Sunderland AFC Team and Officials line up for the opening game at Roker Park
Back Row – left to right – J Peers (Linesman), J Cook (Groundsman), G Young (Linesman), CF De Pledge, WT Doxford (MP), Jas Henderson, Marquis Of Londonderry, JP Henderson (Chairman), C Christton, RT Murray, JJ Bently (League President), S Todd, G Childs, S Wilson
It was the Henderson Brothers, one of whom was the Sunderland AFC Chairman who recognised the need for a bigger ground. They negotiated farmland belonging to a Mr Tennant. The agreement was conditional on Sunderland agreeing that house could be built on part of the land that became Fulwell Road; also, until the houses were built SAFC had to pay the ground rent on all of the land. The Henderson’s agreed.
Roker Park was built within a year; the wooden stands within 3 months. The Clockstand as it would become known had 32 steps, no seats and crush barriers for safety. The turf for the pitch was brought from Ireland and was of such quality that it lasted for 37 years. There was a slight drop of about 1 foot from the centre to each side for drainage purposes.
At the football club’s annual general meeting at the end of the 1897/98 season it was reported that the Roker Park ground would officially open on 13 August with an “Olympic Games”. Following that the Reserves and First Team played games against each other on 16 August 1898 (2 games).
The financing of the ground had been made possible with the take-up of 1,700 shares in the club.
The Marquis of Londonderry officially opened the ground on 10 September 1898, the then President of Sunderland AFC, turning a gold key in a locked gate that led onto the playing field. He also had a pub named after him “The Londonderry” in the City Centre.
The Roker Park turf was imported from Ireland and was of such quality that it wasn’t relaid until 1927 at a cost of 3,000.
The opponents for The Black Cats on 10 September were Liverpool, the game kicked off at 3.30pm, we wore white tops and a goal by James Leslie, who had been signed from Clyde, gave Sunderland a winning start at their new home. The winning strike came just 6 minutes from time.
By June 1899 the ground was valued by Messrs W & TR Milburn at £7,000 although it is interesting to note that it was reported in 1902 that the club had no formal lease agreement for Roker Park. In 1903 we were barred from playing at Roker Park following crowd disorder in the match against Sheffield Wednesday and had to complete the season playing home games at St James Park.
This wasn’t the club’s first taste of crowd disorder. Since the formation of SAFC visiting clubs and officials had often protested about the partisan nature of the Sunderland crowd and in 1909 a Police Horse was stabbed at the Fulwell End after overcrowding led to fans spilling onto the pitch in a match against Newcastle United.
In 1908 Sunderland AFC bought the land. Fred Taylor or “Mr Sunderland” as we was often referred to, the chairman, along with Sir Theodore Doxford and other businessmen put up the money.
Initially the Main Stand was known as “the President’s Stand”.
In 1912 the Roker End was concreted and elevated following a design by Archibald Leitch, the pre-eminent stadium designer of the day, and through this by 1913 the capacity of the stadium rose to 50,000. Originally the Roker and Fulwell Ends were known as “North” and “South”. Indeed a 1924 plan of Roker Park still refers to them as such.
The 1912 improvement to the Roker End proved of significant value to the team who would train under the enclosure in poor weather.
In 1929 the old wooden grandstand was demolished and replaced by a new “Main Stand” holding 5,875 seats and 14,400 standing places. Archibald Leitch, whose influence can still be seen today at Ibrox Stadium, Glasgow, and many others, designed it. A section of the old lattice work can be seen in the main car park of the Stadium Of Light.
The 1929 improvements had been delayed, due to a lack of finance by 7 years and when they did come about the £25,000 cost nearly bankrupted the football club. At a meeting of the Directors in 1932 they decided to offer the ground for sale to the Sunderland Corporation for £40,000. The purchase was approved by the council but called off at the 11th hour after a change of heart by SAFC. Roker Park still remained a prized possession.
Whilst the official capacity of Roker Park was now 60,000 an incredible 75,118 was present to witness the FA Cup 6th round replay defeat by Derby County in March 1933.
The turf was relaid again in 1935 and building work continued at a relentless pace. In 1936 the Clock stand was rebuilt, the turf was relaid again and drains installed under the stands. The 375 feet long Clock Stand structure, able to hold 15,500 standing spectators, was officially opened by Lady Raine, whose husband Sir Walter Raine was the chairman, on 2 September, prior to the game against Derby County, a match won by Sunderland 3 v 2. Lady Raine was presented with a wristlet watch by the designer Archibald Leitch.
By this time Sunderland were announcing record season ticket sales of nearly £39,000.
During the war a policeman was killed just outside the ground; a bomb fell in the middle of the pitch. A similar devise fell in the car park, damaging the old clubhouse on the corner of Roker Baths Road. The Germans of course targeted Sunderland’s industrial workplaces, such as the mines and more importantly the shipyards on the River Wear.
In 1950 the Main Stand was given its “shelf” that was positioned in between the top seats and the paddock. In 1952 Sunderland installed floodlights at Roker Park (the second club to do so after Arsenal) and played there first midweek game under them in a friendly match against Dundee. A series of floodlit matches took place which raised nearly £16,000 in revenue for the club, enough to turn a potential loss into profit.
Due to the wear that the Roker Park pitch was now getting the club agreed to purchase land at Cleadon in 1959, which ultimately became The Charlie Hurley Centre and provided of course the impetus for the current Academy Of Light close to the Cleadon site.
As the 1966 world cup loomed, Sunderland AFC were chosen as a venue ahead of St James Park and received substantial grants and loans from the Football Association to both install permanent seats in the Clockstand and temporary ones in the Fulwell End. The famous Kop was also roofed over and the Roker Park suite was added.
The 1970’s witnessed even more improvements with the floodlights upgraded to European standard lux value. An underground sprinkler system was laid and proceeds from the 1973 FA Cup run (and win) enabled the club to install private boxes in the Main Stand. By the late ‘70’s electronic crowd monitoring systems and roofs were re-sheeted.
The 1980’s brought about a downturn in the clubs fortunes and in truth we began to see a parallel demise with Roker Park. The capacity was reduced considerably with the Roker End suffering the most.
By the 1990’s it was evident that another home was required. Roker Park, hemmed in on all sides gave no room for expansion. With football now moving at an incredible pace, both on and off the field we had to keep up.
Sunderland’s final league game at Roker Park was against Everton on 3 May 1997. The red and whites triumphed 3 v 0. The Northern Intermediate League Cup final was then played on Wednesday 7 May against Middlesbrough. Sunderland again triumphed, this time 2 v 1, with a late Paul Beavers winner.
However perhaps the ultimate irony was in our very last game at Roker Park, on Tuesday 13 May 1997 in which we triumphed 1 v 0 against Liverpool, the same score and the same opposition as the first match at the ground in 1898.
Who writes our script?
Sunderland played a total of 1.812 league games at Roker Park and remained unbeaten in a remarkable 1,445 of them.
Apart from the Roker End, partly demolished in 1982, the stands and ends remained largely intact from the time of Archibald Leitch’s construction of them, a tribute to his design skills.
Roker Park was the club’s 4rth home on the Monkwearmouth side of the River and all were roughly within a one-mile radius. It became synonymous with, and reeked of, history and passionate support.
The homes of Sunderland AFC tell a story of progress. It tells of a sporting institution moving from one side of its City to another, across a great River, The Wear. At its centre was Roker Park.
The heart beat of the ground was of course, The Roker Roar.