As winter grinds slowly on, we still have no confirmed date for our return to the Stadium of Light, meaning that the club’s much-improved, if not perfect, streaming service is our go-to method of keeping on top of matchday progress.
It certainly isn’t ideal, and nothing can come close to replicating the full experience at our home ground.
With that in mind, I’ve delved into the archives and picked five of the greatest atmospheres the stadium has experienced in its 23-year existence. Choosing such a small number wasn’t easy, but these matches had everything: drama, tension and above all, the kind of atmosphere that you really had to experience for yourself.
Sunderland vs Sheffield United, 13th May 1998
The summer of 1997 was one of major change at the club. We swapped Avec for Aasics, Vaux for Lambtons, and our former home at Roker Park for the Stadium of Light – a shiny new facility that would (hopefully) herald the dawn of a successful new era at the club.
The disappointment of Premier League relegation was quickly forgotten as we settled into our new surroundings, and proceeded to launch a very strong challenge for an immediate return to the top-flight.
Sunderland’s season would ultimately end at the final hurdle, with heartbreak under Wembley’s Twin Towers, but when Sheffield United arrived for the play-off semi-final second leg, the structural rigidity of the stadium’s roof was given a thorough examination from the first whistle to the last.
The noise that evening was nothing short of thunderous, with 41,000 fans carrying the team on a wave of sheer, unbridled passion. It would ultimately work, as Kevin Phillips scored a crucial goal, and Lionel Perez wrote his own little chapter into Sunderland folklore with a colossal performance between the sticks, helping us to secure a 3-2 aggregate victory and a passage to the play-off final.
Sunderland vs Chelsea, 4th December 1999
This hammering of Gianluca Vialli’s cosmopolitan team of superstars more than made up for the reverse fixture on the opening day of the season. Fresh from the record-breaking promotion campaign, Sunderland had visited Stamford Bridge in August and had been soundly beaten, with Gus Poyet scoring a spectacular goal, leaving the newly-promoted squad somewhat bruised. Peter Reid’s faith was unshakeable, however. He knew we would come good, and when Vialli brought Chelsea to Wearside, the team lived up to his belief.
Niall Quinn terrorised the Chelsea defence all afternoon, scoring two goals, and Kevin Phillips netted twice, the first of which was one of the all-time great Sunderland goals, an arcing, swerving half-volley that left Ed de Goey clutching at thin air, and every fan in the stadium open-mouthed at what they’d just seen. In those early years, before the term became an empty cliché, the SOL often did resemble a fortress, and this was a shining example of what could happen when everything came together for 90 minutes.
Sunderland vs Burnley, 27th April 2007
Five goals, two penalties, one swing of Carlos Edwards’ right foot, and another timeless piece of commentary from Simon Crabtree. That is the abridged version of what took place, but this match was so much more than that. It was the pinnacle of Roy Keane’s unforgettable first season in charge, and was one of those rare occasions where you felt –you genuinely felt – as though something special was happening. The crowd knew what was at stake that night, and to say that they played the role of the 12th man is to underplay their influence to a criminal degree.
With chairman Niall Quinn watching on, Sunderland took a packed SOL (and countless TV viewers) on a 90-minute rollercoaster. Daryl Murphy opened the scoring early, only for former Black Cat Andy Gray to level matters with a penalty. When Wade Elliott thumped a long-range shot past Darren Ward the atmosphere was dampened. But not for long.
David Connolly restored parity with the third spot-kick of the evening (he’d missed from 12-yards out in the first half), before a flowing move from defence to attack, started by Tobias Hysen, led to THAT Edwards winner, and absolute pandemonium in the stadium. Promotion would be secured after other results went Sunderland’s way, and a season that had begun in turbulent fashion would end with promotion, the Championship title, and the first step towards Quinn and Keane’s vision for where the club would go over the coming seasons.
Sunderland vs Tottenham, 11th August 2007
After ten years, it was fitting that our first game of the 2007/2008 Premier League season would take place against a backdrop of rampant optimism, with 48,000 on hand to show that we really meant business. After this game, even the usually understated Roy Keane felt obliged to comment on just how highly-charged it was, and how much he had enjoyed his Premier League managerial bow, which tells its own story.
A draw against a very useful Spurs team would’ve been a highly credible opening-day result, but when Ross Wallace whipped an inch-perfect cross into the Tottenham box, up stepped debutant Michael Chopra to curl a neat finish past Paul Robinson, sparking mayhem on the terraces.
Chopra is undoubtedly viewed as a villain by most Sunderland fans these days, but his late winner, memorably commentated on by Guy Mowbray for Match of the Day, was one of the key moments in a season where late goals became our forte, and the journey home that afternoon was certainly a happy one for all concerned.
Sunderland vs Everton, 11th May 2016
Thanks for nothing, Roy Hodgson. Were it not for the then-England manager making a complete mess of Euro 2016, this home victory against Everton, under the stewardship of Sam Allardyce, might truly have represented a turning point after yearly relegation battles and a comical rate of managerial turnover.
As it was, this was the final high point, before the David Moyes era, and our spiral into oblivion began.
This was, in my opinion, the last truly great atmosphere at the Stadium of Light, with a full house present to witness the Lads secure their survival with a 3-0 victory against a very good Everton team. Lamine Kone netted twice, after a free-kick from Patrick van Aanholt set us on our way, and with the likes of Wahbi Khazri and Yann M’Vila showing just why they were so highly rated, this really should’ve been the springboard for us to break the holding pattern of seasons past.
After 90 minutes, the job was done. We’d secured our own top-flight status, relegated Newcastle, and given Allardyce a licence to dance on the pitch as the fans saluted him.
We didn’t know what was coming in the months ahead, but at the time, elation won the day.
What are your memories of these games, and what are your favourite Stadium of Light memories? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org!