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”.