I class myself as very lucky to have ‘grown up’ as a football supporter at Roker Park. I spent my formative years there, graduating from the paddocks (next to the home dugout, sometimes with my boots ‘just in case’) to the Fulwell via the Roker.
I learnt words I’d never heard before (words my mam certainly didn’t like me repeating), drank Bovril for the first-ever time (‘no, it doesn’t need milk, son’), and marvelled at the likes of Marco, Gary Owers, Paul Bracewell and Eric Gates.
By the time I left the north east for university in Leeds in 1996, Sunderland had just gotten promoted and we were about to play our last season at Roker.
As much as I loved the old place, I was naturally excited about the prospect of a new stadium. We’d been through the seemingly unfeasible plans to redevelop Roker Park and the ill-fated move to Nissan and Monkwearmouth just seemed right.
Every other weekend when I came home for the match we visited the site, took photos and watched the ground slowly emerge from the ground – it was magical to see. Photos were taken on most visits, the album is still gathering dust somewhere in my parents’ house, and the anticipation of watching Sunderland play – hopefully Premier League football – there was huge. It felt as though this was the thing we needed to take that next step; all of the investment into the club was into the stadium, ultimately at the expense of the team that season.
The final season at Roker finished in relegation, of course, but the disappointment was tempered by the new era that was about to start.
Frequently during that June and July, I’d drive down to the ground and wonder just how on earth it was going to be ready for the new season. There always seemed a tremendous amount of work to be done – workers were rushing around and as July 30th neared there didn’t seem a cat in hell’s chance of the stadium being ready.
About three or four days before the Ajax game to open the stadium officially, me and my mate Neall went down to the ground (again) to have a walk around (again). There were a few people milling around, and we saw a door in the East Stand half open and a few people standing outside. We walked over to get a peek inside the ground – after all, for all of the time spent there we’d not seen the inside of the place.
“Are you here for the induction,” a fella, emerging from said door asked.
“YES,” we both said in unison, neither of us knowing what the hell we were being inducted for.
“Great, put these on and follow me,” he said, handing us hard hats.
For the next 45 minutes we sat in the East Stand – for all intents and purposes we were being given a lesson in pouring pints, serving burgers and not scalding ourselves on Bovril – but in reality we were just sat, mouths wide open, and taking it all in: sitting in this empty ‘super stadium’. It didn’t seem real. It certainly didn’t seem like our ground. It seemed more like something you’d see in European football.
“Lads. Lads!” our host woke us from our daydreams. “So, can you two work the Ajax game?”
“Sorry mate,” I said, “Got something on.”
That something, of course, was going to the match. Ajax were in town to officially open the stadium and when we entered the ground workmen were still dotting around finishing things off. I saw someone scribble their name on what looked suspiciously like a safety certificate in exchange for a pint, and everything was set.
There was quite a remarkable atmosphere for a football game – it was a carnival, a celebration of Sunderland. Every single supporter was there to herald what we hoped was a new era – it turned out, after a stuttering start, it was – and there was just a sense of awe, a swelling of pride. It’s an atmosphere that has never been experienced since.
THIS IS OUR GROUND.
Me and my dad climbed up to find our seats at the top of the North Stand – some hastily attached stickers signalling which seat was which. The ticket office had sold a row that didn’t exist, causing some confusion. Status Quo arrived by helicopter, former England winger Mark Walters’ cousin did some keepy ups, and the teams emerged for the game. For some reason, we wore our (lush) new home kit in the first half and our (not so lush) away kit in the second. Fittingly, Kevin Ball got the first goal at the SOL, only for Jeff Winter (never one to want to steal the limelight or be the star of the show) ruled it out. That honour, of course, went to Quinny a few weeks later.
Over the subsequent 24 years, the ground’s seen its fair share of ups and downs (more of the latter in recent years, unfortunately), but while it has looked tired over the past few years it’s stood the test of time, and is testament to Bob Murray’s foresight. Whatever you want to think of Murray, he left us with our two greatest assets – the SoL and the AoL.
As the final whistle blew on a credible 0-0, we all hung around, not really knowing what to do. We’d be back soon, of course, but this was a very, very special day – and we wanted to take every last second of it in.