On the 13th of May 1997 the curtain came down on nearly a century of football at Roker Park with an emotional send off against Liverpool. With decades of memories and emotions attached to the ground moving was a wrench for fans, but exactly 12 months on came the night where for many its replacement truly began to feel like home.
1997-98 was a thriller and would end with a Wembley rollercoaster, ironic perhaps given that one of Sunderland’s previous plans had been to move to a development dubbed ‘the Wembley of the North’, and it was on this day when that Play-Off final spot was booked following an atmospheric evening at the Stadium of Light during which the infamous Roker Roar was found to be alive and well.
2-1 down after defeat to Sheffield United in the semi-final first leg, the Lads knew they would have to be at their best. After taking a while to overcome the disappointment of relegation the season before, made worse perhaps by the unfamiliarity of their new environment, Sunderland had been playing some wonderfully bold football since the autumn and soon started peppering the Blades’ goal.
With the momentum building with every chance, the visitors were finding it hard to get out of their own half even. Kevin Ball, wearing both a nose strip and the captain’s armband, had got Sunderland’s goal at Brammall Lane with a cracking volley and was now enforcing a breath taking tempo – but it was his partner in the centre that sparked the opener.
Lee Clark won possession with a wonderfully timed tackle, allowing Darren Holloway to carry on up the pitch and send the ball out wide to Allan Johnston; the Scot had been one of the main outlets in the weeks prior and his low cross flicked off the boot of Nicky Marker and in off the post to pull the teams level on aggregate. The goal was greeted by raucous scenes in the stands, and once the familiar strains of James Brown had played out over the public address system the volume was lifted further with chants and encouragement to keep the pressure up.
United were on the ropes and whilst Niall Quinn was unlucky not to connect better after stretching for a cross Sunderland continued to come at them in waves. Their persistence eventually told when after a thunderous tackle from the skipper the ball was worked into the area and poked home by Kevin Phillips. Brought in over the summer to little fanfare, the instinctive finish was typical of Peter Reid’s unearthed gem and of course sparked bedlam amongst the crowd.
The visitors appeared to be so overwhelmed you’d have been forgiven for thinking the Wearsiders had an extra man or two. They’d scrambled to try and clear the danger in the lead up to Phillips’s strike, which saw him equal Brian Clough’s post Second World War record for most goals scored in a season, and after failing to do so there were grateful to keeper Simon Tracey for keeping them in it with two superb saves before the break.
Things changed in the second half, and after the first half frenzy Sunderland had to dig deep amidst a nervy finale. One person that was seemingly unfazed by it all was Lionel Perez, whose turn it now was to pull off some heroics – his acclaimed double save was as important as the goals that had come earlier and ensured his team would be London bound. Cheered off enthusiastically, the Lads didn’t go up in the end, but it had still been an unforgettable campaign and the Stadium of Light had just shown itself capable of being as intimidating and febrile a venue as its much loved predecessor.
Wednesday 13 May 1998
Nationwide League Division One Play-Off semi final second leg
Sunderland 2 (Marker o.g. 21’, Phillips 38’)
Sheffield United 0
(Sunderland win 3-2 on aggregate)
Sunderland: Perez; Holloway, Craddock, Williams, Gray; Summerbee, Clark, Ball, Johnston; Quinn, Phillips (Dichio 76’). Unused: Ord, Rae.
Stadium of Light, attendance 40,092