BOOKS on North East rugby are few and far between, but the trend has been bucked by a fascinating history of Sunderland RFC.
Titled One Among Many, Keith Gregson’s release uses the Wearside club as the focus for a much broader work, giving a superb insight into the development of the game in the region.
The name in itself carries ironic connotations, with the pioneering years of the club revealing it not to be one among many but very much one of a kind.
Currently leading a much quieter existence in Durham and Northumberland One, Sunderland’s formation in 1873 brackets them alongside Houghton, Durham City and Durham University in the list of contenders for the oldest continuous club in the county.
Winning the first Durham County Cup in 1881 and boasting a host of international players at the close of the 19th century, their relative present-day obscurity belies a past which had them at the vanguard of the game.
“Some of the things which interested me most in writing the book were subjects like the challenge of what we now know as football and rugby league,” said Gregson, a social historian and Sunderland RFC member.
“At the time the club was formed those games were one and the same, and when they eventually went their separate ways it was a massive period of change in terms of how the different sports evolved.”
The impressive archives at Sunderland’s Ashbrooke home reveal how some club members proposed to switch from rugby football to the association code currently played at the nearby Stadium of Light.
The AGM motion was defeated in 1890, leaving the rugby team to go about their early domination of the North East scene.
Forming the bulk of the Durham side which appeared in nine county championship finals between 1899 and 1909, there was also representation in the county side beaten by the 1905 New Zealand ‘Invincibles’ when Sunderland’s Phil Clarkson became the first Englishman to score against the All Blacks on their maiden overseas tour.
Gregson added: “The Ashbrooke archives are unique, and you cannot tell the story of the rugby club on its own when they share the facility with so many other sports. It is linked to so many other factors right throughout rugby and the region.
“Even people with no connection at all to Sunderland RFC will find some interest because the wider historical context is something I focus on a lot.
“One of the most interesting stories was a guy called Howard Marshall, who played for the club.
“He was a Barbarian, a British Lion on their first tour and an England player who scored a hat-trick against Wales in Cardiff but never played for his country ever again.
“It is an intriguing tale, and most people have probably never heard of him.
“I suspect at the time they thought little of it, but it is only looking back now we can see the full significance.”
With his latest work coming about through a magazine competition, Gregson revealed: “The book was a prize in Rugby World, and you had to say in 100 words why your club should have its history published.
“I entered by explaining the wonderful stories and archive Sunderland has, and the prize has been to get the book out there and a number of copies available to be sold for the benefit of the club.
“The proceeds from the initial run will buy a set of shirts for the first-team, but there are further copies available and a signing planned next month at Waterstone’s.”
The wider appeal of One Among Many comes from the fact that, while Sunderland RFC remains the crux, Gregson has used the club as a window through which to look at the wider sporting and cultural landscape throughout its colourful existence.
He said: “I have tried to make it more than just a local history.
“I taught history for many years, and the contextual knowledge of what was going on at the time is very important rather than it simply being a list of dates and things that happened at the rugby club.
“It has ended up as a hymn of praise for the way rugby is played in more than 60% of the clubs in this country - what I would call the real rugby.
“I hope it asks questions as much as it gives answers.
- One Among Many is in bookshops now priced £12.99, or from www.amazon.co.uk