Given we’ve been at the Stadium of Light for 25 years now, it’s easy to forget just how close Sunderland were to taking up residence in Washington rather than Monkwearmouth, but on this day back in 1994 the newspapers were full of the news of our impending move out of the city.
The future of Roker Park had long been a topic of debate. Following the demolition of part of the Roker End due to safety concerns, it was patently obvious the club wasn’t spending anything on the ground that they didn’t really have to (bar, it must be said, the scoreboard – ATTACK! ATTACK! ATTACK!) and the ultimate aim – publically acknowledged or otherwise – was to move the club away from Roker.
While proposals were put forward for the renovation of Roker Park, they were dismissed with uncomfortable ease. Token democratic gestures – getting supporters to vote on the move – were weighted heavily in favour of getting the club’s desired outcome.
Bob Murray believed a new stadium was necessary to take advantage of the football riches he saw on the horizon, and nothing was going to get in the way of that.
The club’s preferred location for the new stadium – The Wembley Of The North – was, of course, near the Nissan factory. But for three or four years the plans had been stalled due to objections from the car manufacturer, who simply didn’t want the ground and adjoining complex to be built next door.
The Sunderland director John Wood had told The Independent.
It will be a massive blow if it does not go ahead. We do feel there is a bit of emotional blackmail going on from Nissan and it is wrong to say that we want to prejudice Nissan’s operations. Neither do we want to fall out.
However, after much fiery debate between many interested parties – not least the football club, council and Nissan, on this day back in 1994 the new ground got outline planning approval.
Sunderland looked set to be on the move to Washington after councillors overwhelmingly backed the club's £75m development proposal, despite Nissan’s MD Ian Gibson saying the ‘plant and stadium complex are fundamentally incompatible’.
The stadium complex included a 40,000 capacity stadium, 12,000 seater indoor arena, multiplex cinema, bowling alley, restaurants and shops, and was estimated to create 800 jobs.
Building on greenbelt land, and the estimated £14m road infrastructure, were some of the wider concerns but a report said that because the ‘Sunderland Centre’ represented a regional facility, destruction of the green belt could be justified.
Nissan, however, were still in vehement opposition, primarily due to the volume of matchday traffic disrupting its ‘just in time’ supply chain, and director of engineering Les Nicholls reported as saying the company would be pressing for an alternate site for the complex at the upcoming public enquiry.
We are not opposed to the development. It’s the location that gives us severe difficulties.
It dismays me.
The Labour councillor Bob Symonds said:
Nissan has to realise it is not Sunderland.
Predictably, Bob Murray was in a celebratory mood, and forecast the new ground would open in 1997.
It’s a victory for the people of the North East.
We still want to work with Nissan. We hope we can work together rather than from opposed sides.
Of course, the move to the site off the A19 didn’t come to fruition, because as luck would have it an altogether better site had recently emerged.
The Monkwearmouth Colliery had closed in December 1993, and following continued opposition from Nissan, the club explored the possibility of relocating the club to a site that was far more fitting for a major institution of the city. Tired of the ongoing lack of resolution with Nissan, it provided an easy solution for all parties
Towards the end of 1995, Murray announced the club’s new home would be in Monkwearmouth, and he met the stadium opening date of 1997 after all.
How a move would have played out is anyone’s guess, however disconnecting the football club from the city would have, in my view, been a huge mistake.
Fortunately, we never needed to find out. But today, my mate SAFCMerch has imagined what that future may have held...