Sport in the North East 1700 to 1999

North East sport 1700 to 2000

North East England is fanatical about sport and in proportion to its population has perhaps produced an excess of exceptionally talented sportsmen in fields such as athletics, football and cricket. In club football, despite the large fanatical followings that can turn out to support local teams, even when struggling, success has been mostly very modest to say the least.

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 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 near Morpeth, but organised football teams did not appear until the 1870s.

Charles W Alcock

One early pioneer of Association football associated with the North was the Sunderland-born Charles W Alcock who instigated the FA Cup and the earliest international football matches

Middlesbrough was formed by cricket players in 1876, Sunderland in 1879 and Newcastle United in 1892 by uniting Newcastle West End FC with Newcastle East End. Darlington formed in 1861 (re-formed 1883) and West Hartlepool of 1881 became Hartlepool United in 1908. In 1888 Sunderland and Middlesbrough were troubled by rival break-away teams called Sunderland Albion and Middlesbrough Ironopolis, both of which folded before the century was out.

Some of the events relating to the early development of football in the region are covered in detail in this part of our timeline here.

Early football successes

Sunderland won the league championship three times in the 1890s under manager Tom Watson (see our Timeline) who later established Liverpool as a force. Sunderland peaked too early to benefit financially but Newcastle reaped rewards for successes in the first decade of the 1900s being champions three times and reaching the FA Cup Final three times before winning it at the fourth attempt in 1910.

West Auckland FC : World Cup winners

From time to time amateur football sides like Bishop Auckland find fame and success through Cup runs, but the most extraordinary feat of any side was achieved by West Auckland FC in 1909. The team was invited to take part in a competition in Italy to compete for the soccer World Cup, seemingly due to WA FC 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 might Juventus 6-1.

Alf Common

Famous footballers

Sunderland’s Alf Common became the world’s first £1,000 player when he was signed by Middlesbrough in 1905. Other greats were Charlie Buchan, George Camsell and Hughie Gallacher.

In the 1930s Wilf Mannion, Raich Carter and Bob Gurney shot to fame, the last two being joint top scorers for Division One in the 1935-36 season. Heroes after the Second World War included Joe Harvey, Jackie Milburn, Len Shackleton and Brian Clough while Newcastle’s Malcolm Macdonald was a great name of the 1970s.

Goal scorers attract fame, but goalkeeper Jim Montgomery’s double save which helped Sunderland win the 1973 FA Cup Final is often remembered. Players of the 1980s and 1990s include local born internationals like Peter Beardsley, Paul Gascoigne, Chris Waddle and Alan Shearer.

Football success in modern times

Sunderland dominated the league in the 1890s and Newcastle United were dominant in the Edwardian period. In the post-war era success has been more limited. During the 1950s Sunderland were known as ‘The Bank of England club’ from their extraordinary expenditure by the standards of that age. Ironically it was Newcastle United that saw the great successes in the 1950s, winning the FA Cup thee times.

Since then Newcastle United have won the European Fairs Cup in 1969, though they qualified for the competition by finishing tenth in the league. Sunderland won the FA Cup in 1973, while in the Second Division. Middlesbrough, despite being an older club than their Tees and Tyne counterparts did not reach a major cup final until 1997 when remarkably they reached both the FA Cup and League Cup finals, losing them both before taking their first trophy, in the league cup final of 1973.

Britain’s greatest football managers and their birthplaces. These were the best post-war managers according to the BBC’s  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 2020

Perhaps the most significant North East football achievements have come from individuals who brought success to other regions. This is especially notable in football management. In 2020 a prominent BBC sports journalist published an article on who he considered to be the greatest post-war British football managers, based on their trophy success. He chose the best fourteen managers and although he made no mention of their birthplaces, they were all born (with the one exception, being the England manager Alf Ramsey) in North East England or in and around the Glasgow area of Scotland. The greatest successes achieved by these North East-born managers came at clubs outside the North East region.

Harry Clasper


Football is now the big spectator sport in the region but for much of the 19th 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.

Rowing was extremely popular and attracted crowds of thousands and rowers like the keelman Harry Clasper were great celebrities. 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.

Horse racing

Early 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 survived into the late 19th/early 20th Century.

Yorkshire horse racing

Racing may have taken place at York since Roman times and York’s Knavesmire has held races since at least 1731. Middleham claims to have trained horses since Henry VIII. Doncaster has held the St Leger race since 1776 and Catterick has held races since 1 783. 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

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 meetings. 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.

King Charles I played ‘goff’ at Shieldfield in Newcastle


Probably a Scottish import but it is said to have been played by St Cuthbert on the dunes of the Northumberland coast. During his imprisonment at Newcastle after his capture during the Civil War, King Charles I played golf (‘goff’) at Shieldfield. The region’s oldest golf club was Alnmouth founded in 1869 – the fourth oldest in the country and is 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.


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.


Athletics is a sport of rising popularity since the success of North-East athletes like the Hebburn-born Brendan Foster in the 1970s and Jarrow-born Steve Cram in the 1980s. Both won international medals and broke world records in middle and long distance running. Brendan Foster established the annual Great North Run, one of the best known half marathons in which thousands of participants run from Newcastle to South Shields.

Home | Timeline

North East England History and Culture