The prospect of Sunderland moving from Roker Park had gone back many years. It was an ambition for chairman Bob Murray to take us to a new home when it became clear that we were in danger of being left behind with the introduction of the Premier League.
First we had the proposals that described the “Wembley of the North” close to the Nissan plant near the A19, but with Sunderland struggling to survive in the second tier while playing games at a Roker Park that was desperate for a lick of paint at the very least, the proposals seemed light years away from where we stood as a club.
Year after year of struggle followed our relegation in 1990-91 which resulted in a revolving door for managers at Roker Park, but that was all until Peter Reid walked through the door to replace Mick Buxton in April 1995.
First he saved the club from relegation to the third tier with seven games remaining and then with virtually the same squad, won the league title the following season. It was a miracle on the pitch that possibly propelled the off the pitch plans forward as we were now a Premier League club.
By this time, attention had focused on the site of the old Wearmouth Colliery that had become available to purchase with a view for construction. The club moved quickly to purchase the land and before anyone could really take in the magnitude of what was happening, construction had begun and we were facing our final season at Roker Park.
There was excitement in the air but also a realisation that 99 years of history was coming to a close.
Our final year at the old place would fittingly be in the top flight with our first season as a Premier League club, but with the speed of progress that Peter Reid had instigated, it wasn’t going to be easy to stay there and produce a fairytale finish.
Although we took it to the final day, we did drop back down to the second tier and May 1996 was tinged with sadness through the relegation and leaving Roker Park. But, this soon switched to optimism as our attention turned to a once in a generation event that was moving to our new stadium.
Dutch titans Ajax came to town to help us celebrate the official opening at the end of July with almost 42,000 in attendance to see the likes of Frank De Boer, Ronald De Boer and Michael Laudrup grace the pitch of our new home.
It’s fair to say there were teething problems, but that memory of walking into the stadium for the first time will stay with me forever.
The opening day of the season in Nationwide Football League Division One was soon upon us and expectation was high that we could make a quick return to the Premier League. But it didn’t start well. We went down 2-0 at Bramall Lane to Nigel Spackman’s Sheffield United, with new record signing Lee Clark making his debut alongside Chris Makin and Chris Byrne.
The £2.5 million spent on Clark from Newcastle had signalled an intent by the club as the transfer record was almost doubled despite relegation. Kevin Phillips was also brought in from Watford but wasn’t available for selection on the opening day.
The main event was now upon us, Friday 15th August and it was scheduled for a 7.45pm kick-off. As the Red Devils finished their display that involved parachutists landing on the pitch, the players emerged from the tunnel, but it was quickly evident how many empty seats there were inside the stadium, with the club clearly expecting a bigger turnout.
The referee discussed the situation with the police and it was decided to delay the kick-off by fifteen minutes, which meant the players disappeared back into the dressing rooms.
With the second attempt the game did finally get underway and in the early stages it was all Sunderland with new signing from Vauxhall Conference champions Macclesfield Town, Chris Byrne, being the one to impress.
After 17 minutes, the pressure paid off and the Stadium of Light witnessed its first home goal, although it wasn’t really a classic. Tony Vaughan lost all of his bearings and decided to play a horror ball across the face of his own box which Niall Quinn was able to pounce on and slot home into the bottom corner with his left foot.
Cue James Brown and “I Feel Good” being aired for the first time on the back of a Sunderland goal.
It was one way traffic once Quinn gave the Lads the lead and less than ten minutes later it got worse for Frank Clark’s Manchester City side when Alan Kernaghan was given his second yellow card for a foul on Kevin Phillips, which meant he received his marching orders.
Sunderland went in at half-time still only a goal up, but City had Martyn Margetson in the sticks to thank for keeping them in it with saves either side of the break.
Chances kept coming thick and fast, Clark, Phillips, Quinn and the impressive Chris Byrne saw more chances missed and saved until City and the dangerous Kinkladze had a moment. The tricky Georgian, who had impressed for City in the Premier League received the ball on the right and made his way into the penalty area until Kevin Ball brought him down to concede a penalty.
Kinkladze himself stepped up and slotted the ball home into the bottom corner past Lionel Perez in the Sunderland goal. A moment or so later it could have been worse when Nicky Summerbee almost gave City in the lead but saw his shot saved by Perez.
Normal service then resumed as we pushed again to take the lead and with six minutes left, it happened. A long, deep diagonal free-kick from Michael Gray found Niall Quinn’s head to the back post who managed to nod it back to where it came from which Kevin Ball got on the end of, and when his shot was saved, Kevin Phillips opened his account for the club on his debut.
Reid’s side didn’t keep possession or run into the corners following taking the lead, we looked for a third. With whistles coming from the crowd to remind the referee we would like to take the three points, up stepped Lee Clark to hit a low shot from the edge of the box, straight into the bottom corner.
It was a good way to open our new home in a competitive competition and in many ways, it feels just like yesterday.
Friday 15th August, 1997
Nationwide Football League Division One
Stadium of Light
Sunderland 3-1 Manchester City
[Quinn 17’, Phillips 84’, Clark 89’ - Kinkladze (pen) 76’ (Kernaghan sent-off 24’)]
Sunderland: Perez, Makin, Melville, Ord (Williams), Gray, Agnew (Aiston), Ball, Clark, Byrne, Quinn, Phillips Substitution Not Used: Mullin
Manchester City: Margetson, Brightwell, Wiekens, Kernaghan, Vaughan, Symons, Brannan (Summerbee), Horlock, Kinklade, Bradbury, Rosler (Van Blerk) Substitution Not Used: Lever