- Sunderland birthday puts history in focus
- Stadium of Light is poignant party venue
Photo: RFU Archive
With so many rugby union clubs celebrating 1873 as the year they were founded, it is interesting to reflect on the events of the 12-month period in which Edinburgh University, Lansdowne, Dungannon, Gloucester, Halifax, Moseley, Rugby, New Brighton, Houghton, Durham University and Millom – among many others on the international stage – joined Sunderland in declaring an allegiance to rugby union.
Ironically, in the case of Sunderland, it was at the Annual Meeting of 1890 that the members decided to embrace rugby union rather than switch to the association code. There may have been ghosts in the gallery when the Stadium of Light hosted the club’s 140th anniversary celebrations recently!
The year of Sunderland’s foundation was filled with interesting moments which still resonate today. Levi Strauss and E. Remington came into the commercial firmament and Alexandra Palace disappeared from it just 16 days after it was opened.
The Kennel Club was founded, as was Rangers FC, while explorer David Livingtone died and St Therese of Liseux was born.
Closer to home, Sunderland RFC played at Holmside and Chester Road before moving to their current home at Ashbrooke in in 1887.
Like many long-established clubs, there is a string of international and Barbarians players to decorate the honours boards at the club and around 120 players have represented Durham during the period since the club became a founder member of the county union in 1976.
Other members rose to prominence in other areas of the game with E Watts Moses becoming President of the Rugby Football Union in the 1949/50 season, while A S Bean, H B Elliot and H Keenan all served on the International Panel of Referees.
Inevitably there are players who performed great deeds for club, county and country, not least Howard Marshall, who was a Barbarian, a member of the first British Lions tour party in 1891 and the scorer of a hat trick against Wales in Cardiff in 1893.
The fact that he was awarded the OBE and also played for Cambridge University, Bart’s Hospital, Blackheath and Kent did not impress everyone in the corridors of power – he was awarded one cap for his country!
Happily, the fact that the club is still flourishing 140 years on has helped refresh and rekindle the spirit within the club and with over 200 members and guests attending at the Stadium of Light, the mood in the camp has seldom been more buoyant.
“We had one of our poorer seasons last year but this term there is a much more positive mood, which may well have much to do with the anniversary,” says Chairman of Rugby Paul Geehan.
“We’ve had a lot of players from the past coming back to the club as volunteers and to the celebration and on the playing side, we currently have 200 youngsters involved every weekend, together with three senior sides and a Vets XV and our newly formed women’s team Sunderland Flames
“We’ve also been boosted by support from the RFU Lead Up and Legacy Fund and to be honest, everything is coming together perfectly at just the right time.
“We have Julie Elliot, our MP, not only attending the function, but also taking a close interest in our affairs, and to maintain the support for the referees that was mentioned earlier, we have four officials from Barcelona - in the county as guests of the Durham Society – also coming to the festivities.
“Basically we are a family-based club and that is the concept we want to promote. Like all the other clubs who started out at the same time as Sunderland, we have experienced ups and downs, we’ve had outstanding people keeping the show on the road and we’re still bringing the game to the community and the youngsters in it.
“That’s what we’re about and I hope the people who launched the club all those years ago and those who have kept it alive in the interim would applaud what we are doing to preserve their heritage.”