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Nostalgia & Memories are all I have: Remembering Roker Park & what it’s like to love Sunderland

We've had nothing to shout about all season - we haven't won at home in 19 games, we've hired and fired another manager and even our caretaker has jumped ship. If ever there was a time for a little nostalgia, it is now.

general view

I vividly remember the first time I visited Roker Park as an excitable, starry-eyed 8 year old. It was on the 1st October 1994 - a game against Peter Taylor's Southend United. I hadn't slept the night before. I couldn't think of anything other than the match at 3pm the following day.

I went along with my Dad and Uncle, something that I still do to this day. The walk over from the city centre to Roker remains etched in my mind.

The pilgrimage to the ground. The hustle and bustle. The terraced housing. The streets that would become so familiar. The floodlights towering above all else around me. There was a buzz in the air; one of optimism and anticipation. The journey had started.

I had found my metaphorical life partner, a relationship so strong that I would quickly learn it had absolutely no room for divorce. That was simply not an option, under any set of circumstances.

I can still recall the clanking and creaking of the turnstile, as we pushed ourselves into what J.B. Priestley famously called "an altogether different kind of world."

The sights, sounds and smells remain with me even today.

We were sat in the Clock Stand, and as I made my way up the steps, the sight was awe-inspiring; at least to me anyway. It was every kid's dream to play on such a hallowed turf, and there it was, every blade of grass right there in front of me.

The Fulwell End looked huge. I spotted Goodman and Smith, two early favourites of mine. The proximity of the pitch gave me a close-up glimpse of my heroes. The plushness and brilliant green colour of the turf still resonates with me now, some 23 years later.

If I had any inkling of doubt that I didn't belong here, such thoughts had now been consigned to the reject bin. Never would I allow such things enter my mind again. An Auntie had given me some Manchester United posters some weeks earlier, of Lee Sharpe and Ryan Giggs. I realize now that I could have been sucked into a synthetic, trophy-laden world, but from this day onward there would be no question about where my footballing destiny lay.

Roker Park Mark Thompson /Allsport

For the record, we lost on that October day to Southend, 1-0; a fellow called Ricky Otto got the winner. Knowing what I know now, I shouldn't really have been surprised. My Uncle said we'd win 7-0, and I believed him.

Ever since that day though, I have been hooked - absolutely fascinated with all things Sunderland. I have collected heroes like a philatelist collects stamps. The aforementioned Goodman and Smith; Ball, Quinn, Phillips, Arca, Hutchison, Cisse and Sessegnon. Not to mention Roy Keane. They are all immortals to me.

I remember the transition from Roker Park to the Stadium of Light; my family and I donning hard hats to visit what was essentially a building site. Even my Mam came along for a look, such was the excitement surrounding our new home. The football we played during the opening four years at our new ground was some of the best seen on Wearside since the War. Looking back, we took it all for granted.

I believed the good times were here and would last forever.

We all know they don't last forever though, do they? Relegation should have came in 01/02, but instead it came a year later as we amassed a then record low points total of 19 points. In true Sunderland style, we broke our own record total three seasons later as the miserable 05/06 campaign came to an end.

Niclas Alexandersson, Julio Arca
Who doesn’t love Julio?

The season that followed was one of the greatest roller-coaster rides of my life. The club was on its knees after four straight defeats at the beginning of the campaign, cementing the side's position at the bottom of the table. Niall Quinn and Drumaville breathed new life into the whole club and its fan-base with the appointment of Roy Keane putting Sunderland firmly back on the football map. We won promotion, clinching the title; the feel good factor had returned to Wearside. The promised land of the Premier League awaited everyone connected to the club.

Looking back on our ten year stay in the Premier League, the one 10th place finish aside, what exactly did we achieve? We didn’t progress, in fact I'd go as far as to say we've emphatically regressed, but that is a debate for another day.

Keane's workmanlike side scored some brilliant stoppage time goals. The wins against Newcastle were very sweet, every single one of them. There have been some memorable league victories and Gus Poyet gave me one of the proudest days of my life at Wembley as we somehow managed to reach a major domestic final. The game at Old Trafford will live long in the memory too.

Manchester City v Sunderland - Capital One Final Photo by Jamie McDonald/Getty Images

On the whole, for the best part of a decade in England's top flight, we have been swimming against the tide, desperately trying to cling onto our Premier League status each season and forever flirting with the drop. How the inevitable didn't happen sooner I'll never know. The 'Great Escapes' were miraculous and as a fan, enthralling and highly emotional to go through, but we cannot pigeon-hole them as achievements. What sort of a way to measure success is that?

The club, under the watch of Ellis Short, has lurched from one crisis to another in recent years. Managers, Directors of Football, appalling recruitment and millions of pounds wasted. Not to mention Margaret Byrne and Adam Johnson. As if you need reminding, we currently find ourselves firmly rooted to the bottom of the Championship, without a manager and with one league win to our name all season. Attendances have dipped alarmingly; apathy has set in all around us. The club we all love is disintegrating before our very eyes.

I didn't expect a title challenge or a promotion charge. I expected at the very least to see our pride restored, some of our problems rectified and a clear plan of progression.

This was to be a season to stabilize the club both on and off the field. I've seen none of that. Our club is in the worst state I, and many others have seen.

"Worse than under McMenemy" is a phrase I've heard bandied about in recent weeks and months - my God, it must be bad. I was brought up on horror stories from that dark period in our club's history.

What we need is our club back. We need to feel that bond again; the connection between football club and supporter that has been eroded and eventually callously severed. For the first time in living memory, I can't even identify with the players on the pitch, and that is a very sad statement to make. Going to the match should be something we love and crave, yet it has become a chore. I cannot help but loathe what I see every Saturday at 3 o'clock, but that is because I care so much.

I don't believe for one minute that a professional footballer crosses that white line every Saturday to intentionally turn in an awful performance.

If we cannot win this weekend we will hold yet another unwanted record; 20 home games without a win, which is quite frankly astonishing.

It is a record we can stack up with the others. Surely we can't go a full calendar year without winning at The Stadium of Light? We are running out of chances to put that one to bed.

The managerial appointment we are still yet to make is one of if not the most critical in the modern history of our club. We said that in the summer, but given our form since, the importance of bringing in the right man has increased tenfold.

If I want to feel as I used to feel, it has to be 100% right. It has to be nailed on.

I have to feel all eager and alive again. It is something we all are craving.

Ellis Short and Martin Bain have to deliver - it's as simple as that. I want my club back. We want our club back. The crying shame is that it is only the likes of Short and Bain who can help us to achieve just that.

They hold all of the cards. We desperately need a Royal Flush; I only hope and pray that we don't end up with yet another Joker.

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