This week has seen the 23rd anniversary of our final match at Roker Park come and go. A convincing 3-0 over Everton with Paul Stewart, Chris Waddle and Allan Johnstone finding the back of the net saw Sunderland leave their home of 99 years in memorable fashion. This was May 1997, and I was less than two months old.
Hearing what Roker Park was like from my Dad and his mates and watching the odd match highlights reel of the ground were the closest I’d ever get to the ground which Sunderland left.
I enjoy each trip to the Stadium of Light, perhaps more so now because I’m not in town as much as I used to be. The bright lights of Aberystwyth Town are where you are most likely to find me on a Saturday afternoon these days, pandemic lock down pending.
Yet despite enjoying our superb current home, it feels to me that it will never live up to the famous atmosphere which Roker Park was known for. It looked and sounded like a far more intimidating ground for visiting teams to play in; then again, my first full season as a Sunderland fan was the dreaded 15-point season where I think everyone associated with the club dreaded coming to the Stadium of Light. Away fans must have cherished every second of it.
Roker Park had history on it’s side. Plenty of magical games took place on it’s seemingly always immaculate pitch. This perfect idea of a game at Roker Park probably stems from the fact I never saw a game in person and my only experience of awful Sunderland games has come at the Stadium of Light, as well as plenty of others away from home. Plenty of fans would now have watched roughly the same number of matches at both grounds and for that, I am envious.
Older fans and plenty of former players talk about Roker Park being one of the classic eras of football stadiums. It goes without saying that the modern stadia, including the Stadium of Light, don’t have the character of the grounds built early in the 20th century. They feel as though they are all taken from a very similar blueprint, which was created with size in mind and overlooks any features which might make the stadium stand out. The classic era of grounds is dwindling, with Selhurst and Goodison Park being the last two ‘classic’ style grounds left in the Premier League.
For me to get to a match and remember it fully, it would have perhaps needed to remain open for another five or maybe six years. As it was, our bright shiny Stadium of Light would be the only home ground I’ve known. There have been two promotions and three relegations on my roller-coaster ride of being a Lads fan so far, of course many more ups and downs have been had by plenty of other older fans.
It would have been nice to get to even one game at Roker Park, as it is I just hope there are plenty of positives to come during the coming years at the Stadium of Light which I can one day look back on as the ‘glory days’. Maybe starting with a storming League One title victory in 2020/21? I wouldn’t say no to that.