North East Football History

Brief history of football and other sports in North East England

North East England is fanatical about sport and in proportion to its population has produced an excess of exceptional sporting talent in fields such as athletics, football and cricket. In club football, despite the huge followings that turn out to support the big local teams, success has been relatively modest.

West Auckland World Cup
Sculpture commemorating West Auckland Football Club’s amazing World Cup victories of 1909 and 1911. It was unveiled by Sir John Hall, David Ticer Thomas and Tim Healy in 2013. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Early football

No evidence supports the belief that the Romans introduced football to the region, although some annual Shrove Tuesday games at AlnwickChester-le-Street and Sedgefield may have pre-Norman origins. Football is recorded as early as 1280 when a man was killed during a match at Ulgham (pronounced ‘Uffam’) near Morpeth after a player ran into the knife of another player, which pierced his belly.

The troublesome Border Reivers of Tudor and Elizabethan times, many of whom had family names like Robson, Charlton, Milburn, Stokoe and Rowell that became familiar on the football fields of later centuries, were fanatical football players. Games seem to have resembled an anarchic mix of something similar to rugby and modern football and could be extremely violent affairs. However, organised football teams did not emerge until the 1870s.

Plaque commemorating Charles W Alcock,
Plaque commemorating Charles W Alcock, Norfolk Street, Sunderland © David Simpson 2022

One early pioneer of Association Football from the North East was the Sunderland-born Charles W Alcock who was the man who invented and instigated the FA Cup. He also organised the world’s first ever international football matches as well as pioneering international cricket.

Alcock captained the winning team (the east London-based Wanderers FC) in the first ever FA Cup final, which took place at the Oval cricket ground in London in 1872. He was Secretary of the Football Association at a time when football was something of a gentlemanly affair, yet to establish its working class roots.

C.W. Alcock

North East Football Clubs

The foundation of the oldest of the North East’s ‘big three’ Association Football clubs has a cricket link too. Middlesbrough Football Club was formed by cricket players from that town in 1876. Football was introduced as a winter game to fill the void outside the cricket season.

Sunderland AFC was founded in 1879 by Scottish schoolmaster and Glasgow University graduate, James Allan. The club was initially called The Sunderland and District Teachers Association Football Club. It was formed at a meeting at the British Day School in the town’s Norfolk Street, coincidentally the very same street in which Charles W Alcock had been born.

Newcastle United FC was given its symbolic ‘United’ name in 1892 after Newcastle East End FC (established in 1881 as ‘Stanley FC’ in Byker) moved to St James’ Park. The St James’ Park ground had previously been home to Newcastle West End FC. Both East End FC and West End FC were established by cricket clubs.

East End FC absorbed the players, staff and facilities from the recently defunct West End club. A key figure in the development of Newcastle’s East and West End clubs had been Tom Watson, who went on to find huge success as manager of Sunderland and Liverpool. We note the locations of the early grounds associated with East End FC on our Heaton and Byker pages.

St James Park Newcastle
St James’ Park : Photo © 2015 David Simpson

Other notable early clubs in the region included Darlington FC, formed in 1861 (re-formed in 1883) and West Hartlepool FC of 1881, a club whose assets were later absorbed in 1910 by a new club, Hartlepools United, founded in 1908 which would later simply be called Hartlepool United.

In the far north of Northumberland, fifty six miles to the north of Newcastle, Berwick Rangers FC were formed in 1881. Up until their relegation in 2019 the club held the distinction of being the only English-based club to play in the professional Scottish league. Carlisle United FC established in 1896 and York City FC founded in 1922 are amongst the football clubs just outside the North East heartland that are sometimes covered by local media today.

Bllue Hpuse Field. Hendon, Sunderland
Blue House Field. Hendon, was Sunderland AFC’s first ground and later briefly the home to rivals Sunderland Albion © David Simpson 2022

Ironopolis and Sunderland Albion

From 1888 Sunderland and Middlesbrough football clubs were briefly challenged by same-town rivals called Sunderland Albion FC of Hendon and Middlesbrough Ironopolis FC, who played at Ayresome (where ‘Boro’ would later come to be based) but both of these teams folded before the century was out.

The situation of there being only one major club in each of Tyneside, Wearside and Teesside would become an important aspect of North East football when compared to other multi-club cities and regions like the North West.

The North East situation of ‘one town one club’ helped establish strong emotional bonds between the towns or cities and their respective football clubs. It also perhaps created an environment for a particularly intense rivalry within the region that was in some ways an extension of long-established rivalries in the shipbuilding and coal trades.

Hartlepool United FC football ground
Hartlepool United FC football ground © David Simpson 2022

Pre-war North East football honours

It’s not difficult to pick out and list the highlights of North East football successes up to 1939. In their early history Sunderland FC won the top tier league championship three times in the 1890s (1891-92; 1892-93; 1894-95) while playing at their Newcastle Road ground, under the manager Tom Watson, a Tynesider who later established Liverpool as a force in English football.

Sunderland, moving to Roker Park in 1898, were champions again in 1901-02 and 1912-13 but would have to wait until the 1935-36 season for their next first tier championship title win. The club have not won it since but astonishingly this is still the most recent first tier title win for any North East club.

Sunderland’s very first appearance in the FA Cup final came in 1913, losing 1-0 to Aston Villa in front of just short of 122,000 people at Crystal Palace, then only the third time the attendance for a final had exceeded 100,000. The club’s next outing in the final did not come until 1937 which saw Sunderland win the FA cup for the first time, hot on the heals of their championship title of the previous season.  In truth with most of the successes coming in the 1890s and very early decades of the twentieth century the club had perhaps peaked too early in the history of the game.

The Edwardian era reaped rewards for Newcastle United in that first decade of the 1900s. They were champions three times (1904-05; 1906-07; 1908-09) and also reached the FA Cup final three times as runners up in that decade, losing on each occasion. In the 1905 final against Aston Villa (at Crystal Palace) the crowd for the final was a little over 101,000, at that time only the second time the attendance had exceeded 100,000 (there had been over 110,000 for Tottenham Hotspur v Sheffield United in 1901).

St James' Park
St James’ Park, home of Newcastle United FC © 2021 David Simpson

Finally, Newcastle United would win their first ever FA Cup in their fourth cup final appearance in 1910, drawing 1-1 with Barnsley at Crystal Palace before winning 2-0 in the replay at Goodison Park in Liverpool. However, they were losing finalists in the 1911 final, this time losing to Bradford City in a replay at Old Trafford in Manchester.

The intensity and regularity of these cup runs created much excitement in a period where football crowds and the sport’s popularity in general was rapidly growing.

Newcastle United’s second FA Cup final victory was claimed in 1924, in a 2-0 win at Wembley over Aston Villa. This was only the second FA Cup final to be held at the recently opened Wembley Stadium. Earlier finals had mostly been held at Crystal Palace or prior to 1892, at Kennington Oval.

In the league, Newcastle United were champions in the 1926-27 season though to date they have not won the title since. This is perhaps an astonishing fact given the club’s size and support. Newcastle United’s next honour came in the FA Cup final appearance of 1932 when they defeated Arsenal 2-1 at Wembley. This was their last appearance in a final up until the club’s remarkable FA Cup heyday decade of the 1950s.

Sunderland v Aston Villa 1895
Sunderland v Aston Villa 1895 by Thomas Hemy

Some of the events relating to the early development of football in the region and the cup final and league wins are featured in our history timeline here. Now we will take a quick look at the amateur game before exploring some of the great names, (both players and managers) in North East football as well as covering the more recent eras of North East professional football history.

West Auckland FC : World Cup winners

From time to time notable amateur sides like Bishop Auckland, Crook Town and Blyth Spartans have achieved fame and success through amateur cup wins, title wins in the amateur leagues or impressive runs in the FA Cup. Bishop Auckland FC won the FA Amateur cup ten times from 1896 to 1957 as well as being Northern League champions on countless occasions. Crook Town FC won the FA Amateur Cup five times from 1901 to 1964.

Sculpture commemorating West Auckland Football Club's World Cup win
Sculpture commemorating West Auckland’s World Cup win © David Simpson 2018

The FA Amateur cup competition was held from the 1893-94 season to 1973-74 with Bishop Auckland holding the record for most cup final wins with Crook Town in third place. Stockton (1899, 1903, 1912); pre-professional Middlesbrough (1895 and 1898); North Shields (1969); South Bank (1913); West Hartlepool (1905) and Willington (1950) were the other North East winners of this competition.

The semi-professional FA Trophy instigated in 1969 has been won by Scarborough a record three times, while in the FA Vase, regarded as the true successor to the FA Amateur Cup from 1974-75, the record is held by four times winners Whitley Bay, their last win being in 2011. Other winners of this competition from the North East are Hebburn; South Shields; Morpeth Town; North Shields; Spennymoor Town; Dunston UTS; Guisborough Town; Tow Law Town; Bedlington Terriers; Stockton Town; West Auckland Town; Newcastle Blue Star and Whickham.

Plaque commemorating West Auckland's World Cup win
Plaque commemorating West Auckland’s World Cup win. Note the name of the West Auckland player Jack Greenwell who was later a manager of Barcelona FC (see football managers below) © David Simpson 2018

Without a doubt, the most extraordinarily unique feat of any amateur side was achieved by West Auckland FC back in 1909 in a ‘World Cup’ competition. In that year the West Auckland team was invited to take part in a competition in Italy to compete for the football World Cup (the Sir Thomas Lipton Trophy), seemingly due to WAFC being confused with Woolwich Arsenal Football Club.

West Auckland won the competition against some of Europe’s biggest sides and defeated the Swiss side Winterthur 2-0 in the final. West Auckland successfully defended the title in 1911, defeating the mighty Juventus 6-1 in their second World Cup final win.

Famous footballers

In the professional game, Sunderland’s Alf Common has the distinction of being the world’s first £1,000 player when he was signed by Middlesbrough in 1905. Other early greats to make their name with clubs in the region were Londoner, Charlie Buchan (at Sunderland), Durham’s Framwellgate Moor-born George Camsell (at Middlesbrough) and the Scottish-born Hughie Gallacher (at Newcastle United).

Alf Common

In the 1930s, Sunderland FC’s Raich Carter (born Hendon) and Bob Gurney (Silksworth) shot to fame along with Middlesbrough FC’s ‘Golden Boy’ Wilf Mannion (South Bank). The Sunderland duo were joint top scorers for Sunderland that season with 31 goals each in the 1935-36 season when Sunderland were, not surprisingly, the champions of the then first tier Division One. The league’s highest scorer that season was West Bromwich Albion’s Framwellgate Moor-born William ‘Ginger’ Richardson with 39 goals.

Left to right footballers George Camsell and Wilf Mannion (Middlesbrough); Raich Carter and Bobby Gurney (Sunderland), all North East born

North East club heroes from after the Second World War included the Ashington-born Jackie Milburn (Newcastle United) and the Middlesbrough-born Brian Clough (Middlesbrough and Sunderland) as well as the West Riding-born Joe Harvey (Newcastle United) and fellow Yorkshireman, the talented and renowned on-field entertainer, Len Shackleton of Newcastle United and Sunderland.

Jackie Milburn statue
Jackie Milburn statue, St James’ Park © 2021 David Simpson

Of course it would be impossible not to mention the great Ashington-born footballing brothers Sir Bobby Charlton and Jack Charlton who played in England’s 1966 World Cup final winning side, though as club players the two brothers were respectively associated with Manchester United and Leeds United. A particularly prominent player of the 1970s was ‘Supermac’, Newcastle United’s London-born striker, Malcolm Macdonald, a prolific goal scorer for the Magpies.

Goal scorers naturally attract fame, but Sunderland’s Hendon-born goalkeeper, Jim Montgomery’s double save which helped the then Second Division Sunderland win the 1973 FA Cup Final is a memorable footballing moment as too was the celebratory run of team manager Bob Stokoe to congratulate Montgomery at the end of the game. As a player, the Northumberland-born Stokoe was himself a veteran of Newcastle United’s FA Cup win of 1955.

Bob Stokoe statue
Statue at Sunderland’s Stadium of Light commemorating Bob Stokoe’s celebratory run of 1973 © 2015 David Simpson

Notable North East players of the 1980s and 1990s included local born internationals like Peter Beardsley, Paul Gascoigne, Chris Waddle and of course Alan Shearer who all played for Newcastle United. Tynesider, Shearer was the Premier League’s top scorer in three successive seasons in the 1990s being a Blackburn Rovers player for the first two and a Newcastle United player in the third of those seasons in 1996-97.

Other players to become top scorers in the Premier League while playing for a North East football team were the Nottingham-born Andy Cole (1993-84) playing for Newcastle United and the Hertfordshire-born European Golden boot winner, Kevin Phillips in 1999-2000 playing for Sunderland.

Stadium and the River Wear, Sunderland
Stadium and the River Wear, Sunderland © David Simpson 2017

The extraordinary emotional impact of the famed Yorkshire-born England international Kevin Keegan both as a footballer and manager at Newcastle United in the 1980s and 1990s cannot be overlooked, despite Keegan having been the double goal scorer for Liverpool when Newcastle United were defeated in the 1974 FA Cup final.

Under Keegan, Newcastle United were Premier League runners-up to Manchester United in the 1995-96 season. Keegan parted from Newcastle in January 1997 in a season that once again saw the club finish runners-up, completing the season under the management of Glaswegian, Kenny Dalglish. Keegan would return to manage the club again in 2008 for a period of just under seven months.

The 1990s Keegan era at Newcastle United may not have delivered trophies but it hailed a new revival and heightened sense of expectation and ambition for the club. Keegan’s Irish ancestors had settled in Newcastle and his father, a Newcastle United supporting coal miner was born in Hetton-le-Hole, later moving to the coalfield of southern Yorkshire. Kevin Keegan’s grandfather, Frank Keegan, was one of the thirty survivors of the West Stanley Colliery explosion that claimed 168 lives and he was subsequently involved in the rescue effort.

Football success in modern times

Sunderland had dominated the football league in the 1890s and Newcastle United were the dominant presence in the Edwardian period but in the post-war era success in the league at least has been much more limited.

Clockstand Close, Roker
Clockstand Close, Roker where housing now occupies the site of Sunderland’s former Roker Park football ground of 99 years © David Simpson 2022

During the 1950s Sunderland was known as ‘The Bank of England club’ from the extraordinary expenditure of the club by the standards of that age. Ironically, however, it was Newcastle United who saw the great successes in the 1950s (see our timeline), winning the FA Cup three times in 1951; 1952 and 1955, defeating Blackpool (2-0), Arsenal (1-0) and Manchester City (3-1). Local hero, Jackie Milburn who appeared in all three finals scored both goals in the first of these finals and scored one of the goals in the 1955 win.

Jackie Milburn

Sunderland, meanwhile, despite their spending, were relegated in 1958 for the first time in their history. This new experience was a big shock for a club that had been formed in 1879. A long up and down series of promotions and relegations now followed that became a feature of the club’s story.

Big crowds were still a feature of North East football in the 1960s with crowds of well over 60,000 not unknown but for most of the decade there were no top level trophies to match the passionate support.

Newcastle United won the European Inter-City Fairs Cup in 1969, in a victory over Hungarian side Újpesti Dózsa of Hungary after defeating some notable European teams along the way. It was a two leg final, with the first leg at St James’ Park and the second leg in Hungary, Newcastle United winning both matches.

Newcastle United had qualified for this competition on a peculiar ‘one club one city’ rule, after finishing tenth in the English league in 1967-68. Top-placed Manchester City and Manchester United qualified for the more prestigious European Cup while FA Cup winners West Bromwich Albion who had finished eighth in the league qualified for the European Cup Winners Cup. Liverpool, Leeds and Chelsea finished above Newcastle United and qualified for the Inter City-Fairs Cup but Everton, Spurs and Arsenal who respectively finished fifth, seventh and ninth did not qualify because of the presence of other higher-placed Liverpool and London clubs.

St James' Park, Newcastle
St James’ Park, Newcastle © 2021 David Simpson

North East football attendances

The one club for one city status of Newcastle United (Tyneside being home to approaching one million people) has also perhaps contributed favourably to Newcastle United’s extraordinarily high attendances, with a football fan base that is exceptionally high relative to the team’s actual sporting success and achievements.

On Wearside, Sunderland’s attendances have also been exceptionally high, for what is by comparison a relatively small city area. During recent troubled spells in the third tier of English football, Sunderland’s attendances have set new records for that league and outranked those of teams in the second tier and many of those in the Premier League. Middlesbrough Football Club’s support is also impressive again given the geographical size of its region and a long history for this Teesside club that has served up so little silverware.

Stadium of Light
Sunderland Stadium of Light © 2015 David Simpson

However, preoccupation with the size of football crowds has become a curious phenomenon of North East football in recent eras particularly in ‘Tyne and Wear’. It seems to have little positive impact on the actual results on the field. In fact, in some cases it may create additional pressures and expectations for the home teams and perhaps an incentive for visiting teams to raise their performance.

North East Football 1970 to 2014

Since 1969 there have been few major successes in the region. Sunderland won the FA Cup in 1973, while they were still in the Second Division. Back then, Sunderland was a County Durham shipbuilding town, the largest town in that county. The year 1974 saw the creation of the county of Tyne and Wear and the FA Cup final defeat for Newcastle United, who lost to Liverpool and two Keegan goals. The club also suffered a League Cup final defeat to Manchester City, just two years later in 1976.

A decade later in 1986 there was a League Cup final defeat for Sunderland with Norwich City taking the trophy. Sunderland would be runners-up too in their second appearance in the final of this particular competition in 2014, losing to Manchester City.

In the 1990s there was a flurry of excitement and new hope in North East football with the opening of new stadiums at Middlesbrough (Riverside Stadium, 1995) and Sunderland (Stadium of Light, 1997) with some notable cup runs adding to anticipation across the region. Newcastle United’s St James’ Park saw considerable expansion and development too with massive investment into the club under the influence of businessman, Sir John Hall.

St James' Park
St James’ Park, home of Newcastle United FC © 2021 David Simpson

Sunderland were defeated by Liverpool in the 1992 FA Cup final while as we have noted, under Kevin Keegan and Kenny Dalglish the 1995-96 and 1996-97 seasons saw Newcastle United finish runners-up in the Premier League, narrowly missing out to Manchester United. Under Dalglish and the Amsterdam-born Ruud Gullit, Newcastle United also reached two successive FA Cup finals in the 1990s, losing both 2-0; respectively to Arsenal in 1998 and to Manchester United in 1999. It was an era of both passion and pain.

Middlesbrough, despite being an older club (1876) than their Wearside and Tyneside counterparts would not reach a major professional cup final until 1997; an extraordinary long wait of nearly one-hundred and twenty years. Remarkably ‘Boro’ reached both the League Cup and FA Cup finals for the first time that year, losing them both (respectively to Leicester and to Chelsea). It seemed a spell had been broken as Boro would reach the League Cup Final again the following season in 1998. However, they were defeated by Chelsea who had been the victors against Boro in the previous season’s FA Cup.

Riverside Stadium, Middlesbrough FC
Riverside Stadium, Middlesbrough FC © 2021 David Simpson

In 2004, Middlesbrough finally claimed their first major trophy in their third appearance at the League Cup final, defeating Bolton Wanderers 2-1 at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff while the new Wembley was being built. Perhaps the Boro fans felt the new millennium might be considered Middlesbrough’s moment, given the absence of major silverware in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

It seemed that this might well be the case in the 2004-05 season when Middlesbrough qualified for the UEFA cup competition after finishing seventh in the Premier League. Extraordinarily, in 2006 Boro reached the final of the UEFA Cup, only to lose 4-0 to Spanish club Sevilla at the Philips Stadion in Eindhoven in the Netherlands.

Temenos and the Riverside Stadium, Middlesbrough
Riverside Stadium, Middlesbrough © David Simpson 2021

Football Managers from North East England

Perhaps the most significant North East football achievements have come from North East individuals who have ironically brought success to football clubs in other regions. This is true for many footballers but is especially notable in football management. In 2020 a prominent BBC sports journalist, Phil McNulty, published an article about whom he considered to be the greatest post-war British football managers, based on their trophy successes.

McNulty chose the best fourteen managers and although he made no mention at all of their birthplaces, they were all remarkably born (with the one exception of Alf Ramsey) in either the North East of England or in and around the Glasgow area of Scotland. It is perhaps worth noting that Sir Alf Ramsey’s long-term Assistant Manager (including the 1966 World Cup win), was a North Easterner, the Middlesbrough-born Harold Shepherdson.

As the map below showing the managers’ birthplaces demonstrates, all the great trophy honours achieved by North East-born football managers came at clubs outside the North East region.

Britain’s greatest football managers and their birthplaces. These were the best POST-WAR managers according to the BBC sports writer Phil McNulty. Remarkably, they were, with one exception all born in two distinct geographical regions, though few brought success to clubs in their home regions. Map  © David Simpson and England’s North East 2020

Other than the Dagenham-born Ramsey, the most successful English-born managers (according to McNulty) were as follows, where the league titles listed are only those achieved in the highest tier league:

Bob Paisley (1919-1996), born Hetton-le-Hole near Sunderland, County Durham). His extraordinary achievements in nine seasons as manager of Liverpool amounted to three European Cups, one UEFA Cup, six league titles and three League Cups.

Bob Paisley memorial Hetton
Memorial to Bob Paisley at Hetton-le-Hole : Photo © David Simpson

Brian Clough (1935-2004), born Middlesbrough, a former player with Middlesbrough and Sunderland. One of British football’s most  colourful and outspoken characters, his first major honour as a manager was a league title for Derby County. As manager of Nottingham Forest, Clough won one league title, four League Cups, two European Cups and one European Super Cup.

Sir Bobby Robson (1933-2009), born Sacriston, County Durham but raised in nearby Langley Park. His honours as a manager included a UEFA Cup and FA Cup win with Ipswich Town, two Dutch league title wins with PSV Eindhoven, two Portuguese league title wins and a Portuguese cup (Taça de Portugal) with Porto. As manager of the esteemed Spanish club, Barcelona, Robson won the Copa del Rey, the Spanish Super Cup and European Cup Winners’ Cup. Sir Bobby was of course England manager from 1982 to 1990 and later managed his boyhood heroes, Newcastle United.

Howard Kendall (1946-2015), born Ryton, near Gateshead. His honours as manager of Merseyside club Everton FC were two league titles, an FA Cup and a European Cup Winners’ Cup.

Don Revie (1927-1989) born Middlesbrough, whose honours as manager of Leeds United FC included two league titles, one FA Cup, one League Cup and two European Fairs Cups.

Harry Catterick (1918-1995), born Darlington was manager of Everton Football Club in the 1960s. He won two league titles, one FA Cup and two Charity Shields.

Bill Nicholson (1919-2004) was born at Scarborough, North Yorkshire on the fringes of North East England, though Bill had served in the Durham Light Infantry during the Second World War. As manager of Tottenham Hotspur he won three FA Cups, two League Cups, one UEFA Cup, one European Cup Winners’ Cup and one league title.

Other North East Football Managers

Successful football managers of note from the region in the earlier period before the Second World War included the Newcastle-born Tom Watson (1815-1915) who took both Sunderland and Liverpool to their first ever league titles. He is one of a select few managers to win top tier league titles with more than one club.

Tom Watson

Another early manager of note from the North East to have an impact on Merseyside was the Sedgefield-born Tom McIntosh (1879-1935) who as ‘Secretary Manager’ won two league titles and an FA Cup with Everton in the late 1920s and early 30s. He had previously been Secretary Manager with Darlington and Middlesbrough.

From the post-war era Harry Potts (1920-1996) born in Hetton-le-Hole, was a contemporary of fellow Hetton lad, Bob Paisley.  As manager of Burnley, Potts won the league title and the Anglo-Scottish Cup but his Burnley side lost out to Bill Nicholson’s Tottenham in the 1962 FA Cup final.

George Allison (1883-1957) born Hurworth-on-Tees near Darlington was Arsenal Football Club’s longest serving manager (until overtaken by Arsene Wenger). Schooled in Stockton-on-Tees Allison won two league titles for Arsenal, two Charity Shields and one FA Cup. Allison was also a noted sports journalist and has the distinction of being the BBC’s first sports commentator.

Jack Greenwell
Jack Greenwell

Jack Greenwell (1884-1942) was a North East-born football manager who made his mark abroad in the pre-war era. Born in Crook in County Durham, Greenwell had played as a guest player for West Auckland in their famous Sir Thomas Lipton World Cup final win in Italy.

As a football manager Greenwell won the Campionat de Catlunya six times (five times with Barcelona and once with RCD Español) and the Copa del Rey four times (three times with Barcelona and once with RCD Español). He also won the Campeonato de Valencia with Valencia CF and in Peru won the Peruvian premier league with Universitario. As manager of the Peru national side he won the Bolivarian Games in 1938 and South American Championship in 1939.

The most successful manager from outside the region to deliver trophies to a North East club in the pre-war era was Scotsman Frank Watt (1854-1932) who won four league titles and one FA Cup as manager of Newcastle United, though he was not actually involved in picking the team.

Stan Seymour

Returning to the post war era, the County Durham (Kelloe)-born Stan Seymour (1897-1978) was manager of Newcastle United for their FA Cup wins in 1951 and 1952 and as a club director overrode the decision of the then manager, Doug Livingstone in picking the team for their FA Cup win in 1955. Seymour, who had played in Newcastle United’s 1924 FA Cup win, was the first person in English football to win the FA Cup for the same club as a manager and a player.

Finally, we should make a mention of Jack Charlton’s extraordinary achievements as manager of the Republic of Ireland’s national side. Charlton took charge of the Irish side in 1986 and in 1988 they qualified for the UEFA European Championships for the first time in their history, reaching the Group Stage and finishing fifth. In 1990 Charlton’s success continued with Ireland qualifying for the World Cup, again for the first time in their history and what’s more they reached the quarter-finals, ensuring a ‘legendary’ status for Charlton in Irish hearts.

Rowing

Football is now the big spectator sport in the region but for much of the nineteenth Century it was rowing. There were many organised teams or schools, particularly on Tyneside. They competed against each other and against rowers from the Wear, Tees, Thames and Mersey.

Harry Clasper

Rowing was extremely popular and attracted crowds of thousands and rowers like the keelman Harry Clasper and James Renforth were great celebrities.  Impressive monuments to Clasper and Renforth can be seen at Whickham and Gateshead.

James Renforth memorial, Gateshead
James Renforth memorial, Gateshead © David Simpson 2022

Rowing was also a great tradition in Durham City where an annual regatta was established in 1834 (before Henley Regatta) and has been held continuously ever since.

In the 2012 Olympics Ashington-born rower and former Yarm school pupil Katherine Copeland won the Gold medal in the 2012 London Olympics with rowing partner Sophie Hosking (a Durham University graduate).

Durham Regatta
Durham Regatta © David Simpson 2021

Horse racing

Early horse races were mentioned in 1613 at Woodham near Aycliffe and were held at Newcastle’s Killingworth Moor from 1632 before moving to the Town Moor. The ‘Pitmen’s Derby’ or Northumberland Plate was held from 1833 and moved to Gosforth in 1882.

Georgian races were held at places like Barnard Castle, Bishop Auckland, Blaydon, Chester-le-Street, Darlington, Durham, Gateshead, Hebburn, Heighington, Lanchester, Ryton, Sedgefield, South Shields, Stockton, Sunderland, Tanfield, Whickham and Witton Gilbert. A 1740 Act banned smaller meetings but some meetings like Durham (Shincliffe) survived into the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

Newcastle Gosforth, Hexham, Sedgefield, Catterick and Redcar are the main centres for horse racing in the region today.

River Tyne at Blaydon
The River Tyne at Blaydon © David Simpson 2022

Racing may have taken place at York since Roman times and York’s Knavesmire has held races since at least 1731. Middleham in lower Wensleydale claims to have trained horses since the reign of Henry VIII and is famed for the training of racehorses to this day. Also in Yorkshire, Doncaster has held the St Leger race since 1776 and Catterick has held races since 1783. Thirsk Race Course opened in 1855 and racing was recorded at Ripon as early as 1664.

At Redcar, horse races were held on the beach until the present racecourse opened in 1872. The remains of a Georgian grandstand can be found at Richmond where a meeting was once held.

The Blaydon Races, a popular musical hall song first sung by Geordie Ridley at Balmbra’s Music Hall in Newcastle in 1862, gives an idea of some of the characters attending the old race meetings of times past. These races were held on an island in the middle of the Tyne and were last held on September 2, 1916. A riot broke out after the winning horse was disqualified and the event was discontinued. The Blaydon Races song is of course the football anthem for Newcastle United football fans.

A notable Champion jockey of recent times is the North East-raised (Guisborough) Grand National winning jockey, Bob Champion who was the subject of a movie about his life and battle with cancer prior to his Grand National win on Aldaniti in 1981.

King Charles I played ‘goff’ at Shieldfield in Newcastle

Golf

Golf is likely a Scottish import though it is said to have been played by St Cuthbert on the dunes of the Northumberland coast in Anglo-Saxon times. In the Civil War, King Charles I, during imprisonment at Newcastle after his capture by the Scots, is known to have played golf (‘goff’) at Shieldfield just west of Newcastle’s centre.

The region’s oldest golf club is Alnmouth, founded in 1869 and is the fourth oldest golf club in the country, now Alnmouth Village Club. Golf appeared in County Durham in 1874 at Seaton Carew while at Redcar, the Cleveland Golf Course of 1887 is the oldest in Yorkshire. Tyneside Golf Club at Ryton dates from 1880 but there may have been earlier courses in the region.

Boxing

Boxing has long had a high profile and high popularity in North East England and the region has produced more than its share of notable boxers including Hartlepool’s Jack London and Brian London, Sunderland’s Billy Hardy and Tony Jeffries and Annfield Plain’s Glenn McGrory.

Jack and Brian London

A boxer of much greater fame with a surprising and fondly remembered connection to the region was ‘the Greatest’, the US boxer, Muhammad Ali, who visited Tyneside in July 1977 where he had his recent marriage vows renewed at a South Shields mosque.

Rugby

Though it had been, along with cricket and rowing, one of the main spectator sports in the region in the later decades of the nineteenth century, rugby football has now long been a very distant second to Association Football in North East England. Rugby League does not have anything like the popularity or presence that it has in North West England or the old East and West Ridings of Yorkshire.

Rugby Union has a higher profile in the region than Rugby League, mostly through the prominence of the Kingston Park-based Newcastle Falcons who were formerly Newcastle Gosforth and have a history dating back to 1877. Another club with a long history are Hartlepool Rovers who were founded in 1879. Notable Rugby Union players from the region have included the brothers Tony and Rory Underwood and Rob Andrew.

Cricket

Cricket has long been a popular sport in the North-East and is said to date back to Elizabethan times. Yorkshire County Cricket Club was formed in 1863 and Durham County Cricket Club in 1882. After many years of success in the Minor Counties Championship, Durham joined Yorkshire in the senior counties championship in 1992. From 2017 Durham have played in Division Two of the County Championship.

Notable cricketers from the North East have included the Burnopfield-born Colin Milburn (1941-1990) whose cricket career was cut short by an accident that led to the partial loss of his site; the Sunderland-born fast bowler Bob Willis (1949-2019), though he grew up in Manchester and the Shotley Bridge-born Paul Collingwood MBE.

The Cheshire-born cricket legend Ian Botham has a long association with the region as a resident of North Yorkshire, becoming Chairman of Durham County Cricket Club in 2017.

Athletics

Athletics became a sport of rising popularity following the success of North-East athletes like the Hebburn-born Brendan Foster in the 1970s followed by the Jarrow-born Steve Cram and Dilston-born Mike McLeod in the 1980s.

Both Cram and Foster won international medals and broke world records in middle and long distance running. Foster established the famous annual Great North Run, one of the best-known half marathons in the world in which thousands of participants run from Newcastle to South Shields raising money for charity.

The Great North Run also features elite athletes and its winners have included Mike McLeod who won both the first and second Great North Run in 1981 and 1982.  McLeod would also be the silver medallist in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games in the 10,000 metres.

Another North East notable is Olympic Marathon medallist, Charlie Spedding, who is also one of the few British-born winners of the men’s elite race in the London Marathon.

Notable athletes who have made the region their home include the London-born Olympic triple jump gold medallist and World Champion, Jonathan Edwards, (born 1966) who is a Durham University graduate and resident of Newcastle upon Tyne.

Cardiff-born, Teesside-based Tanni Grey-Thompson, titled The Baroness Grey-Thompson of Eaglescliffe (born 1969) is one of Britain’s most successful Paralympians. A wheelchair user, Grey-Thompson was the Gold medallist in the 100 and 400 metres in the 2005 Paralympian World Cup and the Silver medallist in the 200 metres in 2007.  Grey-Thompson became the Chancellor of the University of Northumbria in 2015.

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North East England History and Culture