Updated: Jul 14
Sunderland AFC came away empty handed from their trip over the river to Sunderland Rovers for the first ever league meeting between the two clubs. In front of a raucous sold-out Hendon crowd Sunderland Rovers took all three points on their Royal Rovers Ground.
As Sunderland AFC find ever lower depths this is one news report we are unlikely to see, or certainly not for a while, you have to go fairly far down the non league tables before you come across another Sunderland side. Sunderland is definitely a one club town, the general view is it was always going to be this way after Sunderland AFC's short lived cross city rivals, Sunderland Albion went under in 1892. What no one seems to mention is that there was another club, Sunderland Rovers.
Every Sunderland fan knows the story of Albion, set up in 1888 by Scottish teacher James Allan when he took the hump with the way the things were going at Sunderland AFC, the club he had founded. Albion joined as one of the original members of the Football Alliance, an early rival of the Football League but after a solid couple of years and a failed attempt to join the football league they ran into administration and financial difficulties. When their main backer Hartley's Glass went bust due to an ongoing labour strike it was all over for Albion and they were wound up by 1892. Sounds like a tale from modern football doesn't it? A rich owner trying to shortcut a team to the top and it all goes pop when the money runs out. If they'd hung on just a little longer they would have reached the holy grail as the Alliance and League merged for the 1892/93 season.
However Sunderland's other 'second club' existed before Albion and lasted for decades longer but barely get a mention. Beginning in 1884 as Royal Rovers before ultimately becoming Sunderland Rovers AFC and if things had been different could have been lining up the third tier against Sunderland AFC.
The Daily Herald, a national paper, which I assume was more credible than its successor The S*n, talks of setting up a new league in 1919. With just two divisions in the football league there were a lot of professional and ambitious teams kicking about in regional leagues. Sunderland Rovers were included in the teams proposed for the league with the likes of Tranmere Rovers, Crewe, Rochdale and Port Vale etc. The fact that Sunderland Rovers' were included in this list shows their standing as Sunderland's second club and one of the north east's foremost clubs.
The planned league was to sit at the third tier and ultimately join with the Southern League to become a National League. The Football League was dominated by northern and midland clubs so at that time the Southern League table reads like a who's who of future football league clubs from the south of England.
So who were Sunderland Rovers?
A boy's club that grew from humble beginnings playing friendlies on sand behind cattle sheds down the dock to becoming 'the best known local team on Wearside and one of the finest amateur organisations in Durham and the north east of England' before joining the leagues of the professionals and mixing it with teams like Hartlepool and Darlington in the top tier outside of the then two division Football League.
Their tale and storylines mirrors many of those we see today and consider a scourge of 'modern football': shithousing, B Teams playing in the lower leagues, rich teams hoovering up talent, unruly crowds, rule breaches, teams dominating. Perhaps the only difference being the cast rotated more than it does today, with a small cabal of clubs having the modern leagues firmly in their deep pockets.
The Early Years 1884 to 1893
The club began when a group of schoolboys decided to form a club. Stuck for a name they opted for Royal Rovers after one of the boy’s grandparents pub, the long since demolished Royal Hotel in Prospect Row, Hendon, Sunderland. Initially playing friendlies with 4d India rubber balls that often ended up on the sea before graduating to a second hand rugby ball from 'Old Peter's' in Low Row, they finally raised the funds for an association ball and entered junior cups.
Shithousing was still alive and well in the 19th century juvenile game with the Rovers being awarded a win in the Roker Cup after the Union Swifts didn't bother turning up but still dialled in a phantom 3-2 win. Outside of the cups games were generally on an ad-hoc basis arranged via the 'challenge' section of the local paper.
By 1892 the average age of the team was 17 and they were playing on the Town Moor and meeting before games in the Royal Hotel. Roker Villa called them out in the Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette. 'Roker Villa challenge Royal Rovers for a ball or set of medals on neutral ground'. Might as well have put 'bring yer dinner' too. Rovers won and realised they had outgrown boys football and looked for a league to join, the new Wearside Alliance opened the door.
The Wearside Years 1893 to 1906
Following a meeting at Lockhart's Cocoa Rooms on High Street West a new league was formed for the 1893/94 season, the Wearside Alliance, which gave Royal Rovers the chance to test themselves for the first time in a mens' league. It went ok with a 3rd placed finish. The winners Egypt Rangers (based in the streets of Hendon named after Egyptian places, so 'Little Egypt') were presented with a silver cup and gold medals at the end of season presentation at the Central Coffee Tavern over a 'knife and fork tea'. Next time you treat your wife/husband, make it a classy affair with a 'knife and fork tea'. Rovers didn't have to wait long for their first Championship, winning it the following season. They then moved to a new ground, the 'Royal Rovers Ground' where they stayed until their demise. Exactly where doesn't seem to be detailed beyond the fact it was in Hendon and they 'kicked towards the sea' but like all good Sunderland football stories the Blue House pub is never far away and local maps from the time suggest it was on the other side of what is now Commercial Road to Sunderland AFC's first Blue House ground. Just north of the gasometers, tucked up next to oil stores, roughly where Ward Bros Steel sits now.
With a new ground and a title under their belt they graduated to the stronger Wearside League in 1896/97. A league which is still going strong today, the Wearside Alliance had wound up by 1904 taking with it many of its records. After a steady start the 'Royalists' as some papers called them beat Whitburn in 1899 to win the inaugural Shipowners Cup, set up to raise money for a local orphanage. Rovers had actually lost the semi against South Hylton but won when it was replayed after Hylton were found to have played an ineligible player. They followed this up by finishing 2nd in the league the following season. It wasn't the last time they'd appeal to the league to get games replayed.
By 1901 they had key players in the side like forward Thomas Brown, William Berry and Thomas Stewart who all went on to play regularly in the football league after brief spells at Sunderland AFC. Berry ended up at Spurs and Manchester United. Only Ralph Scott remained from the original players but this helped them become Wearside's most dominant team as they won the Wearside league for the first time, using just 15 local players. They also won the Shipowners Cup and Monkwearmouth Charity Cup and were only denied a quadruple as they were beaten in the Durham Cup by eventual winners Sunderland AFC's reserve side. The few pictures of the team with the cups show them in striped shirts. With it being black and white it's impossible to say what colour the stripe was but it certainly wasn't black and may possibly have been red and white.
They almost followed up with a second treble in 02 but lost the Monkwearmouth Cup final to West End and had to make do with the League and Shipowners Cup double. Their stranglehold on the league continued with third and fourth consecutive titles in 03 and 04. The 03 title was a close run thing with a title play off on the neutral ground of Roker Park against Southwick being required. Rovers won out but newspaper reports from the time stated that 'the spectators frequently disagreed with the referees decision, as was shown by their shouting and hissing' which sounds just like matches today.
1905/06 was their last season in the Wearside League, they finished runners up and won the Monkwearmouth Cup but changes were afoot in the regional leagues. The 'A' sides, the reserve teams of the day of northeast giants Sunderland, Newcastle and Middlesbrough had generally dominated local leagues and had switched between the Northern Alliance and Northern League, made moves to set up a new professional league for their reserve sides and few other clubs that would be the premier league in north east football. Only the 2 divisions of the Football League would sit higher.
Beneath the two tier football league the 'third level' generally consisted of wider regional professional or semi-professional leagues like the Midland League and Southern League that contained a mix of reserve sides and the strongest sides excluded from the football leagues. The planned North Eastern League looked to emulate this but the whole scene was a little mixed up with clubs switching between leagues and sometimes even playing teams in more than one league at a time.
The official line from the big professional clubs was that the likes of the Northern League was not a strong enough challenge for their reserve teams but the Northern League had made a decision to be an amateur league which forced their hand. Such was Royal Rovers standing in the local game that they were one of only a small number of non-reserve sides invited to the preliminary discussions.
Buoyed by their success in the local cups Royal Rovers entered the FA Cup for the first time in the 1901/02 season. The FA Cup was a different beast then with 5 regional qualifying rounds including some second tier teams before the rest of Division 2 joined in an 'intermediate round' with the top tier sides eventually joining in round one with just three rounds before the quarter final.
In their first attempt they made the fourth qualifying round before going one better the following season and reaching the fifth qualifying round. However it was a sobering experience as they exited at the hands of Bishop Auckland. An 8-0 loss showing the strength of Bishop, one of the giants on the 'amateur' scene at that time. Bishop Auckland drew league side Preston North End in the next round, narrowly losing out 3-1. Throughout the dozen or so years Rovers entered the fifth qualifying round was as good as it got. Which is roughly equivalent to reaching the early rounds of the modern version, with their conquerors generally going on to narrowly lose to league teams.
Modern teams moan about scheduling but in 1913 Rovers played on the 6th, replayed on Monday 11th, again on Tuesday 12th before playing the next round on Saturday 16th. Unsurprisingly Hartlepools edged them out 2-1.
The Professional Years 1906-15
Royal Rovers initially were not voted into the new North Eastern League but they were on 'standby' so when Hull City and Hartlepools withdrew they got the invite. After a 'special meeting' they agreed to join the new professional league with Sunderland being added as a prefix to represent their wider regional outlook. The league rules required changing rooms and bathing facilities so the Royal Rovers Ground was obviously of a reasonable standard and it appears to have also been in regular use for local finals and events, so was more than just a shit filled cow field with a rope round.
Ahead of the first season (06/07) in the new league saw them lose some key players. Key forward Thomas Brown moved to Sunderland AFC, goalkeeper Thomson and back Thomas Stewart who had left and returned moved to Clapton Orient and John Thomas Johnson moved to Middlesbrough for £70. In previous years Sunderland legend Raich Carter's father Rob had played for Rovers, before moving on to play league football. Known as 'the toddler' due to his small stature he died at just 47 from injuries sustained during his football career after returning to Sunderland to run the Ocean Queen pub in Tower Street, Hendon.
Despite losing 'two or three of their best players to more lucrative arrangements' the first season was a relative success. The away game at Roker Park against Sunderland A 'yielded a capital game' but despite playing a 'resolute and meritorious game' they lost 3-0. However the home tie saw them beat Sunderland A in front of a record attendance. More than 3,000 also turned out to see Rovers take on Newcastle A and ultimately they finished 7th out of 10.
The next season saw them finish a strong 5th out of 13th. Only Sunderland A, Newcastle A, Shildon and Leeds II finished above. The likes of Middlesbrough A finished below them which gives an indication of their strength in the new professional league. How 'professional' Rovers were is unclear but newspaper reports of cup games against amateur sides state them as being professionals. The lines between the two were often blurred with 'professionals' often holding other jobs and 'amateurs' receiving expenses and other substantial 'perks'. The drain of talent to Football League clubs and other richer clubs eventually took its toll on Rovers and they finished bottom for the next 4 seasons. Newspaper reports continually refer to the conveyor belt of talent that has found its way into the more lucrative football league from Rovers.
The 'Royal' was dropped in 2010, it appears on the insistence of the league as they wanted to move away from 'pub team' sounding names as South Shields dropped 'Adelaide' and Seaham dropped 'White Star' during their brief foray into the league.
By 1914 Sunderland Rovers were on the rise again, the league had grown to 20 teams and after an 18th place finish in 1913 they finished 15th in 1914. The last full season held before it ceased due to the war was 1914/15 and Rovers finished a creditable 10th ahead of the first teams of Carlisle United, Spennymoor and Blyth Spartans and just behind Hartlepools United. More than holding their own in what was now a very strong league, in line with the founder's aims, with crowds of over 5,000 reported at Rovers games.
After featuring in various local 'war leagues' the North Eastern League kicked off again after the war in 1919 with the majority of pre-war clubs carrying on. However Sunderland Rovers were not one of them, they along with Gateshead failed to turn up to the league meeting to restart the league and it was assumed they would not be joining.
The new third tier national league proposed in 1919 came to nothing before the first post war season in 1919/20. However it wasn't long before a third tier was added to the football league as the following season pretty much the entire Southern League was annexed to become the third tier of the football league. It was then expanded and regionalised for the 1921/22 season. Just a few years later 17 of the 20 clubs mentioned in the Daily Herald report were members of the Football League.
Four of Rovers' pre-war North Eastern League peers had also found their way into the new football league. Darlington had cemented their place by winning the league the season before but the others like Ashington, Durham and Hartlepools United had all finished mid-table in the seasons prior to joining the football league, much like Sunderland Rovers had before the war.
Sunderland Rovers were not one of them, they had just 'disappeared' by 1919, coincidentally along with Newcastle City who were one of the other three in the list that didn't make it to Division 3 North.
What happened to Sunderland Rovers?
The trail stops with a newspaper report from February 1918. It states the military authorities have decided to take over their ground for 'military purposes' from April 9th. Rovers anticipate being able to finish their fixtures first. It looks like that is where the story ends, either way there's no mention of them playing post World War One, bar what appears to be an erroneous mention of a win over Burton Albion in 1920.
It appears the ground was turned into an allotment shortly after the war with a 1946 report stating the St Thomas and Royal Rovers Ground allotments, cultivated since 1916 are being covered by a factory, which will severely impact the Laburnum Leek Club as the membership will halve. This supports the idea that the ground was near the Blue House field at the end of Robinson Terrace, not far from the Laburnum Cottage pub. Aerial shots from the 1920s show allotments where the map shows a football ground should be.
It's not clear what happened to Rovers, did the military continue using the ground for a period after the war or was it no longer serviceable as a football ground? Perhaps they had a backer who was no longer able to support them, perhaps there just wasn't the will or ability to carry on. Whatever happened the club didn't survive the war. We will probably never know for sure but if Sunderland Rovers had survived, the football landscape in Sunderland might have looked very different today.