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. It was also home to some legendary players with the likes of Charles Buchan, Raich Carter and Len Shackleton having plied their trade there whilst in more recent times it has seen the mighty Charlie Hurley lead the Rokerites out and was home to the shock 1973 F. A. Cup winners
Having hosted a World Cup quarter-final, three England internationals, an FA Cup semi-final replay and two FA Amateur Cup Finals, the Stadium finally closed in 1997, a victim of the ‘Taylor Report’ after serving as home of the Black Cats for 99 years.
An early line up
Founded in 1879 as Sunderland and District Teachers Association Football Club and led by James Allen, the club had numerous grounds in their early days including original home Blue House Field, The Grove, Horatio Street and Abbs Field before settling at Newcastle Road in time for their League debut in 1890 by which time they had evolved into Sunderland F. C.
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 the three men mentioned above clearly played a major role in elevating Sunderland, most of the credit for the early success should be laid squarely at the feet of Tom Watson.
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 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.
‘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 finished a decent 7th in their first campaign despite having two points deducted for fielding new goalkeeper John Doig in the season’s third game, a 4-0 win at West Bromwich Albion.
Doig had signed to play for Blackburn Rovers during the previous season but he had a disagreement with the Ewood Park club and went back to Scotland after a short time. 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 (known as Ned rather than by his given name) 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
It was while playing at Newcastle Road that Sunderland won three First Division titles in four years, finishing runners-up in the other season and earning the label ‘The Team of all the Talents’ from Football League founder William McGregor. The team was led at one end of the pitch by Doig and at the other by prolific goalscorer John Campbell whose step brother Robert would eventually take over from Watson as manager when the latter left to join Liverpool.
The ‘Team of all the Talents’
Having been part of the Renton team that won the Scottish Cup and then took the unofficial ‘World Championship’ in 1888, John Campbell moved to Sunderland along with former Renton teammates John Harvey and David Hannah. He spent seven years with the Wearsiders and found the net 133 times in 186 games.
Sunderland v Aston Villa 1895. This painting, by Thomas Hemy, now adorns the reception area at the Stadium of Light.
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 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 lasted just one term at the new home with the team finishing a disappointing 15th and forced to play in the end-of-season ‘test matches’ to retain their top-flight status. In 1899 he was replaced by fellow Scot Alex Mackie came on board as player-manager.
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 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.
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.
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 GREAT HORATIO
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 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.
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 England, 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’ which included 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.
THE WORLD CUP
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 iFA) 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 an only major 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 since when 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 Sunderland 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’ 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.