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On This Day (9 July 1996): Shackleton opens Visitor Centre as SAFC’s new ground takes shape

Sunderland’s new ground was taking shape, and the club wanted fans to be able to view the progress every step of the way...

The new site, as seen in the 1996-97 Leicester City edition of the Roker Review

After years of proposals and planning, Sunderland fans were slowly coming round to the fact that their club would indeed be leaving Roker Park.

The idea took some getting used to though, and not everybody was too keen it – leaving home was going to be a wrench after all, and the naysayers were revelling in the thought of the new ground being a ‘white elephant’.

Those inside the club were convinced that the move to Wearmouth would prove to be a success however and knew that people would start coming on board once they grasped the true scale of the scheme.

Drawings and models can only show so much, and if supporters were able to see the full reality of this new vision right in front of them it would not only assuage a lot of the fears, but also help build anticipation ahead of the big move.

Shack is joined by Peter Reid and John Fickling, as seen in the 1996-97 Leicester City edition of the Roker Review

The new Sunderland AFC Visitor Centre proved to be a masterstroke then, and it was opened by club legend Len Shackleton 26 years ago today.

Situated on what is now Millenium Way, the Roker favourite was joined by manager Peter Reid and Chief Executive John Fickling to cut the ribbon and welcome people in – and he seemed like the perfect booking.

Reid may have been the toast of the city having just delivered promotion to the Premiership, but in his pomp, Shack would have fans eating out of the palm of his hand and seeing him give the new ground his seal of approval proved good enough for many.

“This is going to be a super place and a magnificent stadium”.

Len Shackleton, 9 July 1996

Open six days a week and with free admission, the centre allowed fans to witness the construction work for themselves.

A viewing gallery behind the south end of the stadium, which was scheduled to be completed last, was backed up with a virtual video tour of the ground and constantly updated panels showing design features and photographs of the job.

Fact sheets were made available too, whilst the centre also housed a mini club shop and was expected to be able to handle season ticket purchases.

The new centre, as seen in the 1996-97 Leicester City edition of the Roker Review

Enabling fans to ask questions and take it all in not only garnered a greater sense of involvement, but it also went a long way to dispelling some of the ludicrous rumours that seem to crop up whenever a large civil engineering project is undertaken.

The favourite for a long time was that the stadium, built of course on the site of Wearmouth Colliery, would inevitably collapse when the old mine shafts gave way underneath the weight of the new structure - the possibility that highly qualified specialists would have already thought of that and done something about it being lost on some seemingly.

Although anybody with even a basic understanding of the world could see things had not just been drawn up on the back of a fag packet, it was understandable that some fans would have some more justified reservations.

With the heart ruling the head in the case of many supporters, thousands of whom were facing the prospect of their lifelong habits and rituals coming to an end, such a big shift was bound to be tough.

The visitor centre went a long way to show them that the upheaval could be worth it.


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