I class myself rather fortunate as a Sunderland supporter, in that I had a good ten or eleven seasons of supporting the lads at Roker Park.
Yes, I missed out on some of the much talked about games that came before I was around. And yes, I didn’t get to see the Roker End in its full glory.
But, I grew up at Roker Park. I remember going to my first game, eight years old, holding my Dad’s hand as we climbed up the wooden steps in the Main Stand to sit and watch my first game from the ‘safety’ of the Family Enclosure.
I remember having my first Bovril. ‘Where’s the milk?’ I asked my Dad.
“You can have some if you want,” he said. “Wouldn’t recommend it though.”
We got beat 2-0 that day, Lawrie McMenemy was the manager. I don’t remember much about the game, apart from an Oldham supporter sat in the row behind us screaming his support for Tommy Wright all game.
That was our last visit to the Family Enclosure, as I graduated to the paddocks – usually the Fulwell side, occasionally the Roker. I went through a stage of taking my boots and standing near the dugout. Just in case.
After a little while, my fold-away step was no longer needed and eventually, we moved to the Fulwell. Sometimes right in the centre, other times in the corner of the cage at the back as you walked up the steps. I still remember that feeling of seeing the bright, green pitch every Saturday; and the feeling of the barrier crushing your ribs after a goal. Glorious.
I experienced some great games and atmospheres at Roker. The Chelsea game, of course. Derby matches. The Northampton game that sealed promotion. Gary Bennett’s testimonial. Spurs at home in 1990, and Manchester United a few days later.
There was another side to Roker, though. Just as there is to the Stadium of Light. It could be a bloody depressing place. And Sunderland can always be guaranteed to give you a kick in the knackers.
And the epitome of that, for me, is a fixture against Watford 28 years ago today.
My aunty (only a handful of years older than me) was at Uni in Sunderland, so we all drove from Consett – me, me Dad, Mam and sister. The girls stayed in, the lads walked to the match.
We got to the ground and, for whatever reason, we decided that tonight was a Roker End night. You could do that then. So we did.
Malcolm Crosby’s team were coming off the back of a decent-ish run – only one defeat in eight – we thought this was the game to get three points, a good performance, and really kick on. Days before, we’d played Sheffield Wednesday away in the FA Cup – It’s an easy one for Norman – and had put up a good display against top flight opposition. Hopes, in my mind at least, were high.
Sunderland: Norman, Kay, Ball, Butcher, Michael Gray, Mooney, Cunnington, Atkinson, Armstrong, Davenport, Rush (Colquhoun 46). Sub not used: Martin Gray
Of course, it was a ‘typical Sunderland’ game. A crowd of 14,703 – the lowest of the season – watched as we went two nil down just after half time. A lacklustre display rewarded with only a Kevin Ball goal on 67. Merely a consolation.
And, of course, it absolutely pissed down from five minutes in.
We stood there, soaked to the bone, watching a kick in the guts being wound up and administered with clinical precision.
There was little anger. Just sadness. Apathy. Disappointment. The old ground looked on glumly as the team walked off and the lights went down. Even Terry Butcher refrained from cajoling the crowd at the end; he shrugged his shoulders at the Fulwell End and walked off.
We trudged back to the car, soaked to the bone, but had no appetite for pace despite the continual rain.
The next game we played Tranmere away. It was called off, rain I presume. The Pools Panel adjudicated in favour of the Birkenhead men and, bizarrely, Bob Murray decided that was enough cause to pull the trigger, and Crosby – a good man – was on his way.
And, despite it all, I wouldn’t change a thing.
Four and a half years later, we’d be stood in a brand new stadium, listening to Status Quo rocking all over the world.
At that moment in time, that prospect did indeed seem a world away.