The Stadium of Light will celebrate its 20th birthday this weekend. Two decades have elapsed since the football ground built on the site of the former Wearmouth Colliery opened its doors.
The stadium was opened on the 30th July 1997 by Prince Andrew, the Duke of York, with a fixture played against Dutch giants Ajax.
Subsequent modifications have included an extension added at the turn of the millenium and the unveiling of a statue to 1973 Cup winning manager Bob Stokoe. A hotel now adjoins the ground as does a sports complex housing an Olympic-size swimming pool.
The Stadium of Light is billed as “one of the finest stadiums in Europe” on the club’s official website. But can Sunderland really lay claim to such boasts when the place is increasingly looking a bit shabby and uncared for?
The debate over the state of the place, in particular the ‘pink seats’, has raised its head again of late as Sunderland prepare to welcome Glasgow Celtic to mark the ground’s anniversary with events planned before and during the game on Saturday to celebrate 20 years of the Stadium of Light.
This time last year, the club announced plans for a face-lift for the stadium which would include a ‘rolling programme’ of replacing the discoloured seats which now look shabby and frankly embarrassing when shown on TV or in the press. Some of the hospitality and function suites were also to be given a make-over and a new tunnel was installed.
Indeed, chief executive Martin Bain proudly beamed that to mark two decades of the ground, investment would be put in to restore some of the shine to the Stadium of Light:
After almost 20 years, naturally some areas of the Stadium of Light are in need of a face-lift.
It is a magnificent home for our football club and we want to ensure that it is a stadium our fans can continue to be proud of.
The replacing of the seats will be the most visual aspect of the work we are undertaking and is something I am sure Sunderland fans will welcome.
Twelve months later and after but a few blocks have been replaced with shiny new red seats, that ‘rolling programme’ has ground to a halt.
The club have decided they don’t have the money to continue to invest in the refurbishment and the planned half-a-million pounds it would have cost to replace all the seats has been shelved.
But seen from the air, as this drone photo demonstrates, those seats look quite frankly, a bit rank.
Caused by being in near-constant sunlight for two decades, the faded seats are worst in the north and east areas of the stadium and the club have essentially replaced sufficient so far to enable photos to be taken inside the SoL with an apparent red-seated backdrop.
And Sunderland AFC are clearly aware of the cringe-factor the now infamous ‘Pink Seats of Wearside’ cause, because they tried to Photoshop them out of their promo shot yesterday to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the stadium, except a section of their attempted airbrushing went a little wrong:
The Stadium of Light was extremely good value in truth. A £23m total build cost means the ground remains roughly the cheapest purpose-built stadium in the world for its size.
Bob Murray famously squeezed every last drop he could from the SoL’s build budget. The former chairman being seen on national TV admiring the new gold mixer taps in the stadium as it was being constructed has become part of Wearside folklore.
And whilst it’s easy to argue that in Sunderland’s current forlorn financial state that replacing seats is not a priority, business is rarely as simple as that. The club will have a maintenance and refurbishment budget separate to the rest of the accounts.
Choosing whether to spend £500,000 on seats or a new striker is not a decision Martin Bain has had to sit down and make at any point. And it’s not just the seats. The concourses and other fan facilities are also showing their age.
Grime adorns the metal and concrete structures which make up the stadium and they just need a bloody good clean. The PA system is crap and each of you who visit Sunderland’s home ground will have your own gripes of what could be made a little nicer, cleaner or better.
The stadium will be half-empty for much of the upcoming season and the world will continue to increasingly notice Sunderland’s shabby seats. So as we celebrate 20-years this weekend, perhaps it’s a good time to ponder that it would have been nice to do so in a re-shined home.