When we moved there in the summer of 1997, the Stadium of Light was hailed as a symbol of what was undoubtedly a new dawn at Sunderland AFC, a launching pad that would help us move into the new millennium with genuine hope for the future.
We’d waved goodbye to the iconic but outmoded Roker Park (in admittedly bittersweet fashion after Premier League relegation) and the new ground, with its modern facilities, a 42,000 capacity and its symbolic location on the site of the old Wearmouth Colliery, was undoubtedly a major upgrade.
However, after a quarter of a century of being battered by the often-adverse Wearside weather and with hundreds of thousands of fans having flocked through the turnstiles during that time, it’s fair to say that nowadays it’s less a shining beacon of the club’s status and more a representation of what’s been lacking for years - genuine care and attention.
On Tuesday, the ‘Spirit of ‘37’ announced their plans for a fan march ahead of the televised game against Middlesbrough in an attempt to boost the pre-game atmosphere. Whether it works or not is a matter for another day, but it does bring the issue back into sharp focus.
As I was fleshing out this article, I put out a tweet asking fellow Sunderland supporters for comments about potential improvements to the Stadium of Light, and the responses were varied.
From the chipped and stained concrete in the toilets to the leaking roof, safety concerns around the access tunnels, the low-quality catering options, and even the out-of-date signage that is scattered around the concourse areas and exterior surroundings, it simply isn’t a nice place to be - and that’s before you get to things like the sound system, the quality of which would shame a 1960’s nightclub.
Much has been made of the atmosphere, but if the fan experience itself isn’t up to scratch and people don’t enjoy their time inside the stadium, should that be a surprise, even in spite of the progress that’s being made on the pitch?
Over the years, my own perceptions have changed dramatically.
When I was a young Sunderland fan it was a truly awe-inspiring place to go and watch a game, but nowadays my attitude is ‘get in, get out, and don’t mess about’. Judging by the vast swathes of empty seats that often mark the eighty minute mark in games, I’m not alone in that, either.
At this stage, I need to clarify that this article is not an attack on our current owners, nor am I complaining for the sake of complaining.
The stadium had fallen into a state of disrepair long before Kyril Louis-Dreyfus arrived, but as the current custodian of the club, he’s now assumed responsibility for all facets of the organisation, the centrepiece of which is our home.
With that in mind, I’d like to think that at some stage Dreyfus and his people will address an issue that may well be discouraging some fans from attending games altogether.
On the field the club is in a much better place than it’s been for a long time, but there’s a definite imbalance in relation to other areas, particularly with the fundamentals that make fans feel valued, wanted, and as though they’re part of something special.
To put another slant on this discussion, can you imagine Sunderland re-entering the Premier League with the stadium in its current condition?
Tottenham Hotspur have already moved into a new facility and Everton will eventually be doing the same, with the end result of supporters being offered a truly first-rate matchday experience. In contrast, we’re playing our football in a stadium with a theoretical capacity of 60,000, yet we’re incapable of even providing working hand dryers in the toilets.
If some time, effort and money were invested into a full-scale renovation it could be spruced up, brought into the twenty first century, and reborn as a venue that would grace the top flight. Much is made of the term ‘ambition’, and to me that should be all-encompassing, from the improvement of playing squad to the stadium itself.
At the moment, we’re watching a team that’s developing and has injected a real sense of pride back into the club, but that same pride needs to encompass all areas, and the condition of our home ground can’t be overlooked.
I really do hope that in the not-too-distant future, those running the club will begin the process of addressing these long-standing issues, solving them, and bringing the Stadium of Light back to the level it was once at.