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Stand down: The beginning of the end for Roker Park

It has been 40 years since Sunderland reduced the original Roker End to half its previous size, changing both the local skyline and mood in the process.

The Lads play against Oxford United at their infamous three-sided Kassam Stadium this weekend.

Grounds that are without a full complement of stands can take some getting used to, and whilst this is something that Sunderland fans have not had to deal with too much over the years, supporters of a certain age did get a taste of it in 1982 following the discovery of structural problems at Roker Park.

In order to keep their safety certificate the club had to demolish the back sections of Roker End terracing, with Sunderland Borough Council stipulating that spectators would not be allowed in the part of the stadium until the work was complete.

It meant that, for the opening three months of the 1982-83 campaign, that part of the ground was shut off, and Roker was not back up to its full complement of stands until the visit of Ipswich Town in early December.

An eerie sight as the Roker End stands empty on match day against Tottenham Hotspur. Image taken from Norwich City (league) edition of the match day programme in 1982-83

Writing in The Journal the day before the game, journalist Bill Bradshaw suggested that the atmosphere at previous matches had been “diluted” by the temporary closure and that there was “no doubt the sealing off of the popular Roker terracing had had an unwelcome impact”. Boss Alan Durban seemed to concur, stating he was “sure an empty Roker End has had some effect on the players.”

In addition to £80,000 being spent on seating and £75,000 going towards improved toilet facilities that season the repairs, which were undertaken by contractors Balfour Beatty, cost around £200,000 with part of the funding coming from the Football Grounds Improvements Trust.

Once complete, the massively scaled back terrace was now detached from the stands on either side and split into three segregated areas with the centre section holding approximately 4,750 fans, the side nearest the Main Stand around 2,000, and the pen by the Clock Stand holding just 750. It meant an overall capacity in the Roker End of 7,500; a stark drop from the previous official figure of 17,150.

The new-look was nice and shiny, with vivid red and white cladding at the back of the stand, but it left many fans feeling underwhelmed and there would be a long-term impact felt due to the changes.

SAFC may have kept its local authority permissions, but some felt it had lost its mojo in the process; the old-style Roker End had been the beating heart of the crowd where most of the atmosphere was generated and now in its place stood a humbler imitation.

It was a tough blow for a lot of supporters to take, and a very visible reminder that the club’s overall stature was perhaps no longer what it was.

Club marketing material from 1994 shows the Roker End in its final years

Curiously, the attendance for the Ipswich game was recorded as exactly 15,000, and whilst it represented a small increase from the previous home gate, it was down significantly from some of the crowd numbers seen earlier in the season.

The damage was now done for a lot of people, and with many seeing their regular spot in the ground literally disappear, average attendances did not top the figure for the previous campaign until 1990-91, and only ever once more after that.

There were other factors contributing to this of course, but changing the whole look and feel of the place did play a part.

The larger vintage that so many had known and loved had been constructed 70 years earlier.

That end of the ground had initially been known as the South Terrace, mirroring the change later seen at the Stadium of Light when the South Stand was also renamed the Roker End, and was expanded in 1912; the huge terracing was supported underneath by several enormous concrete pillars to create a vast structure that when full was something to behold.

Behind the Roker End, as seen in Sunderland The Complete Record

This was the first significant alteration to be made to Roker Park following its opening in 1898 and when the stand was returned to something more like its initial size it proved to be the last major building project at the ground too, yet just a year earlier the situation seemed much rosier.

In March 1981 the club had been given conditional approval by the council to erect a roof over the terrace, but instead of complementing it, they were soon being forced to cut it.

Talks of an eventual two-tiered replacement never materialised and suddenly, Sunderland’s proud home could be said to be losing some of its aura. By the time the club left 15 years later, Roker Park, much loved as it was, was showing its age.

Although my time was only ever in the shorn version, I still hold fond memories of watching games whilst standing on the red-tinted rows of terracing of the Roker End.

It was usually the cheapest part to get into in later years and whilst the amenities could be considered basic there was still plenty of character to them.

For fans of a younger generation, it is hard to really appreciate just how imposing it could be prior to 1982, whilst on the other hand, those that did experience it may think it odd that those coming after probably regarded the Fulwell as being the ‘home’ end.

No matter what your viewpoint though, the Roker End was a much-loved aspect of Roker Park and in its heyday, in particular, a hugely impressive sight.

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