Belfast’s Robert Hugh Kyle was born on the 16th December 1870 in the Ardoyne area of the city to mother Isabella and labourer father James. Robert grew up and married Catherine with the newly-wed couple living on Springfield Road in the Falls Ward area, as recorded in the 1901 census. Both were members of the Presbyterian Church and Bob was recorded as an ‘agent to the Conservative Association.’ It’s interesting to note that Kyle was born in what is now the predominantly Catholic Ardoyne area and moved to Springfield, adjacent to the Falls Road in West Belfast with parts of the largely Catholic and Irish republican street acting as an interface area with Ulster loyalists. It’s an example of one of the many Irish socio-political intricacies that for a time were not nearly as significant as they came to be as the 20th century developed.
In his early footballing years Kyle was a representative for the Eldon club in the Irish Football Alliance, and later became secretary of the Distillery Football Club in the Irish League. A capable goalkeeper for Eldon he might have been, but where he really excelled was as an administrator and legislator which saw him referee games in both senior and junior competitions. It is noted by the Northern Whig newspaper that Kyle also played as goalkeeper and even as a centre-back for the Grosvenor Park-based west Belfast team. Upon the resignation of Samuel Munro at Distillery, Kyle succeeded him as secretary and was seen as an important figure in what was a successful era for one of the Irish League founding member clubs. His trophy haul counted three league titles, two Irish Cups, three County Antrim Shields, a City Cup and one Belfast Charity Cup.
He would cross the Irish Sea in 1905 to join Sunderland in a similar capacity. Of his transition from the Irish League to the English First Division, Argus in the Sunderland Echo and Shipping Gazette noted that when Bob Kyle joined Sunderland as club secretary in 1905: “no man in football had a sounder knowledge of players and the game” than the former Eldon goalie who when “he came to the conclusion that a player was the man to fill the bill, he never left the doorstep until he had booked him or definitely refused his transfer.” It was such characteristics and relentless work ethic that would see Kyle succeed hallowed figures such as Tom Watson (three championship wins with Sunderland) and Alex Mackie, who won the title with the club in 1901-02.
When Alex Mackie resigned from managing the team affairs of Sunderland, Kyle applied for the position and was strongly supported by the well-known solicitor and amateur international full-back W.K. Gibson. He had turned out for Sunderland when they were short of players and was a very popular figure at the Wearside club. It was a tumultuous time for the Makems as they sold Alf Common to Middlesbrough for a then world record fee of £1,000 and a scandal hit the club around the suspension of manager Mackie and some club directors over benefit money paid to Scottish international full-back Andrew McCombie.
Upon being appointed to the role, it was claimed that Kyle had the record of being the only Irishman to become secretary of an English First Division team. After taking on the dual role of secretary and manager, Kyle returned to Grosvenor Park in Belfast when the Roker Park club played Distillery in an exhibition match notable for the playing debut of the future great Charlie Buchan. One of many astute signings Kyle made for Sunderland, the centre-forward would go on to represent his country and score 209 league goals for Sunderland to become the club’s all-time record league goal-scorer. Buchan was later transferred to Arsenal for a substantial fee.
Other notable additions to the club over the years of Kyle’s tenure included Frank Cuggy, Jack Mordue, L. R. Roose and Charlie Thomson. The Evening Telegraph commented on the early impact made by the Irishman: “Mr Kyle had the qualifications needed, and in a short while the club was sailing in calmer waters.” Kyle set himself the task of continuing to introduce new blood into the players’ ranks and duly assembled a team strong enough for the 1912-13 season to achieve the greatest success Sunderland has ever attained in one campaign: winning the Division One title and reaching the FA Cup Final.
Central to this success was, of course, Buchan along with the famous Welsh goalkeeper Dick Roose. One of the most memorable anecdotes concerning Roose came from when the player was asked by the Football League to submit a copy of his expenses claimed from Sunderland, with the first item recorded: ‘Using the toilet (twice), 2d.’
Keeping a tight rein on the club’s purse strings, having a keen eye for a player and coming so very close to leading Sunderland to the league and cup double in 1913 would not even represent Kyle’s main legacy to the club. More importantly, he played a pivotal role in the revival of the Roker Park club after the First World War. The club stopped playing in 1915 as players from their league-winning squad joined the war effort, with no fewer than nineteen of them fighting or serving during hostilities, with three in Buchan, Hobson and Young gaining the Military Medal for their endeavours.
It was hard to understand how such figures could return to a normal life as a professional footballer, or how Kyle could start from scratch with a club that had won five titles prior to the conflict in Europe. Reviving the fortunes of a sleeping giant is one thing, but rebuilding brick-by-brick is harder still. After he had successfully restored the squad to a high competitive level, Kyle underwent surgery in the autumn of 1922 for what was described as an ‘internal problem’ but recovered well from the procedure. Though he continued to manage the club for another few seasons, it appeared that Kyle, who had once been at the cutting edge in player recruitment, was starting to appear old-fashioned in his outlook as soccer continued to develop apace. For example he was one of a number of prominent officials against the proposal of players wearing shirt numbers, a view at odds with the general public who were in favour of a numbering scheme being adopted.
After nearly 23 years of managing Sunderland, Kyle was presented with a cheque for £1,000 by the club’s directors for his services to the club. Such was his reputation, Ireland’s Saturday Night concluded that Kyle was considered “one of the most capable secretaries in football.” Aside from that championship success in 1913, Kyle led the Makems to one League runners-up spot, five third-place finishes and two fifth places; a remarkably consistent record which the club has certainly never come close to matching since. Kyle’s resignation in March 1928 brought his long association to an end and caused quite the sensation in footballing circles. The Telegraph deemed Kyle as: “an official who was generally regarded as highly capable, and who has undoubtedly rendered excellent service to the club.”
We know that in 1929 Robert H. Kyle applied unsuccessfully for the manager’s position at Tottenham Hotspur. In his later years, Kyle was in and out of the Royal Infirmary in Sunderland and died on Monday 17th February 1941, just a couple of months past his 70th birthday. His funeral took place at the North Bridge Street Presbyterian Church and his remains were taken to Newcastle for cremation. Much has changed since Bob Kyle completed his near quarter-century spell in charge of Sunderland in the English top flight. Distillery now play in Lisburn rather than Belfast, Roker Park was consigned to history when it was demolished in 1998 and Sunderland are no longer the giants they were in pre-war days as they yo-yo erratically back and forth between the lower divisions. Bob Kyle remains to this day the only Irishman to lead an English club to a national championship and his record as the Wearside club’s longest-serving and most successful manager looks certain to never be surpassed.