On Saturday afternoon, around the time when Titus Bramble was dabbling in his newly discovered pre-season hobby of giving penalty kicks away, it was brought to my attention that it was 14 years to the day since the Stadium Of Light opened it's doors for the first time. Ajax were the opposition but, in truth, I probably remember more about the audacious arrival in the centre circle via helicopter of Status Quo than I do about the match itself. I don't think the new stadium felt real to me until the Manchester City game.
But when I heard it was the anniversary of the day that our club effectively got it's act together and gave itself the ability to compete at the kind of level we now enjoy, I found that rather than being filled with pride about what we gained, it instead had me thinking more about what we had sacrificed – Roker Park.
Now I am no grizzled Roker Park veteran. Barely 10 years had passed between my dad pushing me through the Clockstand turnstiles for the first time - I was too small to move them myself - and the day Charlie Hurley dug up the centre circle with a tear in his eye. It is fair to say that it's glory days were well behind it. It would also be fair to say that, by that stage of its life, Roker Park was a decrepit, festering milestone around the club's neck threatening to drag us down to the depths of the football abyss had we not rid ourselves of it. But it was still Roker Park, and I still miss it.
In contrast to my rather blurred first memories of the Stadium Of Light, I can remember my first trip to Roker Park in vivid clarity. I was seven years old and living in Wiltshire at the time having left Sunderland before I had even been to school. My Dad, upon hearing about my dangerous flirtation with supporting another club, bundled me into a car and decided that only a visit to Roker Park to witness some Third Division football could cleanse my contaminated footballing soul. We stopped on the way to get some sweets at a little paper shop half way up Hylton Bank. As fate would have it, I pretty much can't get anywhere these days without having to pass that little newsagents and be reminded of that day.
The game itself was against York City. After getting through the turnstiles I remember feeling utterly terrified of the site of the Clockstand concourse. So scared, in fact, that I grabbed my Dad's leg. I was absolutely terrified of my Dad, so good lord Roker Park must have been putting the frights up me. Perhaps the size of it to the eyes of such a small child, or the busy buzz of frivolity coming from the paddock, or the shuffling and banging of feet on the wooden ceiling above our heads as people were taking their seats. It felt like everything around you, even the bricks and mortar itself, was alive. It was a good kind of scared, though. The kind of scared you feel when you make any kind of commitment. We made our way up to the seats, where I was to experience the first of many Roker Park heartaches. Marco Gabbiadini was signing autographs for the people in the paddocks below well out of my reach. Darn it.
Living away, it wasn't until the season that Marco was sold that I became a Roker Park regular. But he was to give me a Roker Park memory that I will treasure forever. We moved back up to the north east when my grandmother was diagnosed with terminal cancer and my Mam wanted to be close to her. Given I was only ten at the time, I knew little more than "Nanna is poorly", of course. One day, we went to Roker Park to buy tickets for a game against Manchester United. We parked just off Roker Baths Road and walked up the length of the main stand towards the ticket office. It was at this point that Marco Gabbiadini, Tony Norman, and someone who would later be identified (thanks to my trusty Sunderland 1990 Annual) as Paul Hardyman, appeared on the scene. I gave my Mam's skirt a tug, and pointed at Marco Gabbiadini walking into the players' entrance. He was just about to disappear from view when my Nanna defied her illness and leapt off into what I remember as a full-on sprint. My young eyes could barely digest the scene with which they were presented. There was my cancer-riddled Nanna sprinting after a bemused, and understandably frightened, looking Marco Gabbiadini, waving her hands in the air and screaming "Marco! Marco!!" at the top of her voice in a broad mackem accent while a host of confused onlookers watched open-mouthed. It all resulted in me shaking the hand of my hero. My Nanna had left us within months, but even the most routinely mundane trip to Roker Park had provided me with a priceless memory.
By the time I was watching football regularly at Roker Park, it's little curiosities became it's charm. Just who was the little man inside the weird little half time scores box? Why was it that it was seemingly impossible for ALL the letters in the "Welcome To Sunderland" at the back of the Fulwell End to light up at the same time? Just how big was David Speedie given that, by all accounts, he landed on around 50,000 people simultaneously in the Clockstand paddock? I remember standing there on the terraces watching us meekly losing a wretched game of football to a poor Ipswich team, soaked to the skin by rain, freezing cold, and barely able to see past the sea fret to the other side of the pitch – but it's a happy memory. That was the magic of Roker Park.
I suppose that once upon a time Roker Park was shiny and new and waiting to be filled up with history and character, and there isn't really any short cut to that. May be I just have too much affections for the football ground I grew up in to be willing to all myself to be seduced by another. Since moving to the Stadium of Light, we have watched some magic times. We have watched International footballers, promotions, top flight football, £20m players and a European Golden Boot winner in red and white stripes, a rare home derby win, and even a Newcastle United relegation. But I struggle to feel any meaningful affinity with the place.
Perhaps that is more an indictment of modern football than it is of the Stadium itself, though. After all, back in the late 90s when we were watching Peter Reid's swashbuckling heyday, I most certainly felt an affinity with the surroundings. Football was still clinging on desperately to its soul at that stage. It was still a time, just, when a plucky young scamp could come from non-league football to winning the European Golden Boot without ever commanding a noteworthy transfer fee. Football was still a sport. Now it's just a business and like any other industry in the world it has been monopolized by those powerful enough to do it. Football clubs are "brands". Football players are no more than commodities. Football fans merely customers having their passions exploited by usually faceless rich men intent on getting richer.
So may be it wasn't Roker Park itself I found myself yearning for, but the era that it represented. Either way, I miss you, old friend.