appeared on the scene in 1974. The old Tubize club had merged with several other clubs over the years so a merger of the two remaining clubs representing this small Walloon city made sense if the town was to compete at the highest level.

The combined club progressed quickly under the astute coaching of Theo Buelinckx and in seven seasons Tubize moved from the third division of the provincial league to the third division of the national league, a remarkable four promotions.

After Buelinckx retired the club still continued their meteoric rise, promotion to the second tier came in 2002/03 and five seasons later they were promoted to the top division for the first time in their history. 

Unfortunately for Tubize the Belgian FA decided to reduce the top division from 18 clubs to 16 for the 2008/09 season and after finishing 17th the club slipped through the trap door with Dender and Mons, Roeselare surviving in the relegation play-offs. Tubize’s one season in the top flight had required the club to increase the capacity at the Stade Leburton from 5,000 to 8,000 seats and vastly improve media facilities.

The club has remained in the Second Division without really challenging for a return to the Pro League. The most recent time the club caused some headlines was in 2013 when they signed the former Korean international Hwang Jin-Sung. The signing provoked such interest in Tubize from his homeland that in August 2014 the Korean sports marketing firm, Sportizen, bought the club in its entirety.

The Stade Leburton has a modern stand on one side with plush corporate facilities and restaurants. Behind the far end goal is a huge seated stand which has one sector segregated off for away fans. Opposite the main stand is a small well elevated covered terrace where a small band of ultras congregate. Behind the near goal is a smart clubhouse. On the approach to the ground are two enormous statues of a Belgian forward and goalkeeper, they are quite an extraordinary sight.

Something Tubize may have to work on is their customer service. The ticket seller indicated that the seated stand was not available (there were loads of empty seats), and the stewards then said all bags of any type were not permitted into the stadium! There were only 500 people in attendance and they could have easily searched all those with bags but instead insisted that they were returned to cars. Quite what someone unaware of this ridiculous rule would do with their bag if arriving by public transport is beyond me. If that doesn’t rub you up the wrong way enough the insistence of checking your ticket every time you leave or go into the stand is a considerable annoyance. The standing ticket only gets you into one sector and you cannot physically get into another sector, so the checking of tickets is absolutely pointless.

On the field Tubize are soundly beaten today by an impressive looking Lommel side. The hosts’ cause is not helped by the dismissal on the half hour mark of Mamadou Diallo for apparently elbowing an opponent. The defeat had repercussions for the Tubize coach, Thierry Goudet, who after just three months in the job was relieved of his duties in the days after this heavy loss.

Aside from the poor stewarding of the ground the Leburton is a modern venue set in a wooded hollow and makes for a pleasant afternoon. The food kiosk sells a “country” sausage which was extremely tasty. 

With this being the first season of the smaller eight team professional Division 1B, it must be a concern to the club that they only managed to pull in 500 customers for this game. It will be interesting to see how this modest club from out in the sticks will compete with the more traditional powerhouses like Antwerp, Lierse and Union Saint-Gilloise.

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Proximus League – 14/08/2016

AFC Tubize 0

Lommel United 4 (Berben 17, Cauwenberg  40, De Bruyn 68, Adesanya 90)

Att: 500

Admission €8 (standing) Programme Free

Gallery

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