When Sunderland met Hearts in the first ever ‘Champions League’ match

The champions of England versus the champions of Scotland, 1895. At stake, the right to be regarded as world champions.

By Alexis James

This article first appeared in Issue 5 which was published in September 2017.

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What gave this new 1895 version an extra edge was that it would be the first time that champions from both leagues would come head-to-head on the same pitch.
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There were 22 Scotsmen on the Tynecastle pitch that day. Sunderland’s entire matchday squad was Scottish, with six of the starting XI boasting full international honours.

“This match, billed ‘for the championship of the world’, will be played at Edinburgh, the kick-off taking place at four o’clock. The Sunderland team travel by the 8.20 train to-morrow.”

Sunderland Echo and Shipping Gazette, Friday 26th April 1895

A thick fog greeted the Sunderland players upon their arrival in Edinburgh. It was Saturday, April 27, 1895 and their four-and-a-half-hour journey north saw them rattle into Waverley just before 1pm. After lunching at the Douglas Hotel, the visitors managed a stroll around Scotland’s bustling capital in the hours preceding kick-off, during which time the fog was replaced by heavy drizzle. With manager Tom Watson and his men now able to see the length of Princes Street, visibility was no longer a threat to this highly-anticipated game between two champions.

The changing weather was a relief for the Wearsiders. Having secured their third title in only their fifth season as a league side, Sunderland were in confident mood and keen to test themselves against the best from outside of England. As pleasant as Edinburgh was proving to be, they hadn’t come all this way for a walk.

Weeks earlier, Sunderland had accepted an invitation from Scottish champions Hearts to compete in a post-season match being described by the press as one that would crown the world’s best side.

If there was a hint of marketing spin that suited both sides, the claim was not without its merit. For while there also existed newly-formed leagues in Argentina and Ireland, it was widely-accepted that the fledgling sport’s best practitioners could be found either side of the Anglo-Scottish border.

There was little doubt as to Sunderland’s pedigree. Becoming the first league club from outside Lancashire or the Midlands when they were accepted into the Football League in 1890, they soon established themselves as England’s dominant side.

A final day 2-1 victory over second-placed Everton gave them their 21st league win of the campaign, finishing five points clear of the chasing pack. As he had done so often that season, the winning goal was scored by Sunderland’s most potent forward, Johnny Campbell, the league’s top scorer with 22 goals.

The Sunderland Echo enthused over the Wearsiders’ latest title, claiming it to be “a feat equaled by no other club, and sufficient to stamp them as the best team in the country.”

As the popularity of Association Football continued to spread countrywide, so did Sunderland’s renown. The South Wales Daily News reported: “For  the third time in five years Sunderland has proved its superiority to all English clubs. It is the only club which has not lost a league match on its own ground throughout the season.”

But there remained one glaring omission from their trophy haul. Having first competed in the FA Cup in 1884, they had twice been frustrated semi-finalists, with Aston Villa emerging as their first bogey side. The Villains had knocked Sunderland out in three of the four previous seasons, and an exasperated Wearside public failed to comprehend how their all-conquering league side couldn’t match their success in the world’s oldest football competition

Five years earlier, it had been a game against their future cup conquerors that essentially guaranteed Sunderland’s ascent into the Football League. As league runners-up and former FA Cup winners, Villa were expected to roll over a side yet to make a national impression when the two met in a friendly in April 1890.

But the Wearsiders’ 7-2 demolition of their prestigious opponents changed all that, with Villa chairman William McGregor proclaiming Sunderland as a team with a “talented man in every position”. With McGregor among the founders of the Football League, the victory proved to be the perfect audition and Sunderland were duly elected that summer ahead of the likes of Stoke, Grimsby and town rivals Sunderland Albion.

Dubbed the ‘Team of all Talents’, Sunderland owed much of their instant impact to their remote location, away from the country’s other major footballing towns. It had meant their formative years were spent playing Scottish sides, where an organised and efficient passing game had developed in contrast with the more selfish and direct style of the English. The Scots’ more progressive approach would eventually gain favour further south, thanks to sides such as Sunderland demonstrating just how effective possession-led football could be.

A game with Hearts in 1886 provided an early indication of the future strength of this Sunderland side. Following an 8-1 win over Edinburgh Thistle and a 7-0 defeat of Glasgow Pilgrims, Hearts were in fine form as Sunderland arrived in Edinburgh braced for a potential humbling. Hearts duly won the match 2-1, but the narrow margin meant the side kitted out in red and white halves returned to Wearside buoyed by their resolve and with real hope for the future.

Nine years on and Sunderland, now donning the famous stripes, repeated the journey north knowing that their awaiting hosts would provide the perfect barometer for their progress. This time they expected to show more than just courage and a will to hang on. As three-time English champions, they came to win.

Hearts had also improved in that time. The maiden Scottish title that they had just secured was built on a stunning start to the campaign that saw trainer Joe Newton’s side record 11 straight victories, a sequence that remains a club record. The pre-season addition of Barney Battles and James Mirk proved key, adding a solid defensive foundation to a team already brimming with attacking flair. The new full back partnership marshalled a Hearts defence that conceded a measly 18 goals all season, setting a new Scottish record.

In front of them prowled a forward line with a knack of sharing the goals amongst one another, ensuring that Hearts were not reliant on one prolific individual. Johnny Walker, Willie Michael, Bob McLaren and Tom Chambers all scored eight or more in the league, with the four of them combining for 66 goals in all competitions that season.

Walker was on the scoresheet twice in February 1895 when Hearts demolished second-placed Celtic 4-0 in front of 7,000 fans at Tynecastle, a result that framed Hearts as the country’s new champions a month before the achievement was assured.

“The Hearts of Midlothian can now rest without fear as to the ultimate resting place of the League championship,” reported the Dundee Courier following the win over Celtic. “The Tynecastle men did much as they pleased, and no explanation from Glasgow will ever make the Celtic team of Saturday equal to that of the Hearts.”

Yet, just as with Sunderland, cup success did not follow. Whether through nerves or fatigue, the champions contrived to lose a semi-final replay to a side who had finished five places and 14 points behind them in the league: Edinburgh rivals and eventual cup winners St Bernard. Gallingly for Hearts fans, they’d watch their team comfortably beat St Bernard 3-0 in a league tie just three weeks later.

Despite their league joy, cup flops for both the English and Scottish champions tainted their respective campaigns with an air of unfulfilled greatness. Ending the season with the title of World Champions would surely go some way to making up for it.

The first tie to carry the lofty World Championship title had occurred back in 1887, when Hibernian defeated Preston North End 2-1 in Edinburgh. A year later, Renton claimed the crown with a 4-1 thumping of West Brom in Glasgow, with the West Dunbartonshire club allowed to bask in their glory for the seven years it took for the unofficial exhibition to return to the post-season fixture list.

Beginning before leagues were established by either Football Association, the initial concept had been to pit cup winners against one another (though Preston were only FA Cup semi-finalists). And so far, both Scottish Cup winners had proven superior to their English counterparts.

What gave this new 1895 version an extra edge was that it would be the first time that champions from both leagues would come head-to-head on the same pitch. In that respect, Hearts v Sunderland can claim to be football’s first ever Champions League-style fixture, 60 years before the first European Cup tie.

But while future UEFA founder Henri Delauney kicked a ball around the streets of Paris as a carefree 12-year-old, the game he’d one day revolutionise centred around only two nations. For now, England and Scotland formed the centre of football’s young universe, and it was only a matter of time before a rookie rivalry began to grow into something feistier.

As a burgeoning competitiveness formed between the Associations, any pleasure the Scots initially took at introducing their rivals to a more attractive form of play began to transform into a fear that the English might one day do it better.

Before professionalising their league in 1885, England’s national team had beaten Scotland only twice in 13 encounters. But three weeks before Hearts welcomed Sunderland, England’s 3-0 win over Scotland at Goodison Park was their fourth win in five previous encounters, the other finishing a draw. Just days later, a Football League XI defeated a Scottish League XI 4-1 as 30,000 watched through their hands at Celtic Park. The Edinburgh Evening News concluded that the results proved “that England is now in front of Scotland at her own game.”

But with their sides remaining amateur, the Scottish FA resolutely opposed any conclusion that hinted towards the benefits of paying players a wage. The English, of course, wanted to rubber stamp that very notion. And a win for their champions in Edinburgh would round off a convincing hat-trick.

“It is generally accepted in Edinburgh that Sunderland will make an effort to give the Hearts as big a beating as they can at Tynecastle tomorrow, and none are more alive to the fact than the Hearts themselves,” admitted a Scotland fan interviewed in the Sunderland Echo, going on to say: “It will be a thousand pities for Scotland if the English League champions find the Hearts in another of their off-days”.

But a week before the match in Edinburgh, both sides endured something of an off-day. Hearts lost an Edinburgh League home clash with Hibs, while Sunderland went down to their own local rivals, suffering a 1-0 friendly defeat to Newcastle. If their respective cup exits earlier in the season had removed any aura of invincibility, their latest defeats made both sides seem eminently beatable.

If either side wished to find reasons for positivity based on recent results, it would be the Scots who could do so more easily. For while waiting for their final league fixtures to be arranged, Sunderland had played two friendlies with Scottish sides, no doubt with one eye on their upcoming clash with their fellow champions. The visit of Clyde saw a 2-2 draw at the end of March, while a week later a trip to Dundee resulted in a 2-0 victory.

Whether by fate or design, Hearts had also faced the very same opposition that month, allowing for comparisons that gave the Edinburgh side genuine optimism. For not only had they breezed past Dundee 4-0 in a league game boasting four different scorers, but they’d also defeated Clyde 6-3 in a friendly that included a McLaren hat-trick and a rare goal for defender Mirk. On recent form, Hearts would start the game as favourites.

The bleak weather did nothing to deter the crowds as a record gate was welcomed at Tynecastle. Unfortunately for the 12,000 in attendance by 4pm, the team news brought initial disappointment as both sides were without key men through injury.

For Hearts, influential captain Isaac Begbie and top goalscorer Johnny Walker were significant absentees, while Sunderland would be without defender Andrew McCreadie and winger John Scott, the latter at least fit enough to run the line.

But the most glaring omission from the visitors’ XI was that of Hughie ‘Lalty’ Wilson. Despite travelling, Sunderland’s skipper would only be watching from the stands, much to the disappointment of the crowd. They had keenly anticipated witnessing the full back’s infamous one-handed throw-ins that caused such havoc in opposition boxes that it eventually led to a change in the law, requiring two hands to be used.

Despite the high-profile no-shows, there was still plenty of talent on display. Hearts’ armada of goalscorers meant they were still confident of finding the net in Walker’s absence, while in Ned Doig Sunderland possessed one of the finest goalkeepers in the game. Rarely seen without the flat cap that hid his increasingly shy hairline, Doig went on to play more than 650 times for Sunderland, making the No.1 shirt his for more than 14 years. And, just as many of Doig’s feats remain club records to this day, one player at the other end was also etching his name into the history books.

With 150 goals in 215 appearances, Johnny Campbell remains Sunderland’s fifth-highest goalscorer. Unlike Hearts’ communal attack, Campbell’s goals proved central to his side’s success, and as well as topping his team’s scoring tallies five times in six seasons, Campbell would finish as the League’s top marksman on three occasions. Only five strikers since have managed to equal or better that record. With him in the side, Hearts’ defence could not count on a minute’s peace.

As kick-off approached, Hearts won the toss and chose their preferred end knowing that the sodden pitch would not stay green for long. As Campbell kicked off for Sunderland, 22 pairs of adrenaline-fuelled legs ploughed the Tynecastle pitch in a frenzied opening spell.

Roared on by their home support, Hearts started the sharper of the two sides and had already forced Doig into three saves before Sunderland had even made it out of their own half.

Ever grateful to their reliable stopper for keeping them in the game, the visitors finally found a foothold as they looked to winger Jimmy Hannah to carry the ball forward. It was he who fashioned the first chance for Sunderland, crossing for Campbell whose potshot was well stopped by Hearts’ own acrobat between the sticks, Jock Fairbairn.

As a deteriorating pitch made short passing difficult, long balls and set pieces took on more significance. After forcing a couple of corners, Sunderland’s pressure finally told as a long-range effort from Harry Johnston snuck through a crowd of Hearts defenders past an unsighted Fairbairn.

Minutes later, the English champions had doubled their lead. Again it came from Hearts failing to clear their lines from a corner, this time the ball falling to Campbell to fire his side 2-0 up. Doig was once again relied upon minutes before the break, but as half-time arrived a swelling home crowd – with latecomers pushing the attendance past the 15,000 mark – wondered just how their team were going to reverse the game’s seemingly inevitable direction.

They needn’t have been concerned. Despite Campbell having a goal ruled out for offside, Hearts began the second half as eagerly as they had the first, only this time they finally had something to show for their efforts.

First, Willie Taylor’s persistence was rewarded with his third goal of the season to make it 2-1, before McLaren’s free-kick benefited from a wicked deflection to level the game, as Hearts scented a stunning turnaround.

Attacking direct from kick-off in a effort to quell the shift in momentum, Sunderland ended up gifting Hearts an immediate third goal on the break. A long punt forward found George Scott through on goal and he coolly slotted home, Doig opting to claim for offside instead of attempting a save. His protestations proved futile, and Hearts were on their way to a famous victory.

As the Scots continued to dominate, it appeared that the Wearsiders’ resistance was wilting. Yet an over-confident attack from the home side left their defence exposed to Sunderland’s indefatigable forwards, and they found the equaliser when Jimmy Millar combined with Campbell to beat Fairbairn with a well-struck drive. It left a stunning showpiece poised at 3-3 with just ten minutes to go.

Hearts were not to be disheartened but with Doig again proving a stubborn adversary, the game changed on another set piece. Robert McNeill’s free-kick, deep into the Hearts penalty area, found the head of that man Campbell whose fine glancing header put Sunderland back ahead.

This time the Wearside rearguard held out, and with Hearts running out of steam, Hannah’s endless running crafted yet more opportunities on the break for the away side. As an enthralled crowd began to make their way towards the exits, Campbell won a penalty that John Harvey dispatched to finally put the game beyond their hosts.

A breathless match finished 5-3 to Sunderland, and in 90 minutes the red and whites had scored more than a quarter of the total league goals Hearts had conceded all season.

“Sunderland have defeated the Hearts on Tynecastle, and the last scrap of honour has been snatched from our grasp. It was a fast and exciting match throughout, but it was pretty clear that the Wearsiders were the superior team,” reported the Dundee Courier the following Monday. The Sunderland Echo proved typically more effusive: “Sunderland may justly be said to pose as the premier football team of the globe.”

Match reports the following week acknowledged Sunderland’s victory as a deserved and emphatic one, despite the respectable effort from Hearts. For the third time inside a month, an English team had beaten the Scots, further emphasising that Scotland’s period of footballing dominance was over.

Yet while newspapers both sides of the border described how these “Englishmen” had won on Scottish soil, an elephant in the room began to emerge. And it bore tartan tusks.

For the facts show that there were 22 Scotsmen on the Tynecastle pitch that day. Sunderland’s entire matchday squad was Scottish, with six of the starting XI boasting full international honours. This included Arbroath-born hero Ned Doig, while their captain in the stands, Hughie Wilson of Mauchline, would even feature in a win against England two years later. Manager Tom Watson, the Tyneside-born tobacconist, was the only Englishman among the travelling contingent.

The truth was that Sunderland had been poaching players from Scotland for years. And they weren’t alone. Preston North End, the Football League’s first ever champions in 1889 and again in 1890, featured six Scots in their side. The practice of luring Scotland’s best talent south had been going on long before English football went professional in 1885, usually involving a dubious job offer in a conveniently located factory. Naturally, the ‘job’ would require very little in the way of actual work for the local club’s new star player.

In England, the arrivals were dubbed the Scottish Professors in relation to their superior technique and advanced tactics. The Scottish press didn’t quite see it the same way, labelling the exports as mercenaries and traitors, while the Scottish FA blacklisted any players known to have been paid to play.

But once the English FA eventually buckled under pressure from its top sides – including Preston, Sunderland and Villa – English clubs no longer needed to practice underhand tactics to recruit from its rival Association. Scouting them remained an altogether trickier proposition, however. Any English scouts spotted at a football match in Scotland would rarely return without a bruise or broken bone to show for their brazenness.

No club in England was in a better location to spot their most skilful northern neighbours than Sunderland. Playing so many friendlies with Scottish sides allowed them to shamelessly cherry-pick any players who impressed. But that didn’t stop the club from resorting to enterprising acts of subterfuge in an attempt to improve their squad. One such story concerns director Samuel Tyzack, who is said to have donned the collar and clothing of a local reverend to avoid being detected when meeting with Scotland’s finest exports.

Tyzack was a wealthy coal owner who, along with shipbuilder Robert Thompson, meant Sunderland were among the richest clubs in the land. For young players in Scotland, where the game remained staunchly amateur until 1893, the riches of the English game proved too attractive.

Not that they were always welcomed in their new home. In a letter published in 1887, one fan lamented the Scottish invasion: “It is certainly a humiliating confession to make that Sunderland cannot produce men good enough to play football… A better name would be ‘Sunderland and Scotch Mixtures’.”

But while the subject remained a hot topic in the stands (opposition fans would even mock Sunderland with cries of “Come on Scotland!”), the rare mentions of it in the match reports hints at a peculiar newsroom blackout.

This unique symbiosis allowed the English press to laud the success of its team without having to credit Scotland’s significant influence, while the Scottish newspapers avoided advertising the fact that its best players were heading south for money and medals.

Yet every now and then the mask slipped. Take the Edinburgh Evening News describing the pursuit of a young player: “Hearts have found themselves forestalled by Everton in the case of Crawford, the West Calder junior, who seems to have signed for the bloated capitalists of Goodison Park.”

Whether hidden agendas were at play or not, the response to the game proved mixed. While few disputed Sunderland’s dominance on the pitch, not everyone could agree to the significance of the result. The Sheffield Independent described it as a “capital game”, and The Scotsman raved about a match “full of excitement and fast play”, but the Edinburgh Evening News was not so enamoured. Despite acknowledging the large gate receipts, the game was described as “valueless” and “entirely without significance”, continuing: “Indeed, we may go further and pronounce it on play to have been a failure. The state of the ground, which lifted badly, doubtless accounted in part for the miserable exhibition…but the whole case goes to show how undesirable such events are from a sporting point of view, and what a prostitution of titles they are”.

Whether their indictment would have been quite so damning had the result been reversed we shall never know, but what is for sure is that it was another six years before the next ‘World Championship’ took place. This time the format reverted to the respective cup winners, which once again meant Hearts were Scotland’s representatives, while Tottenham took the mantle for England. A 0-0 draw in London in September 1901 allowed for a lucrative return leg at Tynecastle the following January, when Hearts finally claimed the prize, winning 3-1. The Edinburgh Evening News described it as “a very acceptable holiday match.”

Hearts still technically hold the title to this day. Their victory over Spurs proved  to be the final edition of the tie before being usurped by successors including the British League Cup and the Sir Thomas Lipton Trophy, as the concept of pitting international teams against one another began to spread far and wide.

From non-native line-ups to the advent of cross-border matches, football’s global expansion had truly begun. And it all began when a team from Sunderland, made up entirely of Scotsmen, became England’s first World Champions.

This article first appeared in Issue 5 which was published in September 2017.

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