Last week I wrote about the partial demolition of the Roker End in 1982. At the time of the work it was a pretty emotive subject amongst fans, but it is sometimes forgotten that had things gone to plan over a decade earlier Roker Park would have at that point already been long gone.
During the 1969-70 season, Sunderland AFC were giving serious consideration to the possibility of moving away from their famous home, and had the proposals come to fruition we could be supporting a very different club in 2022.
Big changes were afoot during the 1969-70 season. Shortly before Sunderland’s brand new training facility in Washington was opened towards the end of the campaign, the club incorporated a new company called Roker Park Estates Ltd. with a view to furthering Sunderland’s infrastructure even more.
Made up of existing club directors and a wholly-owned subsidiary of SAFC, its remit was to drive forward ground plans and as a result, several ideas were investigated.
Three general options were explored; to renovate Roker Park, to rebuild it entirely, or to move on and start afresh elsewhere. With the cost of renovations thought to be around £3.75 million however and the built-up nature of the surrounding streets a major stumbling block, several key figures were thought to favour a new stadium. A number of potential sites were viewed, therefore, with one soon becoming the front runner.
All of the plots were roughly 40 acres in size, which would have represented a huge increase from Roker Park’s 6. With land at Cleadon, Doxford Park, Usworth Airport, and Whitburn Moor all ruled out for various reasons Fulwell Quarry looked most likely to fit the bill, its proximity to main roads being a key factor in this thinking.
As ever, one of the drivers behind the intention to move was finance. The club felt that progress could not be made on gate money alone and with a boom in recreational spending expected across the country, Sunderland hoped to cash in.
The new ground would incorporate several other leisure facilities, with Roker Estates intending to branch out into other parts of the region so that the extra income needed to support the venture could be generated.
Early steps towards this goal were made in March 1970, when shareholders of the club were brought to a meeting in which they were advised of proposals to turn Roker Park into a sports centre.
Chairman Jack Parker, who had been on the board since 1948 and had encouraged the formation of the Sunderland AFC Supporters Association was a builder and contractor by trade, so such a project would not have been alien to him, but further information was required by other board members and so the meeting was adjourned.
It was becoming clear what direction those at the top wanted to go in, however. Billed as a ‘super stadium’, outline plans had been drawn up for an undercover dome with an adjoining ice rink, restaurant, and function halls. It might have sounded fanciful to some, but Sunderland were taking it seriously - going as far as investigating how the pitch could be maintained without direct sunlight.
Just over a week after the shareholders meeting the Journal’s ‘Northern Businessman’ section printed a story that provided more detail. Their inquiries showed the club had calculated an £8,000 a week break-even figure for the new stadium, based on 85% usage bringing in £16,000 a week.
With an initial cost of around £2.5 million, the club were aiming to make the stadium a ‘seven days a week’ venue that could host sporting and entertainment events such as pop concerts. With the government looking to introduce legislation at the time that would have enabled professional football clubs providing more general-purpose facilities to qualify for grants, Roker Estates hoped that up to £800,000 could be made available.
Intriguing as all of this was, relegation from Division One at the end of the season saw the idea of a ground move stall. The new training centre opened as planned and did prove to be a success, offering many of the pursuits that were mooted for the ground, but the thought of a space-age American-style stadium complex seemed at odds with a club struggling on the pitch. There was one last avenue to be explored first though, although unsurprisingly it fizzled out quickly.
In August 1970 talk of a joint stadium with Newcastle United surfaced. Freddie Westcott, a director of Roker Park Estates, was quoted as saying such a development would be “commercially viable” if nothing else, and whilst Lord Westwood, then chairman of our near neighbours, was thought to want more detail before commenting his director Stan Seymour probably spoke for both sides when he said the idea of a shared ground seemed “very silly”.
The Sunderland AFC of today could have been very different had it moved to Fulwell Quarry 50 years ago, particularly if their new ground had been the sort of all-encompassing arena that we only starting to see in this country in more recent times.
Had the projections been right the club would have been a financial heavyweight, and with Seaburn train station so close and still on a mainline at that point, it would have been able to draw on an even bigger catchment area.
It is hard to know how that would have impacted fortunes. The train station was officially opened two days after the club won the FA Cup for the first time in 1937, but would their subsequent 1973 success have happened without a rejuvenated Roker Park behind Stokoe’s Stars? Or even better than that, could that team have been kept together longer in a more modern, integrated environment?
Ultimately, Fulwell Quarry joins the long list of Sunderland ‘what ifs’ both on and off the pitch. Some of the suggestions put forward were similar to those proposed when the club looked at moving next to the Nissan plant over 20 years later, but they weren’t the first, nor the last, batch of drawings never to go beyond the drawing board either.
In January 1950 the Sunderland Echo and Shipping Gazette reported on new chairman Bill Ditchburn’s efforts to modernise Roker Park and right up until its final years the possibility of completely overhauling the old girl was still being revisited.
Ditchburn was keen to make alterations to the terracing and put a roof over the Fulwell End, although that did materialise several years after he left the club. As I touched on last week there were suggestions also of a two-tiered stand replacing the Roker End at one point in the 1980s; how this would have changed the aesthetic and atmosphere of the ground is open to debate, but is an interesting thought, nonetheless.
In the end, the area around Fulwell Quarry did become a destination for amateur sports – it has hosted countless Sunday league games and now houses the Sunderland Golf Centre. Sunderland AFC eventually got a contemporary home too, and the Stadium of Light does indeed generate income away from match days and host large-scale concerts.
It is 25 years old now though, so how long before our current home is first earmarked for replacement?