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WHY I LOVE SUNDERLAND: ‘Enjoy League One!’ - Memories of 1987 & how we’re loving football again

Mike Dalzell - a Massive Lads Fan from Stockport - tells his story of why he loves Sunderland and how after years of hurt we’re back enjoying football again, just like we did during our last third tier season in 1987.

Danny Roberts

Why do you love Sunderland?

Everyone has their own unique reasons, and we want to hear YOUR story.

If you’d like to submit a piece to Roker Report which will feature right here on the site, send us something across in an email - our address is

Kicking us off today is Sunderland fan Mike Dalzell, who also writes his own blog - ‘Raining From a Hapless Cloud’. Be sure to check out all of his posts there, and of course follow him on Twitter - @Mick_Mack_78.

If I were to longingly think back to 1987 it would be a fairly safe bet I’d reminisce about a long summer spent in Germany preoccupied with Transformers, Karate Kid, Star Wars and Back to the Future on repeat on the VHS video player.

Unsurprisingly to anyone who personally knows me, I also spent massive chunks of my time obsessing over the beautiful game. A lot of eight or nine year old kids from around that time would paint a similar picture - we had no FIFA on the games console or 24 hour rolling football on Sky Sports back then, so to feed our footballing habits it would be bulk purchases of Panini stickers, Shoot magazine, Roy of the Rovers and 13-a-side games until we were dragged in for our tea by our parents.

Glenn Hoddle was my footballing idol but Sunderland were the team I was born to support. My old man was born and bred in Hylton Castle, only a couple of miles away from the site of the old Wearmouth Colliery where the Stadium of Light now sits. My Dad was a half decent midfielder in his time having briefly played semi-pro for Hendon in North London during the mid 1970’s. He also regularly represented R.A.F Germany in games against other Armed Forces teams and occasionally pro clubs like Roda JC, who plied their trade in the Dutch top flight, but annoyingly for me it wasn’t so much his decent ability on the ball which would pass down through the genes (I’m not very good) but more his passion for Sunderland AFC.

If you speak to any match going Sunderland supporter of a certain vintage and ask them for their memories of 1987, I would dare suggest that their memories are less directed towards Hollywood nostalgia but more specifically a person who became to symbolise an unfortunate period in the history of our club - Lawrie McMenemy.

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McMenemy arrived on Wearside to great fanfare - he’d worked near miracles with another, arguably smaller provincial club in Southampton, winning the FA Cup as a second division side in 1976 and guiding the club to second in the top flight in 1984. He did so with a list of superstar names such as Alan Ball, Kevin Keegan and Peter Shilton. His master stroke was seemingly to recruit big name players thought to be past their prime and manage to squeeze some of that old magic out of them for a couple more years to prolong those careers.

The age defying tactics he had so much success with at Southampton would not go on to serve him well on Wearside. Established big name internationals Frank Gray, Alan Kennedy and Eric Gates were unable to help prevent Sunderland from falling into the third tier of English Football for the first time in their history.

The man left to pick up the pieces of McMenemy’s disastrous reign was little known former Stoke City defender (and latterly York City manager) Denis Smith. To cut to the chase, we all know what happened next - Smith went back to his former club York City and purchased a Lamborghini called Marco and Sunderland stormed to the Third Division title. Following that season, Smith had Sunderland back in the top tier within 24 months of that third division title-clinching season.

It’s not uncommon for traditionally larger clubs who are more recognised from playing in the top two divisions to uncharacteristically drop into the third tier now and again. Since Sunderland dropped down there a number of similarly-sized clubs have slipped through that trap door - Wolves, Leeds United, Nottingham Forest, Sheffield Wednesday, Sheffield United, Leicester City and arguably most famously Manchester City in 1997. All those big name clubs have suffered the same indignity going from regularly playing at world renowned stadiums like Anfield and Old Trafford to travelling to lesser familiar grounds like Moss Rose, Sincil Bank, Highbury (not that one) and London Road.

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Fast forward thirty one years to 2018 and again, due to years of mismanagement, Sunderland found themselves on the brink of dropping into the third tier for the second time in their proud 139 year history.

It wasn’t without irony the relegation would be confirmed thanks to a 2-1 home defeat to Burton Albion, a side who have been admirably punching well above their weight for a number of seasons, and that the scorer of the goal to hammer that final nail into the red and white coffin was Darren Bent.

Followers of Sunderland who are too young to recall the woes of the previous season spent in Division three had always had those days used as a barometer to measure just how bad Sunderland could get.

You think losing 8-0 away to Southampton is bad?

You should have been there when we played Scunthorpe away in the FA Cup second round proper and lost… now that was bad.

Well now it would appear the younger element can share in the misery that third tier football can provide... or can they?

Since being relegated, the most commonly used dig towards Sunderland supporters has been the three words which would sum up the summer of 2018: “Enjoy League One”.

Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Following that latest relegation, the club have acquired new ownership in the shape of Stewart Donald, Charlie Methven and Juan Sartori. The much-maligned stadium is currently being revamped and the vast majority of the playing squad is new.

Many of the new signings were brought in on relatively low transfer fees or for free, but what all of these players seemingly have in common is a shared desire to to want to play for Sunderland. In recent times too many players have joined the club with their bank balance at the forefront of their mind rather than the will to perform to their true potential where it really matters out on the pitch.

One player to sum up the new spirit within the squad is Chris Maguire.

Maguire was the epitome of the journey-man footballer. Starting out at Aberdeen before signing for Derby County, his career has seen him bounce around various clubs including Sheffield Wednesday, Oxford United and Bury. It was the latter where he admits to ‘falling out of love’ with football and, going from a number of online comments from Bury supporters, I think it’s safe to assume it was a mutual feeling.

His previous connection to Oxford United led Maguire to contact Charlie Methven to enquire about the possibility of a transfer from Bury to Sunderland - and it was achieved with Maguire accepting a pay cut, with Bury pleased to see him off their wage bill and out of the door.

In his 15 appearances so far for the lads he’s scored five goals, and has played a part in many more of Sunderland’s goals this season. He is fast becoming a cult figure in the stands at the Stadium of Light - so much so that he’s been nicknamed ‘the King’, a nickname which hasn’t been bestowed on a player since Charlie Hurley during the 1950s and 1960s - and for an idea of how prestigious that is, Hurley went on to be voted the ‘Player of the Century’ by the supporters.

Bury Times

Another sign that Sunderland’s band of loyal followers are enjoying their football again can be highlighted by that so far this season every away allocation given to them has sold out. An argument would be that they’re playing smaller stadiums so, by default, the allocations are smaller which in-turn would make it easier to sell out. This could be the case when playing sides like AFC Wimbledon where the allocation is less than 800 tickets, but Gillingham away on a Tuesday night saw 2200 make the 605 mile round trip. Even a midday kick off at Coventry City in front of the Sky cameras couldn’t put off the 4950 hardy souls from Wearside from making the trip to the West Midlands.

There was a time when Manchester City were seen as the comedy club of English football, specialists at snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Since their takeover 10 years ago they’ve well and truly rid themselves of any ridicule to become one of the big names in world football, winning trophies by the boat load in the process.

It could be argued that Sunderland picked up the comedy club mantle where Manchester City left it. Nobody in red and white would ever expect the kind of success the Abu Dhabi owners have achieved in Manchester, but what has happened in the short space of time since the lads from Oxford and Montevideo took the reigns from Ellis Short is nothing short of amazing.

Sunderland supporters have smiles on their faces again, they are enjoying going to the match again, and the buzz that comes with attending games at the Stadium of Light has finally returned.

There is still a long way to go - Sunderland could still return to the habits of old and in true comedy club style blow the great start they’ve had, but whilst the current run of form carries on it would be safe to assume that Sunderland’s supporters are indeed ‘enjoying League One’.

Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

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