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Roker Relives: SAFC 3-0 Everton, 03/05/97

I've done it a few times this season, but now it's a full-blown feature of the site. In the build-up to the weekends game, our reporter Chris Weatherspoon will reminice about a classic match against that weeks opposition. This week, we're up against Everton, so there really was only once choice...

That Sunderland bade farewell to their beloved Roker Park in 1997 with a season that ended in relegation is one of the gravest tragedies in their history. Seemingly safe at Christmas, yet condemned to the drop on the final day, the patch of land that red and whites had called home for one year shy of a century deserved a much more glamorous send-off. However, even for Sunderland, light can be found amongst the darkness. Everton were the visitors for the ground's final competitive match on a warm Saturday afternoon at the start of May and, to their misfortune, it was they who fell victim to Roker's final moment of magic.

Though less than fifteen years ago, the possibilities of watching a football match were much less numerous than in the current day. With no internet streams, nor any alehouses with the capability to show the game with Czechoslovakian commentary, tickets for the visit of the Toffees were nothing short of a collector's item. Unsurprisingly, the old ground sold out, and 22,108 people, the majority bearing red and white stripes, witnessed a comprehensive three-nil victory to the hosts.

Star of the show was Chris Waddle. Signed on a short-term contract from Bradford City for a mere £75,000, 'the Waddler' almost single-handedly kept up the side he'd watched at Roker Park as a youngster, and that day against Everton was the crowning moment in his brief stint on Wearside.

The man with sixty-two England caps to his name cast off the handicap of being thirty-seven years old with admirable ease, proving instrumental in all three Sunderland goals.

First, after a thirty five minutes in which the home side's fears of relegation were abundantly clear, the ex-Tow Law Town winger kept a cool head, playing a short free-kick to a young Michael Gray. Gray whipped the ball into the box and Duncan Ferguson, deeming his six-foot-four frame insufficient in size to clear the ball legally, raised a hand inside the box. Up stepped Paul Stewart, and Roker roared as their heroes went one up.

Everton, to their credit, did not merely sit back and follow the script. Indeed were in not for the heroics of a flamboyant Frenchman in the Sunderland goal, the unforgettable Lionel Perez, then relegation may have been sealed, devastatingly, at Roker Park itself. Keeping out Michael Branch, as well as Ferguson, Perez ensured the half-time break arrived with his team's lead in tact.

The second half, though, was all about the home side. Twelve minutes after the break, Neville Southall's rotund figure came bounding out of his area, giving away a free-kick within range. Being the one man in the team truly possessing of great technical ability, Waddle inevitably stepped up to take it. Striking the ball with similar venom to a certain penalty he took in 1990, this time he managed to keep his effort under the bar, rifling it into the top corner in front of the Fulwell End. Roker erupted, and Dave Watson's visiting side were left with little hope of salvaging a point.

The third was again made by Waddle, but it was Allan "Magic" Johnston who scored Roker's final league goal. Having smashed home the free-kick with his favoured left foot, Waddle showed his prowess by whipping a cross in with his right, leaving the Scot Johnston with the simple task of heading home from a couple of yards. Three-nil, and the final twenty minutes served as a fond celebration of ninety-nine years of footballing history.

The side that turned out for Sunderland that day is one far removed from the eleven which will take to the field at Goodison Park on Saturday. Whilst Ghanaians abound in Steve Bruce's team, Perez was the sole foreign representative of the side managed that day by Peter Reid. Midfield grit was preferred in the guise of Paul Bracewell and Kevin Ball, a far cry from the industrious creativity of Messrs Malbranque and Zenden; it was a partnership that reflected the sad fact that sheer will was no longer enough to keep a side in the Premier League. Meanwhile, up front, a certain Niall Quinn battled valiantly for everything that came his way, attempting to repay fans after a season plagued with injury.

That season, of course, ended in almost predictable disaster a week later at Wimbledon. Considering the Black Cats' record against Everton in recent years, perhaps defeat to them wouldn't have come as any great surprise either. But, for those final ninety competitive minutes on the historic turf, Reid's men conjured up a performance truly befitting Roker Park's final hurrah.

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