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Nissan Notes: How could proposed move to Washington have affected Sunderland AFC?

At one point in the early 1990s it seemed likely that SAFC would be upping sticks and going to Washington, but how could such a move have worked out, and would it have changed the whole identity of the club? 

Speaking to Martin Wanless and seeing his excellent On This Day feature for today got me thinking – just how could have things panned out if Sunderland had seen through their plans to move next to the Nissan car plant in Washington?

Shifting to the site was a very real possibility for a while. After relegation in 1991 and an FA Cup final appearance the year later, Sunderland found themselves in a bit of a fix. Unable to get on board the newly created Premier League gravy train, and with the recommendations of the Taylor Report having huge implications for the future of Roker Park, the prospects did not seem too clever.

The requirement for all-seater stadia left the club with few options, none of which were ideal. The projected costs and logistics of large scale renovation were thought to be prohibitive, whereas a vastly reduced capacity was felt to be a hindrance towards the chances of any future growth. The club were forced to look at other ideas, therefore, and following consultation with Sunderland City Council a vacant plot of land in-between Nissan and the A19 was identified.

Plans for a 40,000 seat ground were put forward in 1993, and as Martin’s piece outlined ‘The Sunderland Centre’ was also set to include a 12,000 seat indoor arena, multiplex cinema, bowling alley and health club. With the site said to have little significance in terms of natural history or landscaping, the club were convinced that this was the best way forward, and after his initial reservations over leaving Roker, owner Bob Murray and fellow his board members were now keen to push ahead with it.

A new dawn? How Sunderland’s home could have looked. Image taken from the Roker Review, 1993-94 volume.

By the time outline permission was granted though, a major hurdle had already presented itself. Nissan Motor Manufacturing UK had lodged formal objections with the council, citing concerns over how their ‘Just in Time’ methodology would be impacted by increased traffic in the area, and stating a fear that their own future growth could be hindered by the land being taken up. Sunderland had initially responded by offering to amend their proposals, and the firm were given the chance to buy land to the west of their plant to facilitate expansion there instead, but the parties reached an impasse, and it was only when the closure of Wearmouth Colliery was announced that a new opportunity opened up and matters picked up again.

A feasibility report published by the Tyne and Wear Development Corporation confirmed that the former mine would fit the bill, and with Murray agreeing to underwrite the equity needed, the idea quickly became a goer. SAFC was going to stay in Sunderland itself, and the Nissan option was shelved once and for all. Whether it would have worked anyway is another matter, but it is something to ponder certainly.

Washington is part of the city of Sunderland, but is of course a place in its own right. Due to its location and the history of how the ‘new town’ elements were first populated, there is a higher proportion of Newcastle United fans in some areas than you would expect to find elsewhere in the city. That is reflected by the fact some pubs have mag memorabilia on the walls and make a point of showing their games; it is something that irritates me I must admit, but not half as much as it irritates a black and white when you remind them that technically they are a Mackem. Had the club moved in, would the area have now become even more of a Sunderland heartland? Few adults would have switched sides directly, but it is possible that their children would want to go to games alongside their mates.

The move would have also put the club in a more central, albeit detached, location within the city boundaries and therefore made it easier for some existing supporters to get to games. Sunderland draws support from the wider area too, and those using cars or supporters association buses would have seen a reduction in travel times as well. Tradition counts for a lot in football however and true support is very rarely about convenience, so would uprooting the club and taking it further away from the areas it had grew from gone down well?

From my own point of view, I think the way I supported the club would have undoubtedly changed. As a somewhat naïve and sentimental youngster, I wanted us to stay at Roker Park – it was all I knew and living as close as I did and passing it almost daily meant it was as much a part of my life as the team itself. I admit that the proposals for Washington were intriguing, but at that time I was still a young kid so attending games would have become far more complicated.

Instead of a two-minute walk and being close to home in case of an emergency, I would have been looking at public transport and the potential issues that brings, particularly for evening games. I couldn’t see my parents being pleased about me going to one of those in the ‘middle of nowhere’ and coming back late on a school night. That separation and an inability to see matches as often could well have seen me feeling less of a connection than I presently do, which is one that goes way beyond match day and means I have stuck with Sunderland through thin and even thinner.

An out of town location isn’t just a problem for young fans. Had we gone next to Nissan there would have been few people living within walking distance and although the club were planning on providing over 10,000 car parking spaces a lack of passing trade through the week and off-season may have impacted some of the other facilities. Options for a pre-match pint or meal may have also been restricted, as we still see now on some away trips. When a move did come, existing restaurants and pubs in the city centre received a huge shot in the arm.

The initial vision for Wearmouth. Image taken from the Roker Review, 1994-95 volume.

Proximity to Sunderland’s central train station is another advantage of the eventual relocation to Wearmouth, and as time goes on the move continues to benefit the supporters and city alike. Form on the pitch may fluctuate but the Stadium of Light is an imposing and instantly recognisable landmark that has put us on the map and remains an undoubted asset. Nissan too are probably quite happy with how things have ended up; they remain a huge part of the local economy and their operation here is world-renowned.

Developments continue at both sites, bringing investment to the city. Nissan have been joined in Washington by several other blue-chip suppliers and employers, whilst the infrastructure around them has increased tenfold and could now conceivably accommodate residential or leisure schemes with ease. The area around Stadium Park meanwhile is going to be unrecognisable in a few years’ time – there could even be an indoor arena on the other side of the water, all these years after one was first mooted by SAFC.

For some people, perhaps the idea of moving to Washington wasn’t that crazy; after all, the club had previously built a training centre off Stephenson Road that wasn’t a million miles away from where the ground would have stood. Training facilities have since ended up in South Tyneside, which isn’t even in the city, never mind the town of Sunderland, suggesting perhaps that the club has a reach and a meaning to people that is more than just heritage, a sense of place and mere bricks and mortar.

Our first foray into Washington, as seen in the Roker Review, 1970-71 volume.

Had things gone differently the football club and the car manufacturers could now be strange bedfellows too. During negotiations, Murray offered Nissan a place on the board in the hope it would encourage greater relations between the hitherto obturates and help move the Sunderland Centre project along. That suggestion was rejected, and so we will never know how different things could have been not only with a completely different ground and location, but also a major international interest in the background.

Amidst the irrevocable changes, football underwent during the period the board had looked to move to Washington the upheaval could have gone either way – your own view on that will depend on many factors. A ground design that incorporated Wembley style Twin Towers would have been interesting to say the least though given our record at the national stadium, but instead, Sunderland AFC continues to come right from the banks of the River Wear.

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