Conor O’Hehir • Tom Lee
Twenty years ago today Sunderland AFC welcomed Morten Olsen’s Ajax to the Stadium of Light for the inaugural game in their new stadium.
Some 41,600 fans attended the friendly match at the stadium which, at the time, could hold more supporters than any other ground in England with the exception of Old Trafford. It marked a new era for the Black Cats and a wave of optimism hung in the air. And it proved to be quickly rewarded. In 1999 Sunderland returned to the Premier League as First Division champions with a then-record 105 points.
As Reid duly acknowledged: "It's not good enough just to have a brilliant new stadium. You have to have the good football to go with it."
His swashbuckling side would go on to finish seventh upon their return to the top flight with striker Kevin Phillips scoring 37 goals and winning the European Golden Shoe – the only Englishman still to achieve the feat.
Sadly that was as good as got for Sunderland fans and while they have not plummeted to the depths that some of other illustrious clubs have, they have become a metaphor for the yoyo club.
I have fond memories of Roker Park. I grew up in the city and my grandfather remembered watching Sunderland win the league there in 1937.
Whilst I grew up a City fan Sunderland spent the majority of my childhood well above my beloved blues.
New regulations around all seater stadiums meant Sunderland had little option but to move. Roker Park was enclosed by residential streets as were most grounds built in the late 1800s or early 20th century, meaning expansion would be all but impossible.
After initially trying to build on a site on the outskirts of the city near the Nissan car plant they settled on the current site of the stadium near the city centre on the former Wearmouth Colliery site.
Contrary to popular myth that the stadium gained its name from its namesake in Lisbon it was, in fact, a reference to the town’s mining heritage and you can still find, by way of reference, a Davy lamp located in front of the stadium's ticket office.
Built by the same firm that constructed Ajax’s Amsterdam Arena in1996, the Stadium of Light set the benchmark for modern football grounds in the UK with Southampton copying the design for St Mary’s a few years later.
The last time we had Friday night football at the SoL - get the banks of the River Wear ready!
Stadiums that followed like The Etihad, The Emirates and the new Wembley all have their roots in what was constructed on the banks of the Wear 20 years ago.
It’s always hard for fans to leave a ground behind and Roker Park was no different. I would still maintain that Maine Road had a far better atmosphere than anything I’ve seen at The Etihad. Yet the same cannot be said in Sunderland where on its day it can be one of the most fearsome grounds for opposing teams to visit.
In the aforementioned Peter Reid era, the intimidating cacophony of Prokofiev’s Dance of the Knights ,which would welcome the teams to the field, could be heard all over the city (before it was eventually turned down due to laws over decibel levels in public places).
While that fear that visiting teams possessed has dissipated in recent years it would be great for the city and the fans if Sunderland could rebuild this year and get back on their way to being what they are – a huge club with some of the most loyal fans in the country. Here’s to the next 20 years and more at the Stadium of Light and hopefully a bit more success.