It was September 1964. I was ten years old when I saw my first match at Roker Park. My uncle took me and one of my school friends to see Sunderland play Blackburn Rovers in the First division (the Premier League as we now know it). It was our first season back in the First division having achieved promotion the previous season. Ah, promotion - there’s that word again.
I remember leaving home in Jarrow on the morning of the match with my dad to go to my gran’s house in Hebburn. I met my uncle there and together we went to pick up my school friend from his house before catching the bus to Sunderland. I seem to recall the bus being a “Roker Park special” which ran from Hebburn in those days.
On arrival at the ground, my uncle took us round to the Roker End where, if I remember rightly, me and my friend paid something like two shillings (10p) to get in. As a ten-year-old, the thing that struck me first when we got in was the mass of colour around the ground.
It was a bright sunny day. The pitch looked bright green. I’d never seen grass as green as that before. There was a sea of red and white hats, scarves and rattles, and a smattering of blue and white, which I took to be Blackburn Rovers fans.
The noise when Sunderland ran out was deafening to me and I got my first glance of players like Charlie Hurley, Dominic Sharkey, and George Mulhall. We won 1-0 with a goal from Dominic Sharkey if memory serves me right. That was it - I was hooked and watching Sunderland was to become an integral part of my life.
There are a couple of things that I always remember about those early days as a young lad going to Roker Park. First, there were the peanut sellers who would walk around the pitch side with their wicker baskets before the match and at half time selling peanuts at sixpence a bag. I always recall one shouting “tanner a bag peanuts - peanuts as big as coconuts”.
Secondly, there was the straw around the pitchside during the winter months. In those days straw was put on the pitch to protect it from frost. The straw was removed on match days and put around the pitch. When Sunderland scored those of us kids at the front would joyfully fling straw in the air.
I can’t remember much about the other league matches I went to in that 1964/65 season but that first one against Blackburn Rovers always sticks with me. I do remember though the Fourth Round FA Cup tie that season against Nottingham Forest at home which we lost 3-1.
For one of the Forest goals, I couldn’t believe that the ball had ended up in the net as it looked to me as though the ball had gone outside of the post rather than inside. In fact, I recall a couple of Sunderland players checking the net to see if it had somehow come loose but it hadn’t. It mystified me as to how that one went in.
That was my first FA Cup match and I remember coming away from that match feeling really disappointed and my uncle saying “get used to it son, you’ll have a few more disappointments along the way”. How right he was.
From the start of the 1965/66 season I started going to the matches with a group of my school friends. About six of us. Over the next few seasons we became dedicated Fulwell enders. Me with my Sunderland scarf and rattle which would sometimes come apart when I was whirling it. I had to fix that a few times.
We all had our own favourite players during that time. Mine were Charlie Hurley, Jimmy Montgomery, Colin Todd and Jim Baxter. There are a few names to conjure with. For me Jim Baxter was such a special player; what a cultured left foot he had. I was devastated when we sold him to Nottingham Forest.
The first Tyne & Wear derby I saw at Roker Park was in 1967 when we beat Newcastle 3-0. Bobby Kerr scored twice and George Mulhall got the third. Me and my friends had our first venture into the Clock Stand paddock for this match. The paddock seemed deeper than the Fulwell end so our heads were just about at pitch level but we managed to see the match okay.
I think the best opposition player I saw at Roker Park during that period was George Best playing for Manchester United. He was just an outstanding footballer. Mind you, the rest of the Man United team at that time weren’t bad either with players like Paddy Crerand, Nobby Stiles, Bobby Charlton, and Denis Law to name just a few.
As the 1960s drew to a close I had my first experience of the dreaded ‘R-word’. In 1969/70 we were relegated from the first division. At one point we looked certainties for relegation but, as the season drew to a close, we’d managed to get back to within sight of safety.
As has been the case with Sunderland on so many occasions over the years, this all hinged on the last match of the season. We needed to beat Liverpool at home to stay up but we lost 1-0.
I was absolutely devastated as I stood in the Fulwell end after the match. The journey back home to Jarrow on the bus was a long one that night. I didn’t have time to dwell on it though as I had my ‘O’ Levels to do at school and the World Cup with England in Mexico was on the horizon.
Little did I know then how many promotions and relegations I’d experience following the lads. None of the subsequent relegations have had the same impact on me as that first one in 1970 although our relegation to the third division for the first time in 1987 came close.
I remember again standing in the Fulwell End after the playoff match with Gillingham feeling shell-shocked that we were going to actually be in the Third division for the first time.
Thankfully it only took us one season to get out of it back then. That’s another story for another day though.