The early days of Sunderland AFC had something of a nomadic feel to it – with the club playing home games at six grounds in its first 18 years – 12 of which were at Newcastle Road, in Monkwearmouth.
The Newcastle Road ground was rented from the Thompson Sisters, who owned shipyards, initially for £15 per year. Twelve years later, the rent had increased to £100, and with space for expansion limited, the club looked around for alternatives.
The club was turned into a limited company, capital was raised by issuing shares, and some farmland was found in Roker – owned by a Mr Tennant – on which to build a new stadium. Rent, however, would have to be paid until a house was built on the site.
The newspapers of the time reported, in late 1897:
New ground for Sunderland: Some months ago, the proprietors of the Newcastle Road ground, leased by the Sunderland Club, decided to raise the rent, and the Directors at once set about securing a new and more convenient enclosure. They have just come to terms for the lease of a splendid field quite near the old ground, where they will at once begin to lay out the ground in a thoroughly up-to-date fashion, with a track, covered stands, pavilion, dressing rooms and baths. The name of the new enclosure will be Roker Park.
Wooden stands were built within months, and while purpose-built for football, the first event to be held at the ground was an Olympic Games and Band Contest, with cash prizes available for successful contestants.
Of course, it was the football that was the main attraction, and on this day in 1898 the new ground hosted its first game – a league clash against Liverpool, who were managed by legendary Sunderland manager Tom Watson. Incidentally, Watson, who is the most successful manager in SAFC history with three league titles, was the first manager to win English top-flight titles with two clubs, and is still one of only four to do so.
On the morning of the game, Sporting Life reported:
To-day (Saturday) the Marquess of Londonderry will open Roker Park, the new football enclosure of the Sunderland Football Club. The noble Marquess will be presented with a golden key as a moment of the occasion and will be entertained at dinner subsequently by Mr John Henderson, the chairman of the club. The new football ground, which is one of the most perfectly equipped in the country, is estimated to hold 50,000 spectators, and in the stands accommodation for 35,000 has been provided, giving a fine view of the whole field of play. After the opening ceremony, the League match between Liverpool and Sunderland, two of the strongest combinations in the League, will be played. It may be added that during the seven seasons Sunderland have played in the Football League, they have won the championship three times and have neem second on two other occasions.
It was a gala occasion at Roker Park, with gates opening at 2pm ahead of a 3.30pm kick off. Local dignitaries were of course in attendance while Dr Guthrie’s celebrated band of Highland pipers and dancers from Edinburgh provided some pre-match entertainment. According to the Sunderland Daily Echo, they were promising an ‘interesting programme of piping and dancing’. Who needs Status Quo?
Excursions were running from the surrounding areas, while fans were assured ‘entrances have been located around the ground, so that there be no need for crushing’, and ‘accommodation has been provided for cycles’.
Shortly after 1pm, the pipers played ‘a stirring march through the streets’ leading thousands of fans towards the town’s new home of football, and by the time kick-off approached it seemed almost all of the available space was filled.
A group of dignitaries, including chairman Henderson and the Marquis of Londonderry emerged onto the pitch at ten past three, and headed to the grandstand to perform the opening ceremony.
They were joined by the white-shirted Sunderland team, who watched the Marquis be handed the gold key, as a memento of the occasion.
The Sunderland Daily Echo reported:
Mr Henderson thanked the Marquis for his presence and hoped the fact of his attendance there that day would be a happy augury for the future success of Sunderland Football Club. He asked him to open the gate leading to the field, where they might see many brilliant victories and experience some disappointments. (Laughter and applause.)
Lord Londonderry said that those who follow football must feel that they owed a debt of gratitude to Mr Henderson and his brother James for the manner in which they had leapt into the breach and delivered the population of Sunderland from the misfortune of being without a football ground. (Applause.)
Sunderland kicked off the game defending the ‘north end’ (later the Fulwell End), and played out an end to end game, which was settled just six minutes from time.
Morgan ran from halfway with the ball, passing to Saxton who crossed into the box for Leslie to head home.
Amid the ‘deafening cheers’ from the crowd, the Liverpool players surrounded the referee in protest, but the goal stood. On the balance of play, Sunderland deserved victory and christened their new home in the best possible style.
After the game, the Sunderland Daily Echo reported:
The great opening ceremony has come and gone, and now one of the finest grounds in England is dedicated for many years, I hope, to the uses of first-class footballers. It is really a magnificent enclosure in every respect, and the directors are deserving of the highest praise for the energy and enterprise they have displayed.
It was a huge undertaking for a club, not over blessed with funds, but there is, I think, a sufficient enthusiasm in the town and district to carry the Sunderland club into the smooth waters of prosperity.
A rattling good start was made on Saturday. Two points and an £800 gate (at least) is as good as could be wished.
The Roker Park circle would be nicely completed 99 years later, as a 1-0 victory over Liverpool brought the old ground to a close. And, as predicted by Mr Henderson, there were many brilliant victories – and a few disappointments along the way, too.