Heavy downpours in the build up meant that when Sunderland took to the pitch for the first game of the 1971-72 season it was in front of what is believed to be Roker Park’s lowest ever opening day crowd.
Those in attendance witnessed a tight affair, with Dave Watson cancelling out an early Keith Bowker strike to ensure the points were shared.
Watson at this stage was still playing up front for Sunderland, featuring in a starting 11 that was accurately predicted on the front cover of that day’s Roker Review.
One player not included on the cover however was Dennis Tueart, named as a substitute but called into action much earlier than would have been anticipated sadly following a first half tackle that resulted in Bobby Park breaking his leg. It proved to be a life-changing moment for Park, a highly talented youngster who would never play professionally again.
It was a cruel blow for the Scot, who’d had a bright future ahead of him after coming through the ranks and featuring in Sunderland’s 1969 FA Youth Cup winning team.
Park made his first team debut later in the same year whilst still only 17, and after a couple of further substitute appearances he became a regular starter. A bright hope amidst the 1969-70 relegation, Sunderland at least saved some face when Park’s goal earned a derby day draw against Newcastle United towards the end of the season.
Although used primarily as a winger when first breaking through, Park’s versatility saw him being utilised in several different positions and having remained in the first team squad the season after he quickly clocked up a half century of appearances.
With manager Alan Brown having a reputation of showing continued faith in youth, and Park regularly displaying a fine range of passing, he was expected to add many more games to that total.
Added to his skill though, Park was brave, and this perhaps played a part in his downfall. Happy to get stuck in, he was asked to slot in at left-back against Birmingham and with conditions extremely slippery it was clear straight away that following the fateful challenge he was in serious pain.
A popular figure around the club, his recovery was chronicled in subsequent editions of that season’s Roker Review but with Park looking to return to action the following season, tragically he broke the same leg again and was eventually forced to retire.
Whilst still only 23 he was awarded a joint Testimonial with Ritchie Pitt, the pair having played together in the 1969 FA Youth Cup final against West Bromwich Albion before both having their playing careers cut short. The game against Dutch club AZ ’67 was held in 1975, during a Division Two title winning season that had followed some near misses.
With only 9,749 drenched souls in the stands when Park was initially injured, thousands more had opted to stay at home. It was not just the wet weather that had kept people away though, with Sunderland enduring indifferent form the season prior and only earning a midtable finish.
Things then began to improve during the campaign that started 50 years ago today however, and of course there was the 1973 FA Cup success also prior to the 1975-76 promotion. It is just a shame that Bobby Park was not able to be part of it.