Until the double became as common as embarrassing mistakes by Manchester City goalkeeper Joe Hart, football history was littered with stories of clubs who had experienced near-misses of the English game’s biggest accolade. The double was won twice in the period 1888 to 1960, and both of those were in the reign of Queen Victoria, 1888-89 Preston and 1896-97 Aston Villa. It was, for many years, an elusive prize.
In 1913, however, two clubs could claim that they came within a whisker of winning both the FA Cup and Football League Championship. In the end, neither did, although both finished the season with silverware in their trophy cabinet.
Aston Villa and Sunderland were at the peak of their game in the years preceding the First World War. In social terms, it was a time of monumental change and an era of great happenings, some good, some bad. Some historians have claimed that 1913 was a year that ended the carefree post-Victorian and Edwardian period, and one that dramatically contrasted with the horrors that were to follow in the fields of Flanders. The war also put paid to two fine football teams, who have rarely touched the heights since those halcyon days.
Sunderland started the 1912-13 campaign in dubious fashion. They lost four of their first five league games and five of their first seven, after which they were 19th in the table. On that same day, October 5, Aston Villa hit 10 goals past The Wednesday, with England striker Harry Hampton netting five times. Sunderland suddenly hit form, however, and five consecutive wins lifted them up to 11th, but Villa were now top with 18 points from 13 games. On November 23, Sunderland beat Villa 3-1, part of a bad month for the Midlanders in which they lost three league games. By Christmas, Villa had stuttered, although they beat Oldham 7-1 on Boxing Day. As the year turned, though, it was Villa’s Birmingham rivals, West Bromwich, that were top of the table, but it was a very close campaign, with only five points separating the top 12. WBA and The Wednesday both had 27 points, with Albion first on goal average. Villa were third with 26 points and Sunderland were in seventh position, with 24. At the end of January, Wednesday were first, with Villa second just two points behind. Sunderland’s form continued to improve, and they were in fourth position, one point behind Villa. On February 8, Sunderland trounced Chelsea 4-0 putting them level with Villa on 31 points, two behind leaders Wednesday. February 15 was a key Saturday. Sunderland won against local rivals Middlesbrough 2-0, Villa were held at home by Blackburn and Wednesday were beaten at Liverpool. Another contender was Manchester City, who won 1-0 at Newcastle. Sunderland were now top, but three teams were on 33 points, Villa were down to fifth. It was all geared up for an exciting finale.
The FA Cup comes long
Both Villa and Sunderland had relatively easy wins in the first round of the cup. Sunderland, thanks to four goals from Jimmy Richardson, thrashed Orient 6-0, while Villa won 3-1 at Derby County. In the next round, Villa hit West Ham United, then of the Southern League, 5-0, while Sunderland overcame Manchester City in a tough tie. Villa hit five again in round three, this time against Crystal Palace, also a Southern League outfit. Two more goals from Richardson helped Sunderland beat Swindon Town 4-2. While Villa had a relatively comfortable 5-0 win against first division Bradford City, the 1911 winners, in the quarter-final, Sunderland took three games to finally dispose of fellow North-Easterners Newcastle United. In the semi-finals, Villa beat Oldham Athletic 1-0 at Ewood Park, thanks to a goal from half-back Tommy Barber. Sunderland took another two games to beat Burnley, 3-2 after a 0-0 draw. So it was Aston Villa v Sunderland for the final.
Although Villa went nine games unbeaten to March 22, Sunderland were still just ahead of them, with 41 points from 31 games. With three games to go, Sunderland had pulled four points clear of Villa, who were dealt a crushing blow in the form of a 4-0 defeat at Manchester United. They also lost 1-3 at home to Liverpool. So when the two teams lined-up at the Crystal Palace ground in Sydenham, South London, Sunderland were favourites to win the “little tin idol”. The game captured the imagination of the public, with 121,919 people turning up to see England’s two finest teams. It was the first time that the top two had met in the FA Cup final. It was a physical game, with a few old scores being settled, notably in a running battle between Sunderland’s tough Scottish centre-half Charlie Thomson and Villa’s Harry Hampton. Villa keeper Sam Hardy had to leave the field injured for seven minutes after a brutal challenge. In the 15th minute, Villa’s Charlie Wallace missed a penalty, but with 12 minutes remaining, Wallace cross for Tommy Barber to send the ball skidding past Sunderland custodian Joe Butler and into the net for the only goal of the game.
Villa may have won the cup, but Sunderland would have their moment. A few days later, Sunderland visited Villa Park in a league game. Almost 60,000 people were attracted to the game to see the FA Cup winners in action. Villa needed to win if they were to win the title and the first double of the 20th century. The game ended 1-1 and almost guaranteed that the Wearsiders would win the championship.
Both Sunderland and Villa’s teams were packed with internationals. Villa had legendary goalkeeper Sam Hardy who joined the club in the summer of 1912 from Liverpool. He would serve in the Royal Navy in WW1. Full backs Tom Lyons and Tom West were uncompromising, described as “fearless tacklers”. Tommy Barber was Villa’s 1913 hero in his first season with the club after moving from Bolton. Jimmy Horrop, a centre half, was also secured from Liverpool, while Jimmy Leach was signed from local football. Charlie Wallace, an England winger, joined the club in 1907. Harold Halse was in fine form in the FA Cup, scoring seven goals in the competition. He played [briefly] for England and also spent time in London with Chelsea. Harry Hampton was the star turn, however, netting 31 goals in 1912-13. He was nicknamed “the Wellington whirlwind” after the town of his birth. Hampton, like Clem Stephenson, was an England player and one of the leading forwards in the years before WW1. Stephenson would go on to play for Huddersfield where he had a key role in the Yorkshire club’s hat-trick of league titles in the 1920s. Joe Bache was a cultured dribbler who spent 15 years with Aston Villa.
Sunderland had five players who had won or would win England honours. The most well-known was Charles Buchan, who would later publish his own football magazine, Charles Buchan’s Football Monthly. Buchan was a legendary figure in the game and would eventually join Arsenal. Most of the squad, however, was drawn from the North. Jim Butler, the goalkeeper was from Glossop an the full backs, Charlie Gladwin and Harry Ness were signed from Blackpool and Barnsley respectably. Frank Cuggy was another England name, while Charlie Thomson and Harry Low were both Scots. Thomson was a famous figure and played for Pollock. Low was previously with Aberdeen. Jackie Mordue was another England international and was previously with Woolwich Arsenal. Jimmy Richardson was another former Huddersfield player and spent just two seasons with Arsenal. The left side was taken care of by George Holley and Harry Martin, both capped by England.
Of the two clubs, Villa fared better in the years that followed, but the Football League was abandoned from 1915 when regional leagues came in to play. The Victorian and Edwardian giants of the game have never quite managed to recapture the power they had in that period. But in 1913, there were no stronger teams than Aston Villa and Sunderland. They were both so close to achieving immortality. A trophy each was “all” they had to show for their efforts. Not a bad day’s work.
In 1913-14, Aston Villa were runners-up once more in the league and reached the last four of the FA Cup. They won the FA Cup again 1919-20. Sunderland dropped from their lofty heights in 1914 and won the title 23 years later.