It’s something I’ll always, always remember; that feeling when you reached the last couple of steps walking up to the Fulwell End. The bright, green grass shining back at you on a Saturday afternoon, the bright floodlights creating their own air of anticipation on an evening.
As a kid, it took my breath away. As a young adult, it never failed to stop me in my tracks. For me, the Stadium of Light’s never done that.
Who knows why? Maybe it’s age. Probably has something to do with it. But for also there’s the deep-seated history of Roker Park – it was steeped in the stuff.
In the hour or so before each game, before the players came out for their warm-up, I used to recreate in my mind’s eye things that had happened on that glorious pitch in front of me. Where the likes of Raich Carter, Bobby Gurney, Brian Clough, Charlie Hurley, Bobby Kerr and Monty had played. Where goals had been scored. Where tackles had happened. Where injuries had been received.
There was also a genuine excitement surrounding some of the players we were about to watch; again maybe an age thing. There were players who during the week I’d have typically met at the local car dealership – no doubt part of the agreement that resulted in them driving around in a car emblazoned with their name: Marco Gabbiadini drives Ford. Paul Hardyman drives Yugo.
Marco was a consistent favourite in my early supporting days for obvious reasons and, on this day in 1989, another player arrived on the Roker Park pitch who would certainly go on to cement his place as a Sunderland cult hero, and another personal favourite.
Kieron Brady had joined Sunderland a year earlier and had been subject of a lot of talk, speculation and newspaper column inches. Stories of goals from the halfway line for the youth team seemed to be commonplace; we know from speaking to people around at the time that Denis Smith was overjoyed that Brady had decided to sign for the club – he’d beaten off competition from Chelsea among others.
Despite being part of the pre-season build-up, Brady hadn’t gotten a look in until we took on Plymouth Argyle at home on 18 November 1989.
Named as a sub, he came on at half-time for Paul Hardyman, and ‘sparked several threatening moves up the flank’ as Sunderland emerged as 3-1 victors, the goals coming from Marco, Gary Owers and a Richard Ord strike that prompted wild celebration.
In remarkable contrast to today, Brady was the 10th player aged 21 or under to play for the first team that season, and perhaps it was this that, in hindsight, created that excitement and enthusiasm.
Brady, as many will remember, flitted around the team until the final third of the season; when he came into the side for a superb run of games that changed the course of the campaign.
His exquisite touch, skill and vision were hypnotic; his desire to attack, joyful. He was the sort of player you loved to watch, whom you got excited about the prospect of seeing. His warm up routine was worth the entry fee alone.
The games against West Ham, Bradford and Sheffield United later that season cemented his status in the hearts of SAFC supporters, however for a number of reasons things didn’t work out as they may have. Kieron’s lifestyle, for one, by his own admission wasn’t always the best. Denis Smith’s management of him often didn’t help. Injury, of course, ultimately put paid to it all.
If things had been different, he could have been a global star. He was that good.
Still, Kieron’s our cult hero, and it all started 31 years ago today.
He certainly went on to turn in some legendary performances – the sort of performances that, when I stood on the Fulwell End before our last league game against Everton, and a week or so later against Liverpool, were included in the replays of my mind’s eye.