BY Vince Cooper

THERE is no doubt that Roker Park, home of Sunderland for just under 100 years, was one of the country’s major stadiums, and also one of the most atmospheric (and intimidating for away fans). It was also home to some legendary players with the likes of Charles Buchan, Raich Carter and Len Shackleton having plied their trade there. They also featured a certain Brian Clough, had the mighty Charlie Hurley lead the Rokerites out and, thanks to an inspired performance by goalkeeper Jim Montgomery pulled off F. A. Cup win in 1973.

Hard times have hit the ‘Black Cats’ since their move to the Stadium Of Light but the fan base is still there, waiting and hoping for a return to the glory days.

Having hosted a World Cup quarter-final, three England internationals, an FA Cup semi-final replay and two FA Amateur Cup Finals, Roker Park finally closed its doors in 1997, a victim of the ‘Taylor Report’  after serving as home of the club for 99 years.

An early line up

Founded in 1879 as Sunderland and District Teachers Association Football Club after a meeting called by James Allen a teacher at Hendon Road school, the club became Sunderland F. C. a year later when the decision was made to allow non-teachers to play.

The club had numerous grounds in their early days including original home Blue House Field (close to Allen’s Hendon Road school), Groves Field, The Cedars, Horatio Street and Abbs Field before settling at Newcastle Road in time for their League debut in 1890.

The plaque commemorating Blue House Field

Three men, local shipbuilder Robert Thompson, who was president, James Marr who took the role of Chairman and Treasurer Samuel Tyzack were the driving forces behind the club’s rise to prominence and it was the last-named who brought a number of players down from Scotland to play for the team.

Sunderland in action at Blue House Field

Whilst those three clearly played a major role in elevating the club, most of the credit for the early success should be laid squarely at the feet of Tom Watson.

Watson was brought in from local rivals Newcastle West End towards the end of the 1887-88 season to become that club’s first manager (before then the team, like many in those days, had been chosen by committee). It was Watson who was behind the club’s elevation to league status for that 1890-91 season where their application initially looked likely to be refused and acceptance was only given when the club agreed to pay the travelling expenses of visiting teams to an area that was considered an outpost, at least in footballing terms.

‘Ned’ Doig always wore a cap because he was shy about being bald

After losing their opening two matches – both at home – to Burnley and Wolves, Sunderland settled down to finish a decent 7th in their first campaign despite having two points deducted for fielding new goalkeeper John (Ned) Doig in the season’s third game, a 4-0 win at West Bromwich Albion.

Scotsman Doig had signed to play for Blackburn Rovers from Arbroath during the previous season but after a single game he had a disagreement with the Ewood Park club and went back home . When Sunderland signed him he was still effectively a Blackburn player and with transfer forms not having been completed was ineligible to play for his new club.

The saga ended well for Sunderland. By the time of their next match Doig was officially a Sunderland player. He started every other match during that season and went on to be ever-present in every match during the 14 years he spent at the club, a truly remarkable record.

The prolific John Campbell

Sunderland began their second season of league football with 14 Scots among the 17 players on their books. A crowd of 10,000 were at Newcastle Road on opening day to witness a 5-2 win over Wolves with Jimmy Millar notching a hat-trick and John Campbell adding the other two.

Three away losses, at Preston, Bolton and Aston Villa followed whilst they also suffered a 3-1 reverse at Blackburn in November. After that defeat there was just one more loss in the whole campaign. By the time that came – in April at Notts County – the title was virtually sewn up and wins in the remaining three matches saw the club take the crown with a five-point gap to Preston.

The championship had been secured on the back of a formidable home record where the Black Cats played thirteen league matches and won them all, scoring 55 times whilst Doig conceded just 11. There was two further home wins in the FA Cup but hopes of a double came to an end at the semi-final stage when Aston Villa beat them 4-1 in front of 28,000 at Bramall Lane.

As Doig was doing the business at one end of the pitch at win so John Campbell was leading the way at the other. with 30 goals in 24 league matches and seven more in the cup run.

Edinburgh-born Campbell (his birth surname was Middleton but it was changed when his mother, who had given birth to him illegitimately, was married) had been a member of the Renton side who won the Scottish Cup in 1888 before going on to be crowned ‘champions of the world’ after a 4-1 win against West Bromwich Albion in the first unofficial World Championship match.

The ‘Team of all the Talents’

Campbell moved to Sunderland along with Renton teammates John Harvey and David Hannah and would spend seven years with the Wearsiders and found the net 133 times in 186 games.

The title win gave the Black Cats a crack at the ‘World Championship’ which they duly took, beating Celtic over two legs.

Sunderland v Aston Villa 1895. This painting, by Thomas Hemy, now adorns the reception area at the Stadium of Light.

The following season saw another League win and a successful defence of the World crown with Queens Park the victims this time. After Aston Villa denied Sunderland a third successive title in the 1893-94 season with a six-point margin between the two, the Black Cats returned to the summit a season later and also saw off Hearts to win a third ‘World title’ (John Campbell’s fourth).

Throughout this period it was the Scottish angle that seemed to give Watson’s men the edge. Raids north of the border for top players happened every summer and saw the team regularly field eleven Scots with the money on offer in the Football League proved too much to resist.

The 1895-96 season saw Sunderland drop out of the top two for the first time since their debut campaign, finishing fifth. It also saw the departure of manager Watson who left to take over at Liverpool with John Campbell’s step-brother Robert taking over.

The 1897 ‘Olympic Games’ at Newcastle Road

After the popularity of the 1896 Olympic Games in Athens, Sunderland decided to stage their own version in 1897 with many of the events taking place at Newcastle Road where crowds flocked.

Although the ground had managed to accommodate 21,000 for an FA Cup game against Everton in 1891 it was decided in the mid-1890s that a larger home was needed, and also one where they would own the freehold. So the club bought farmland from a Mr Tennant. Part of the agreement was that the club would also build a house for the former owner and until this was completed they had to pay rent.

Newcastle Road staged its last Sunderland match on 23 April 1898, a 4-0 win over Nottingham Forest and the team finished runners-up that season to Sheffield United in the league, their best season under Robert Campbell.

The new stadium was built quickly with construction of the stands taking a mere three months. The turf was imported from Ireland and such was its quality that it didn’t need re-laying until the late 1920s.

The Marquess of Londonderry

Within a year of the original land purchase the club staged another ‘Olympics’ event and then a game between the first team and the reserves. They then played their first game, a 1-0 win over Liverpool on 10 September 1898 with Scottish striker Jim Leslie scoring the first-ever goal near full time. The opening ceremony was performed by Charles Vane-Tempest-Stewart, the 6th Marquess of Londonderry who turned a gold key in a locked gate leading onto the pitch.

Manager Campbell left in 1899 for Bristol,City and he was replaced at the helm by another Scot, Alex Mackie who came on board as player-manager. The team had enjoyed something of a yo-yo time during Campbell’s reign going from having to fight for the First Division place in the play-offs to finishing runners-up in 1897-98 behind Sheffield United.

New man Mackie brought Championship success to the new home in 1902  but in 1903 he received a suspension when the club were disciplined for ‘financial irregularities’. 1903 also saw the club banned from using Roker Park due to crowd disorder and forced to play ‘home’ games at the St James’ Park home of fierce local rivals Newcastle United.

The 1905-06 team

At the end of the 1904-05 season Mackie, moved on for a short spell at Middlesbrough before retiring from the game to become a publican. His replacement was Bob Kyle and the Northern Irishman would keep his position for 23 years overseeing the capture of another title in 1912-13 where they were fired by the goals of Charles Buchan.

Charles Buchan

Buchan would spend 14 years as a Sunderland player although this career was interrupted by World War One in which he was awarded a Military Medal. When he left for Arsenal in 1925 he had played almost 400 matches, scoring over 200 goals.

The Archibald Leitch lattice work

Meanwhile back in 1908 the club had finally bought the land Roker Park was built on and the original wooden Roker End was concreted over in 1912 with capacity at that time around 50,000.

The 1926-27 squad

Things remained pretty much the same at the ground until 1929 when the grandstand’s original wooden construction was torn down and replaced by a new Main Stand featuring the signature lattice work of famed architect Archibald Leitch. The work raised capacity again, this time to 60,000, but the cost almost forced the club into bankruptcy.

Forming an orderly queue

The financial woes were staved off and the 1930s brought a return to the good times. In 1933 a record crowd of 75,118 attended the FA Cup match with Derby County (not bad for a ground with an official capacity of 60,000!). By now the manager’s chair had been taken over Scot Johnny Cochrane and the Rokerites were led on the pitch by the brilliant Horatio (Raich) Carter,

Raich Carter receives the F. A. Cup from The Queen. ‘That’ll make a nice wedding present’ said Her Majesty on handing the trophy to Carter who had been married a few days before.

Sunderland took the First Division title in 1936 and then the Charity Shield at the start of the following season. The crowning moment came when, after falling  behind they got goals from Bobby Gurney, Eddie Burbanks and 23-year-old skipper Carter to see off Preston North End in 1937 F. A. Cup final to win the trophy for the first time.

Bomb damage

Like many others the stadium suffered bomb damage during World War Two but had recovered well enough that it was chosen as the venue for the 1950 Home International Championship match against Wales where goals by Eddie Baily (2), Jackie Milburn and Wilf Mannion saw an England team captained by Alf Ramsey run out 4-2 winners. This kept up England’s 100% record at the stadium following two victories over Ireland in 1899 and 1920.

There were also two FA Amateur Cup finals staged at the ground. The first of these was in 1926 and resulted in a 7-1 win for Manchester-based Northern Nomads over Stockton. Then in 1939 the local powerhouses of Bishop Auckland overcame another County Durham team, Willington, 3-0. This was the seventh of ten times Bishop Auckland won the trophy.

The Clown Prince

Johnny Cochrane had resigned as manager in March 1937, and his place was taken by fellow Scot Bill Murray. He held the post for 18 years but this proved to be a barren spell for the club when, despite the presence of stars of the magnitude of Len Shackleton and Trevor Ford, a pair of cup semi-finals and a 3rd-placed Division One finish in 1949-50 were the highlights.

Shackleton was a true star but is perhaps best-remembered for his book ‘The Clown Prince of Soccer’ including a chapter titled ‘What Directors Know About Football’ which was left blank.

The first-ever floodlit match at Roker Park, against Dundee

In 1952 the ground was fitted with temporary floodlights which were quickly made permanent with the first-ever match being a friendly against Dundee.

Murray’s replacement in August 1957 was Alan Brown, the first Englishman to take the helm at Roker for almost 60 years. And he had the dubious distinction of being the first manager to take the team down . The Black Cats finished level on points with both Newcastle United and Portsmouth but went down along with bottom club Sheffield Wednesday because of an inferior goal average to their two rivals.

World Cup action at Roker

It took Brown six years to get the club back in the top flight and when he did, it continued to be a struggle to stay there. Ian McColl took over for three years but Brown returned for a second stint and he again oversaw relegation although Charlie Hurley was earning a place in Sunderland folklore as a great leader.

Whilst playing performances left much to be desired, Roker was recognised as one of the leading grounds in the country. In 1966 extensive improvements, including seats in the Clock Stand, were carried out (with the help of grants and loans from the FA)  after which it was chosen to host four matches at the World Cup including the quarter-final between the Soviet Union and Hungary which the Soviets won 2-1.

The main entrance

Brown’s replacement (after a short caretaker spell for former playing star Billy Elliott) was former Newcastle player Bob Stokoe and it was he who brought the glory days back to the club.

The open-top bus parade after Sunderland’s 1973 F. A. Cup win

That glory came thanks to a shock 1973 FA Cup Final win over hot favourites Leeds United. Sunderland had seen off Notts County, Reading, Manchester City (all after replays), Luton Town and Arsenal to earn the right to face Don Revie’s Leeds juggernaut at Wembley.

Sunderland spent the majority of the match on the back foot but after securing the lead on 32 minutes with an Ian Porterfield strike they held their more favoured rivals at bay thanks in no small part to a string of superb saves by goalkeeper Jim Montgomery.

‘Keeper and Manager (having lost his hat) at full time.

The enduring image of the match as of manager Stokoe, wearing a trilby hat and with a raincoat covering his track suit, storming the pitch at full time to congratulate Montgomery and his other heroes.

Promotion back to the top flight was achieved in 1976 but Stokoe left and Sunderland went straight back down after which the managerial seat became a revolving door. Meanwhile, Roker, like many of the older stadia around the country, fell foul of the Taylor Report and the restrictions imposed. Capacity was reduced to 22,500 and it was clear then that the club would need to move if they wished to push attendances back up. So, in 1996 work began on the Stadium of Light.

Waddle salutes the Roker fans

The last league match to hear the famed ‘Roker Roar’ was a crucial relegation encounter in May 1997 where the ‘Black Cats’, inspired by Chris Waddle, ran out 3-0 winners over Everton to give them a chance of staying up. Sadly, defeat at Wimbledon the following weekend condemned the Black Cats to the drop.

For the final match at the stadium Liverpool, the initial visitors 99 years before, returned for a friendly. Sunderland repeated the scoreline from the first-ever game, beating the visitors 1-0, and Roker closed its gates for the last time.

Roker was well-known for that famous ‘Roar’ and for its intimidating atmosphere for visiting fans and players alike. Unsurprisingly, Sunderland have failed to replicate that on a regular basis at the Stadium of Light and have yet to build a fortress at their new home to compare to the one that served them for 99 years at their famous old ground.