James Allan, a recently qualified teacher, arrives from Scotland to take up the post of Second Assistant Master at the Hendon Board School, on 1st April 1879. His new colleagues include Walter Chappell, the First Assistant Master, and John Grayston, a Pupil Teacher.
Allan is interested in sport in general, and Association Football in particular, having played that game as a teenager in Scotland. However he is disappointed to discover that no-one plays football in Sunderland, the only organised team sport is Rugby Union. John Grayston is a playing member of the local rugby club at Hendon – Sunderland Rovers – and invites Allan to join that club as a “spectator” member, probably with a view to interesting Allan in becoming a fellow player.
James Allan has other ideas. He is only slightly built and doesn’t really fancy rugby. When he returns home to Scotland during his school summer holiday of 1879, he obtains a round football and a set of the association rules from his old football-playing friends. The new school year starts in September 1879, and in the same month James Allan is one of seven new members enrolling into the Sunderland and District Teachers’ Association. Here he meets for the first time a much larger selection of male teachers of such an age that they are either already actively playing sports or are interested in doing so. He probably chats to them about Association Football and is encouraged that enough of the teachers are curious about the game; some of them may have heard about it, but few have any idea how to play.
Meanwhile, Allan introduces football in the school yard of Hendon Board School. No doubt John Grayston and Walter Chappell are amongst the first to have a kick-about with him. Other teachers and pupils at the school join in, and after a while they are maybe having a few 3/4/5 a-side games in their spare time in the school yard. The adult players enjoy the game but aspire to play full-scale games, and there simply aren’t enough of them at Hendon Board School. They contemplate that there is probably enough interest amongst the young male teachers in the Sunderland District, and determine to try to galvanise support.
In late 1879 (possibly October, but by no means definitely), James Allan asks John Grayston to book a room at the British School, Norfolk Street, Sunderland, and canvass around the other schools in Sunderland for teachers interested in learning to play Association Football. The meeting is held, and a reasonable number of teachers turn up, including the likes of Robert Singleton, John Sewell, John Coates and William Elliott, as well as the three Hendon Board School enthusiasts. They decide there are sufficient of them to have a go at playing the new sport on a larger scale.
During the coming months, there are maybe a dozen or more teachers gathering occasionally – probably at various school yards and playing fields – for informal kickabouts. There are probably half-a-dozen or so stalwarts and a more “fluid” number of others who turn up. They may even have managed a full scale 11 a-side game at some point.
The stalwarts hear about the formation of the Northumberland and Durham F.A. in January 1880, and realise that the sport they are playing is starting to gain a foothold in the North-East. However, they don’t consider they are proficient enough to play against an established team, and those teams are too far away anyway, so they keep their heads down and content themselves with their informal games against each other.
When the Northumberland and Durham F.A. introduce a challenge cup in May 1880, and actively encourage new teams to form, James Allan starts to push his fellow teachers towards formally creating a team and entering the new competition. However, it is late in the school year, the cricket season has started and the summer holidays are looming. Perhaps they resolve to officially form a team after their holidays when the new football season starts; or perhaps they are still a bit reticent.
The teachers return from their holidays in September 1880. James Allan soon finds out that the closing date for entry to the new Challenge Cup is only a month away, and starts to badger the other teachers to form a team to enter. They realise that to do this they will need to formalise their relationship with each other, appoint officers and have membership, etc. in order to satisfy the conditions for affiliation to the F.A. and entry to the cup competition.
As it happens, they are all due to attend a special meeting of the Sunderland and District Teachers’ Association at Rectory Park School, Sunderland on the afternoon of 25th September 1880. They take advantage of this fact to organise a follow-on meeting of the subset of football playing teachers, at which they will make their football club a formal entity.
The day arrives, and after sitting through a speech from the secretary of their national teachers’ union, the footballers get down to the more important business of the day. They officially form Sunderland and District Teachers’ Association Football Club, appointing Robert Singleton as Captain and Treasurer, James Allan as Vice-Captain, William Elliott as secretary and Messrs. Gibbons, Chappell, Coates and Sewell as committee members. John Grayston is probably there too, along with several others who become members.
The new club quickly rent the Blue House Field as their ground and decide to play in a navy blue outfit. Unfortunately, their initial practice matches are not very well attended. The teachers’ have concerns about meeting their running costs with such paltry numbers, and decide they will open the club up to the wider population to boost membership. They realise they will have to drop the “Teacher” element from the club name to broaden its appeal, so after their practice match on 16th October 1880, they rename their club “Sunderland Association Football Club”.
Sunderland Association Football Club joins the Northumberland and Durham F.A. and enters the Challenge Cup. They initially still struggle for numbers and players of sufficient ability so they start to advertise for players in the local press. They are finally off and running on 13th November 1880, playing Ferryhill at the Blue House Field; three of the founders – Coates, Sewell and Grayston – fail to turn up for this momentous occasion, and the weakened team lose 1-0.
So what should be considered to be the date that Sunderland A.F.C. formed? October 1879, 25th September 1880, or some day in between? It all depends on your definition of “formed”…