1996-97 was tough to take, even if you ignore the nature of Sunderland’s relegation at the end of the season. The impending closure of Roker Park led to a stream of ‘last’s’ being chalked off as the weeks went by, and each aspect that ended seemed to hammer home the fact that fans would soon be having to bid farewell to the old ground altogether.
The last game and goal were still to come, but with the final Wear Tyne derby having already bee staged earlier in the month this date in 1996 saw the last League Cup fixture to be held at Sunderland’s home of nearly a century. Known at this stage as the Coca-Cola Cup, Kenny Jackett’s Watford were the guests for a 2nd Round 2nd leg tie - and it was played just 24 hours shy of the coral anniversary of the first.
When the competition began in 1960-61 the Lads were given a bye in the 1st round and were then eliminated in the 2nd at Brentford. It meant that 11 months later a 1st round replay against Bolton Wanderers was the first League Cup match to be played on the hallowed turf, and whilst Sunderland are still to win the tournament in 2022 Roker did still host several unforgettable nights over the years.
A Brian Clough goal brought a 1-0 win over Bolton and Alan Brown’s men were given home advantage again in the next three rounds, eventually losing to Norwich City having just beaten them in the league four days earlier. The following season brought a run to the semi-finals that included a 7-1 victory over Oldham Athletic on Wearside, but even when results were good the crowds did not always follow.
Despite averaging league attendances of over 40,000 in Division Two, the semi-final first leg against top tier Aston Villa attracted 7,000 less than that through the gate. Although not helped by being held on a cold January day, that factor was counteracted by it being an afternoon kick off – the traditional midweek scheduling being citied even in the early days as one of the reasons some people chose to stay away.
The League Cup has often struggled the capture the wider public’s imagination for one reason or another, even though night-time under the lights can often be the best environment to watch football. The theme has continued throughout Sunderland’s home history in the competition, although there have of course been some notable instances where to Roker Roar was in full force. Already reigning FA Cup holders, 1973 saw one such classic as a Vic Halon hattrick saw the Lads beat a superb Derby County side in a 2nd round 2nd replay, whilst three years later came another epic when a round three replay against Manchester United ended 2-2 after extra time.
Some of the most memorable moments of the celebrated run to the 1985 Milk Cup final were on the road, but the Chelsea semi-final 1st leg in SR6 was a feisty affair in its own right. A Colin West brace set Sunderland up for an infamous and ultimately successful 2nd leg trip to Stamford Bridge during which, amongst a million other incidents, David Speedie was dismissed late on. Not content with that ignominy though, five years later the Scot featured in one of the most iconic moments of Roker League Cup action.
Given it was played in the quarter-final stage of a cup that has not always generated full houses, the Coventry City match is one of those occasions where thousands more now claim to have been present than actually went through the turnstiles at the time. Relatively speaking, a gate of 27, 218 was very good at that point and those that did show up will fondly recall Speedie taking the time to acquaint himself with the punters in the Clock Stand terrace before running off for an early bath – hotly pursued by Gary Bennett.
Having already beaten Leeds United on home soil in the previous round, 1993 saw Sunderland put on a master class against high flying Aston Villa only to somehow end up losing 4-1. An unbelievable performance from Mark Bosnich was the only thing stopping the Lads inflicting a giant-killing against that season’s eventual winners of the trophy – making it one of the more surreal League Cup nights held at Roker.
The final instance in 1996 was far from vintage, and more a case of Peter Reid’s team just getting the job done. 2-0 up already thanks to goals from Niall Quinn and Alex Rae in the first leg, the boss gave chances to some of his squad members.
Rae was handed a second start since joining the club, whilst Craig Russell - top scorer the previous season - made his first start of the campaign.
Martin Smith - like Russell - was a homegrown favourite, and was given his first game of season also, and even the Son of Pele would have been pleased to have scored as good a goal as Martin Scott did on the night.
Scott’s beautifully timed long range thunderbolt gave Sunderland a 3-0 aggregate win and was a nice way to bring the curtain down. Little else happened in the game after all, save for transfer-listed David Kelly being brought on as a late substitute and visiting forward Tommy Mooney hitting the post, and following elimination away to Tottenham Hotspur in the next round, that was it for Roker Park’s League cup story.
Tuesday 24 September 1996
Coca-Cola Cup 2nd Round 2nd leg
Sunderland 1 (Scott 6)
Sunderland: Coton; Hall, Melville, Ord, Scott; Smith, Ball, Rae, Agnew (Kelly 73); Stewart (Bridges 64), Russell. Unused: Howey
Roker Park, attendance 10,659