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On This Day (13 May 1997): Sunderland’s 99-year stay at Roker Park comes to an end

It was for the best, but it didn’t make it any easier to leave the old place.

Photo by Neal Simpson/EMPICS via Getty Images

It’s always good fun to look back on events for these pieces, whether it’s days where I was present or not, but this one brings a lump to my throat.

It’s a game and a day that had no consequences on the pitch but meant everything off it, and I just remember trying to soak it all in.

It was the end of 99 years at our much loved, but decrepit old ground. The poor thing was dropping to bits, but it didn’t stop some calls to try and rebuild it, or just something in a vain attempt to not lose that soul that the place had given us over almost a century.

Football was progressing at a pace that was quite simply leaving grounds like Roker Park behind, especially with those that had any aspiration to be among the elite clubs in the country.

It was our fourth home in the first 17 years of the club’s existence. Our first ground was Abbs Field just off Fulwell Road between 1884-86 until we switched to Horatio Street in Roker for a year, before a longer 12-year stint at Newcastle Road.

Soccer - Roker Park Stadium - Sunderland Photo by S&G/PA Images via Getty Images

But our success during the 1890’s that saw three Football League titles, where we were the last ever winners of the founding Football League and first winners of the newly introduced Football League Division One, meant chairman John Potts Henderson was on the lookout to build a home that would be befitting a team of our success, and that could also meet growing demand.

In a time frame of only around twelve months the land was acquired in Roker, which was only around a mile from the existing Newcastle Road ground, and the wooden stands were built - providing a home to initially hold around 34,000.

At the centre of it all was a pitch that integrated not only the best turf we could source from Ireland, but also a drainage system that was ahead of its time.

The first event to be held at the new stadium was an ‘Olympic Games’ that the club hosted that attracted a crowd of 14,000 and hosted events such as high leaping, pole leaping, wrestling, sprints and dribbling. Prizes ranged from £8 for the winner of a wrestling class to £20 (around 60 days worth of pay for skilled tradesman at the time or roughly £1500 in the present day) for the winner of the 110m sprint.

Soccer - FA Carling Premiership - Sunderland v Everton Photo by Peter Robinson/EMPICS via Getty Images

This probably started a somewhat odd tradition where Roker Park would be host to these sort of random events outside the realms of the football club. Between the Great War and World War II, Roker Park played host to the New Zealand Rugby Union side, where the All Blacks demolished a Durham XV in front of 12,000 in 1924. This was followed up by South Africa doing the same in 1931.

1945 saw 7,000 attend a charity boxing event to raise money for local hospitals and twelve years later, a wooden court was erected in the middle of the hallowed turf so that the Harlem Globetrotters could entertain the locals.

To carry on the USA theme, in 1984 the American evangelist Billy Graham told between 16,000-20,000 people on five consecutive nights at Roker that they were all sinners - and despite it being May, he declared later that it was the coldest venue he’d ever preached at - including Alaska.

Then three years later in 1987, David Bowie played in front of 36,000 at Roker Park, where he was supported by Big Country and Screaming Blue Messiahs, and after thanking the heavens for staying dry when he appeared on stage, it predictably started to rain.

Roker Park Mark Thompson /Allsport

A month after the ‘Sunderland Olympics’, the real business started and the Marquis of Londonderry presided over the official opening that took place ahead of the first league fixture against Liverpool on the 10th September 1898. In front of a full house, he opened a gate to the players' dressing room with a golden key, and with that, Sunderland defeated Liverpool by a single goal and started 99 years of history.

Less than a year later in February 1899, Roker Park hosted the England national side, where 14,000 saw England defeat Ireland in a comprehensive 13-2 victory. They returned next in 1920 for another win over Ireland and again in 1950 to take on Wales.

In 1966, the ground was made into an all-seater stadium when temporary seats were installed to host four World Cup games, including the Hungary v USSR quarter-final. As well as the seating, the main entrance on the Main Stand along with function suites and offices were fitted out, and the roof was added over the Fulwell End in preparation for the tournament.

The old ground had many facelifts since opening in 1898, it was only 15 years old when in 1913 the gigantic concrete structure that would become the Roker End was completed, and once finished could hold officially hold 17,000 people, but on multiple occasions probably had well over 20,000 whilst being held up by a maze of concrete beams that held the whole thing up.

Roker Park Getty Images

It would stay as it was until 1982, when the 70-year-old structure was deemed unsafe. This resulted in the top half of the stand being demolished, in what at the time the club described as a ‘temporary’ move before they redeveloped the stand to its former glory. Unfortunately for those who missed out on that original Roker End like myself, this never happened.

In 1929, the Main Stand was rebuilt and it was decided that the biggest name in football ground architecture, Archibald Leitch, was the man to do the design. His original proposal was more like his Ibrox design from the same period, but this was rejected by the club. His design has now been made a feature at the Stadium of Light of course.

Even in the 1980s as it approached its 90th birthday, Roker Park was still one of the highest capacities in the country and was more than adequate, but then a series of events began to change the landscape in English football.

First, the Taylor Report which was instigated by the events at Hillsborough in 1989, and then, the introduction of the Premier League in 1992.

Soccer - World Cup England 1966 - USSR v Hungary - Quarter Finals - Roker Park Sunderland.
1966 World Cup quarter-final at Roker Park between Hungary and USSR
Photo by PA Images via Getty Images

These events were the beginning of the end for Roker Park, and it was for the best that football was moving forward, but it didn’t make it any easier. I feel in some way because I went to Roker Park, I experienced football as it was. I’m not sure it’s been the same since.

Even the smells were different: tobacco, bovril, that rectal expulsion that someone had let out that couldn’t escape the packed crowd of the terrace. Sounds horrific, and it was, but it absolutely wasn’t.

But it was the noise. I’d be lying if I said Roker was bouncing every time I walked through the turnstiles, but even the hum of the crowd was always busy. There was no feeling like walking up the steps to the Fulwell End when the noise was building up ahead of kick-off.

But nothing I have ever heard equalled the intensity of that wild roar at Roker Park last week when Sunderland drew level with Tottenham in the sixth round tie. As we fished the ball out of the net and the mad-with-delight Sunderland fans streamed onto the field, I began to realise what the man who coined the phrase ”an ear-splitting roar”.

Danny Blanchflower of Tottenham after an FA Cup quarter-final tie in 1961 that ended 1-1

I was one of only a handful left on the terrace when a steward started asking us to leave after the final game against Liverpool. I know John Mullin scored and we won by a single goal to mirror the opening game, but I couldn’t tell you a thing about what happened.

I was just looking around the old ground for the last time, trying to soak it in like a sponge.

Sunderland: Woods (Preece), Hall (Holloway), Eriksson, Ord, Kubicki, Gray, Williams, Rae, Johnston, Waddle (Russell), Mullin (Smith)

Liverpool: Warner, Jones, Wright (Thompson), Babb, Harkness (Carragher), McAteer, Matteo, Thomas, Kennedy (Cassidy), Barnes, Fowler

Roker Park Getty Images
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