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Soccer - Nationwide League Division One - Nottingham Forest v Sunderland

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The second coming of the last Rokermen

During a period that was all about a new dawn for Sunderland, the faithful servants from Roker who made the transition to the SoL played their part in reinstating the club back in the top flight...

Photo by Tony Marshall/EMPICS via Getty Images

Despite dazzling the bumper crowds with scintillating football, the Sunderland squad of 1997/98 is best remembered for losing the First Division play-off final in dramatic fashion against Charlton Athletic.

Yet close to 20 of those players were history makers for another reason - they were the first in almost a century to make the transition from one Sunderland stadium, to another.

Along with the opening of the superb Stadium of Light, the new dawn on Wearside included a new badge and a new approach, as chairman Bob Murray set about orchestrating a deliberate rebrand aimed at kickstarting the club into a successful new era.

Indeed, there was talk of future European nights at the SoL, which clearly wasn’t built for anything less than Premier League football and Murray was determined to get us back there after an unfortunate, yet disappointing, relegation during the final season at Roker Park.

The team which started that First Division (now the Championship) campaign in 1997/98 was very different to the settled XI which just about picked itself from the Christmas period onwards.

With the exception of a few new arrivals, Chris Makin, Chris Byrne, Lee Clark and a certain Kevin Phillips, many of the familiar faces from the previous season at Roker remained firm fixtures in the side.

Soccer - Nationwide League Division One - Sunderland v Middlesbrough Photo by Matthew Ashton/EMPICS via Getty Images

It wasn’t until after the ‘nightmare at Elm Park’ game at Reading, a 4-0 reverse on October 4, when Peter Reid introduced several younger players who had been waiting in the wings, and eventually found a side that gelled to great effect, confidently playing slick, stylish, attacking football to storm up the table into promotion contention.

Injuries had also kept some of the old guard out, but it’s incredible to think that during the first half of 1998, the first choice XI did not include Roker stalwarts such as Richard Ord, Andy Melville, Martin Scott, Steve Agnew, Martin Smith, and even Kevin Ball to a lesser extent, who all remained on the books, as well as a young Michael Bridges.

There was an exceptional game, in February 1998, when several of the new-look side were ruled out, which saw a patched-up team, with skipper Ball returning alongside youngsters Chris Lumsden, Paul Thirlwell, and even Gareth Hall making a rare appearance, securing a vital 1-0 win thanks to a memorable strike from the captain.

Ball did manage to win his way back into the starting XI, but the others didn’t and despite the play-off final defeat at Wembley, it looked like several of the old guard from Roker were heading for the exit.

Soccer - Nationwide League Division One - Huddersfield Town v Sunderland Photo by David Rawcliffe/EMPICS via Getty Images

That proved to be the case for some, including fan favourite Richard Ord, who made an ill-fated move to QPR in the summer of 1998 before suffering a career-ending injury in a pre-season.

But there was a surprise second coming for others. As Reid set about launching another bid for promotion, he was keen to tighten up a promising, yet inexperienced backline, and to add some extra bite in the centre of the park.

It was no surprise to see Ball return as a regular, especially with Alex Rae enduring difficulties off the field and Lee Clark suffering an opening day leg break against QPR.

More surprising, however, was the return of players who had barely featured for most of the previous campaign. Out of the cold came Andy Melville, who formed a rock-solid partnership with new signing Paul Butler at the heart of defence, and Martin Scott, who slotted back in seamlessly at left-back to deputise for Michael Gray.

It shouldn’t be forgotten that the 105 point title-winning season wasn’t without its difficulties. The campaign saw our squad put to the test with injuries to Clark, Kevin Phillips and Niall Quinn, with other key players also on the sidelines at different times.

John Mullin, the man who had scored the last ever goal at Roker Park in a friendly against Liverpool, was drafted into midfield, making a significant contribution which included a strike during a 2-0 win away to promotion rivals Ipswich Town.

John Mullin Getty Images

Martin Smith enjoyed a revival during that second season at the SoL, returning from a number of serious injuries to impress when called upon during 15 appearances, a spectacular brace against Grimsby Town in a 3-1 home win among the highlights.

Bridges, who had emerged as a youngster during the latter years at Roker, took advantage of the absence of Quinn and Phillips to great effect, forming a formidable strike partnership with Danny Dichio and scoring 12 goals in 36 appearances, including two fine goals against Sheffield United which, when re-watched, will still take your breath away.

Promotion was achieved and some of the surviving Rokermen played their part as Sunderland secured consecutive seventh-placed finishes in the Premier League, notably Quinn, Gray, Rae, Ball, and Darren Williams, who was the last of the Rokermen to depart, joining Cardiff City in 2004 – seven years after the move the SoL.

Some of the old guard were moved on immediately after that 1999 promotion, including Melville, Scott, Smith and Mullin. The evolution of Sunderland AFC denied them another crack at the Premier League.

But during a period which was all about a new dawn for Sunderland, the faithful servants from Roker who made the transition to the SoL played their part in reinstating the club back in the top flight – two years after they had been desperately unlucky to go down in the first place – the first to be relegated from the Premier League with 40 points.


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