Floodlights had been around in sport since the late 1800s, when polo and cricket matches were played under the beams of artificial light and Sheffield United had experimented with them to boost visibility in the Yorkshire gloom of 1878.
It didn’t catch on, but then in the 1930s the ever-modernising Herbert Chapman had some installed at Highbury. However, the old farts at the Football League wouldn’t have it and banned their use.
The war and austerity then intervened, but in the 1950s friendlies under the lights became popular and the ban was eventually lifted under pressure from the clubs who were keen to increase their revenues with midweek fixtures.
[Update: The StatCat rightly informs us Sunderland played loads of midweek floodlit games at Roker Park in the 1950s, the first was December 1952 against Dundee.]
In 1955 England played under lights at Wembley, beating Spain 4-1, five months before Portsmouth and Newcastle played the first floodlit domestic league game at Fratton Park in February 1956.
From then on in, there was no stopping the march of the floodlights, and scaffolded pylons began to appear at grounds across the land.
So when, in 1962, Sunderland AFC had a brand new set installed at Roker Park, they were still a bit of novelty and the games played under them still attracted attention. The game was preceded by a gymnastic display featuring British champion Monica Rutherford, whose autographed photo was included as an added extra in the match day programme.
Little did the club know then, but the towering new structures in either corner of our famous old ground would illuminate some of the greatest evenings in our history over the following 35 years.
Our opponent for the official opening of the new floodlights was one of the big names in European club football, Royal Standard Liege. The Wallonian club were champions in 1960-61 but had finished second in the Belgian top division the previous season, relinquishing their title to Royal Antwerp, but had reached the semi final of the European Cup.
They also had future Sunderland star Johnny Crossan up front for them, and they would go on to top the table once more at the end of this particular season.
Sunderland were in Division Two, with Alan Brown still plotting our return to the top flight with the great Brian Clough as the team’s talismanic and prolific striker. It took Cloughy only a minute to open the scoring, he’d scored eight in nine games already that year. George Herd controlled a long pass from Charlie Hurley and fed Clough, who finished with his usual aplomb.
Two minutes later, Ambrose Fogerty scored the second and it was Herd once again who was the provider, nodding down a cross from George Mullhal into the path of the Irishman. It was a blistering start to the game.
The action didn’t abate and Sunderland scored a third on 10 minutes when Liege defender Jozef Vliers’s attempted to head clear from Jimmy Davison’s cross but only managed to find the back of his own net. Then a little over 10 minutes later Clough bagged his second and Sunderland’s fourth, running onto a through ball from Cecil Irwin to score from 20 yards.
It could have been five before the break, but Clough missed the chance to score his first hattrick for the club from the penalty spot after Davison had been fouled in the box. Sunderland, however, were utterly dominant and the game was over as a contest well before the half time whistle.
The visitors’ performance improved significantly after the break, and a youthful Jimmy Montgomery in the Sunderland goal would be the star of the second period, saving brilliantly from Crossan. They got a consolation goal on 62 minutes through Belgian international Charel Mallants, but there was no way back into the game.
Sunderland made two half-time substitutions, a rarity back then but allowable in a friendly, replacing both Clough and Fogarty and sending on their second-string forwards Tommy Mitchinson and Jimmy O’Neill. Fogarty had picked up an injury after a blow on the thigh and lost the feeling down the back of his leg. Then Hurley picked up a knock on 68 minutes and was replaced by Dickie Rooks.
Injury, however, would plague the Sunderland side over the course of this season, with disastrous effect on what was a promising promotion push. Clough’s career would effectively come to an end three months later, on Boxing Day 1962, when a collision with Bury goalkeeper Chris Harker on a frozen pitch at Roker Park left his knee damaged beyond repair. All that potential as a player was lost, but he would go on to the greatest of heights as a manager at Derby County and Nottingham Forest.
It would be the Liege forward Crossan who Brown recruited to replace Clough. The Northern Irishman was effectively exiled from British football in 1959 after an investigation into the aftermath of a transfer saga including his former club Derry City and Sunderland resulted in disciplinary proceedings and lifetime ban from football for the player.
The ban, though relaxed on appeal, led to his departure to the continent where he played first for Sparta Rotterdam in the Netherlands and then moved on to the Belgian club. Sunderland would be his salvation, and he would help the club to its first ever promotion in 1964.
He certainly impressed in this game, with Alf Greenley in the following day’s Newcastle Journal writing:
Though Liege’s attack was forced to play second fife for much of the game there was no denying that Sunderland’s long interest in Irish exile Johny Crossan is not misplaced.
The few chances that came his way stamped him as a player of world class, and if and when he comes to wear a red and white shirt he is certain of a rousing welcome.
The game against Royal Standard Liege wasn’t simply a one-off friendly, however. We played them again at Stade de Sclessin two weeks later in another floodlit evening kick off, this time the Lads coming away with only narrow a 2-1 victory.
The two towns had a shared heritage of coal mining, and there was, of course, the famous yet fictional encounter between the two clubs featured in an episode of “Auf Wiedersehen, Pet” to come in the 1980s.
Almost 60 years later the links between the two clubs would be reestablished as KLD, the son of Standard Liege’s former owner Robert Louis-Dreyfus, whose name adorns their academy training facility, took control at the aptly named Stadium of Light. It’s funny how things turn out.