Having established that what became Sunderland AFC was founded on, most probably, 25 September 1880 it is only fair to take a look at how October 1879 came to be accepted as the founding date.
The first brief histories of the club appeared in the two Wearside dailies, the Echo and the Herald, in December 1887, by which time the club was well established and important enough to have its history recounted. Both of these reports tell of the meeting in “late 1879” (note not October 1879). A crass error really when you consider that all the sports journalist had to do was look back on the archives of his own newspaper to find out the correct date of formation. However his editor had given him on the Friday night a mere 72 hours to come up with a 3 part history of the club. The journalist rushed the report, produced the first, error strewn, instalment on the Monday and as stated couldnt even be bothered to look back at his own papers archives. If the journalist had done that there would now, 136 years later, be no discussion whatsoever about the founding date, no attempt to squeeze in the October 1879 narrative and it would have been common knowledge that the clubs true founding date was in September 1880.
Before we leave the subject of that three part series published in 1887 it is worth recording that the text was consolidated and sold as a booklet by The Echo that could be purchased for a nominal sum by members of the Sunderland public. Therefore hundreds or perhaps a couple of thousand of these were distributed, all with the erroneous details in them. There are no surviving 1887 booklets that I am aware of. If there is I would certainly love to see a copy. However this was essentially the first publication of the history of Sunderland AFC. Copious copies would still be on shelves in personal and newspaper libraries in the then town just 8 years later in 1895.
So where do we find the first mention of “October” 1879 as an inclusion for the founding date for SAFC?
On the Wednesday 27 March 1895 version of the Sunderland Daily Echo, “Referee”, who was effectively a version of “Argus” who became the well known authoritative Sunderland Echo journalistic voice on all things SAFC related, wrote the following:
THE LATE COUN. SINGLETON AND FOOTBALL
Our “Referee” writes us as follows: “It may not be generally known to your readers that the late councillor R Singleton was one of the founders of the now famous Sunderland Association Football Club. He presided over the first meeting held for the purpose of forming a club, the other gentlemen present being Messrs J Allan, WC Chappell, E Watson and W Elliott. The meeting took place at the British School, Norfolk Street in October 1879. A club was then formed under the title of “The Sunderland Teachers Association Football Club”. Mr Singleton was appointed captain, a position he filled for several seasons. In the season 1881/82 the word “Teacher” was dropped from the title owing to the extension of the club. In 1882, the late Councillor Singleton was a member of the Durham team that played against Cleveland. He also took an active part in the formation of the Durham County Football Association, and was for some years one of its most useful members”.
The above statement is strewn with errors.
Referee states the place of formation as the British School, Norfolk Street (which we now know to be incorrect) and to be pedantic he gets the original name of the football club wrong. You will note that the formation date of the club has now gone from the rushed December 1887 “end of 1879” history article narrative to and for the first time “October” 1879. Thus October 1879 is entered into legend and why not; “Referee” was judged to be the fountain of knowledge on all things SAFC and his word would have been taken as gospel. He even gets the date of the name change wrong. We now know that Sunderland AFC was given that name on 16 October 1880; not the 1881/82 season. The original name survived for a mere 22 days.
Finally if Sunderland AFC had been formed in October 1879 why did it take until November 1880 for them to play their first recorded match? What were they doing in the intervening period? They certainly werent playing football matches because there was no one to play in the Sunderland district and no matches involving an association football team from Sunderland were mentioned in any newspapers either inside or outside Sunderland. The first account we have of a football team anywhere near Sunderland, other than SAFC was when Sunderland AFC played Jarrow in October 1883. As far as the North East was concerned it was Tyneside and the outer lying reaches of County Durham where association football was being played at this time.
To further back up the September 1880 founding date we have a recorded practice match reported in the Sunderland Echo on the 9 October 1880, just a few days after the clubs true formation date. Why were practice matches not recorded by the Sunderland Echo in 1879? The answer is simple; Sunderland AFC did not exist!
There is no recorded existence of an association football club in Sunderland in October 1879 or indeed at any point between that date and September 1880.
Like a lot of stories involving Sunderland AFC they are hearsay and are not backed up with fact; the Bilbao story being a classic example of this. We even have a narrative that says that the 9 v 1 thrashing of NUFC in December 1908 featured an early finish by the referee to save The Magpies blushes. This is simply not true. That game finished after 90minutes and in accordance with the laws of the game. Too much of the history of SAFC is fiction accepted as fact.
Clearly having lived with a narrative for 136 years it will take time for supporters of the club to accept the actual foundation date of what became Sunderland AFC as 25 September 1880.