In September 1894, a Mr R Kirkham of Darwen in Lancashire missed his connection at York. He was travelling to Sunderland and sent a telegram to explain he’d be late, probably not arriving until 5pm. The problem was, he was supposed to be refereeing Sunderland’s First Division game against Derby County and kick-off was scheduled for 3.30pm.

This was the seventh season of the English football league. Derby had been founder members in 1888-89, but Sunderland had to wait to be elected in place of Stoke for the 1890-91 campaign. Sunderland won the title in 1892, making them the first non-founder members to finish top of the table, and defended the crown the following year. The game against Derby was their first game of the 1894-95 season as they sought to reclaim the title from Aston Villa.

The prospect of an absent referee simply wouldn’t occur in modern football. There are strict regulations governing the transport of referees to and from games and, even if the referee were indisposed, there is always a fourth official ready to step in if need be. But in the 1890s life was different and, as one local paper reported, there were concerns about leaving the crowd of around 9,000 at Sunderland’s Newcastle Road home  “idly waiting” for an hour and a half.

As 3.30 came and went, fans grew impatient. One report claimed many of them “clamoured for the time to be taken off” the match, so that even if it didn’t start on time, it would finish as scheduled.

But there was no guarantee that the league committee would accept a result played without their appointed official. In the end, after both teams had protested against the situation, a compromise was reached – and they began the game on time, with a deputy referee, John Conqueror of Southwick, taking charge. 

What many would have expected to be a tight game didn’t unfold that way. Despite only a couple of points separating the two teams in second and third place the season before, it was Sunderland who settled the quicker. John Campbell put the hosts ahead after 15 minutes, smashing a shot off the underside of the bar. A lucky deflection made it 2-0, Campbell’s strike hitting his teammate Jimmy Hannah on the back and deflecting past Derby’s goalkeeper Jack Robinson. Tommy Hyslop fired a low drive past Robinson five minutes before the break to make it 3-0 as Derby, having lost the toss, were inconvenienced by a strong wind.

It was at that point that the original referee arrived. According to the Derby Daily Telegraph, Kirkham claimed to have been “misdirected by a ticket collector at Halifax”, resulting in the missed connection. He’d set off from his home in good time, but arrived at Newcastle Road three hours late.

As the teams loitered around the clubhouse at what seemed to be half-time, many in the crowd suspected there had been a hitch – and rumours began to spread that the match wasn’t a league game after all. 

Some newspapers, such as the Guardian, claimed that the referee had demanded the game be restarted. The Preston Herald agreed that after the fixture had begun 15 minutes late and under protest, it was the official who decided to play the first half again.

However, Mr Kirkham disagreed. He told the Referee’s Journal: “I gave the teams the option to take the half-time result as it stood when I arrived if they were both agreeable, but as Derby County objected that they had not had justice from the other referee, there was no other course left but to restart the game.”

Of course, trailing by a large margin and having been played off the park, is it any surprise that the Rams wanted a second bite at the cherry? The original first half was deleted from the official record.

There’s some poetic justice, then, that at the end of the second first half, the score was again 3-0 – just as it had been at the conclusion of the first first half. It was also a relief for the journalists in the stands, who had already dispatched reports of the half-time score to their news desks. Long before the days of email or mobile phones, correcting that would have been extremely difficult.

That’s probably why many of the reports seem to ignore the first period played. Equally, restarting the match probably did Derby more harm than good. They lost the coin toss once again and it meant they ended up battling the wind for a second period, while the home fans – unhappy at the decision to replay the first half – were now far noisier in their support of Sunderland. 

“Playing from the lower end of the field,” one report stated, “the home forwards displayed more spirit than in the ‘friendly’, as it had been decided to be. The actions in the ‘Peakites’ in protesting had riled the crowd, and they cheered vociferously when the Wearsiders took up the pressure and fairly bombarded the Derby goal.”

There was a touch more controversy in the goals this time, however. Hannah smashed an effort from range into the net, before Campbell again fired home off the underside of the bar – and despite protests from Derby’s players, the referee ruled it had gone over the line. The third was Campbell’s again, as Robinson fumbled his shot and once more the official decided the entire ball had crossed the line before the goalkeeper was able to scoop it out.

Derby tired in the third half and Sunderland took advantage. Campbell got his third official goal of the game, his fourth of the day, as he toe-poked a cross into the net. Hyslop scored two, with his second and third goals of the afternoon, while John Miller and James Gillespie got in on the action as well.

The only match in football league history to be played with three halves of 45 minutes finished 8-0 officially, but was actually 11-0 on the day – and it set the tone for both teams’ seasons. 

Sunderland went on to take the Division One title for a third time, making them the most successful club in English football at that point. 

Derby, meanwhile, ended in the test match places – play-offs for promotion and relegation – and stayed in the top flight after beating Notts County 2-1 at Leicester’s Filbert Street ground.

Among Derby’s players, the result was a source of what could be best deemed Victorian dressing-room banter. Their goalkeeper, Robinson, was a superstitious sort and put the defeat down to him not following his pre-match ritual of eating rice pudding – “no pudding, no points,” he’d tell his teammates.

He’d also always said that he’d never concede double figures in a game, even suggesting that he’d leave the goal at 9-0 to make sure it never happened. There was much debate in the following years as to whether the 11 goals he let in during those three periods officially counted as double figures.

In the end, neither side contested Mr Kirkham’s version of events when he reported back to the league committee and it was decided that action should be put in place to make sure there were no disagreements of that kind again. From 1894 onwards, when an official failed to show, providing both teams agreed on a referee ahead of kick-off, the resulting play would be deemed a league fixture.

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