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On This Day (19 Dec 1991): Momentum builds for regional stadium between north-east club owners!

As Bob Murray was investigating the ins and outs of moving from Roker Park, the Sunderland owner triggered a debate by suggesting north-east clubs could share a regional stadium.

Photo by Matthew Ashton/EMPICS via Getty Images

By the time Christmas of 1991 was approaching, Sunderland had lost a sizeable portion of the momentum that Denis Smith had created after taking over as manager back in the summer of 1987.

The former Stoke City defender had taken over a club that was on its knees, having fallen to the third tier for the first time, and took it back to the top flight in three seasons.

Inevitably with a ride such as this one, comes a rise in ambition and expectation. Unfortunately for Denis Smith, the ambition within the boardroom at the time was primarily focused on items off the pitch rather than on it.

Despite being told to make do with what he had, Smith made a decent crack of trying to stay in the First Division but ultimately failed as we dropped back down to Division Two. This bump in the road did not deter the Sunderland chairman, Bob Murray, from getting the ball rolling on looking into moving the club from Roker Park.

Sunderland v Blackburn Rovers
Sir Bob Murray
Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images

The fact that Denis Smith attempted an assault on the Second Division without having bought any new players, and having to sell his biggest asset in Marco Gabbiadini to raise funds, may have signalled to anyone from the outside that times were tight. At the same time as this, however, Bob Murray unveiled plans for a 40,000 all-seater, multi-sports stadium in Washington.

You may be confused, and so was everyone at the time, who looked at our current plight in the wrong half of the second tier, put two and two together, and deduced it would probably never happen.

This all took another twist in what already seemed like a pie-in-the-sky concept when Bob Murray proposed that he would be fully prepared to share the facility with another club.

The Newcastle United chairman at the time, George Forbes, was quick to suggest it may not be viable as he described St James’s Park as being his club’s “spiritual home”, but a key director at Newcastle, John Hall, who was more well known for developing the Metro Centre at the time, had publicly backed the idea - even proposing Washington and Gateshead as two potential locations.

A snapshot of grounds around the north-east back in the winter of 1991

With support established within the boardrooms of Sunderland and Newcastle United, this was beginning to gather momentum when the Middlesbrough chairman Colin Henderson also publicly backed the concept of a shared regional stadium.

One of the ideas behind Sunderland’s proposed move to Washington was that the inner city stadium was considered to becoming obsolete and developments on the outskirts provided more potential for expansion.

Our neighbours in Europe were leading the way on this front, especially in Italy, with several high-profile clubs sharing new stadia such as Internazionale and AC Milan and Lazio/AS Roma. This was replicated in France, Belgium, Germany and Greece on the continent, and in England, Crystal Palace and Wimbledon had shared Selhurst Park, although for slightly different reasons.

One of the biggest debates of the day was how clubs could potentially preserve a sense of history of the current ground while carrying out a major redevelopment. Grounds such as Roker Park and St James’s Park contained completely separate stands that were built at different times and for different reasons, which added complexity to redevelopment projects in terms of practicalities and attempting to preserve some of that history.

The debate on all of this, however, had begun, and the first step in Bob Murray’s fact-finding mission was to go and ask the fans, as he proposed that the fans should vote on the future of Roker Park - and we should be eternally grateful of that fact.


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