Football: Roker era goes out with a roar

Sunderland 39 Stewart 36, Waddle 57, Johnston 680 Everton 0 Attenda nce: 22,108
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The Independent Online
Roker roared for the last time, for the last time as a league ground at any rate. It seemed entirely fitting that one of its own should be responsible for ensuring that Sunderland's 99-year stay did not end with a whimper.

Chris Waddle was a Fulwell Ender two decades ago, the season Everton dumped his beloved red and whites into the old Second Division. Yesterday, his decisive contribution gave Sunderland a fighting chance of securing Premiership status before Liverpool make the trip to Wearside for Roker's official farewell match on Tuesday week.

Since his signing, as a 37-year-old veteran a month ago, Waddle has been involved in all seven goals Sunderland have scored. The three yesterday included his first, a free-kick which roared into the Fulwell End goal in the 57th minute, and his shrewd acquisition, at a cost of pounds 75,000, could yet prove the difference between visits by Bury or Manchester United to Sunderland's new home next season.

Sunderland's season would still end in relegation if they beat Wimbledon at Selhurst Park a week today and Middlesbrough win their last three matches. "We've just got to look to ourselves," Peter Reid said, not appreciating a reminder that he was the opposition manager when Sunderland were last relegated, on the final day of the 1990-91 season, at Maine Road.

Looking back, in the match programme, Bob Murray, the Sunderland chairman, referred to Roker's league departure as "the end of an era". The end of an error would seem closer to the mark, given the damning fact that Rokerites last cheered a team which finished in the top half of England's top division 42 years ago. With the exception of the FA Cup fairy-tale in 1973, Sunderland's glory days date back to the middle of the 1930s, when Raich Carter inspired them to the championship and the cup in successive seasons.

Relegation and promotion fights have long been the staple diet of the Sunderland supporter, whose resigned mood in the face of a possible seventh demotion in 39 years was reflected by the letter from Ian Laws, of Fulwell, in the Football Echo last week. "I have turned to prayer now in a effort to keep us up," he wrote. "It seems only divine intervention will be enough."

In the absence of a godly hand, one of Duncan Ferguson's sufficed after 35 minutes of subdued Sunderland play yesterday. Waddle played a short free-kick to Michael Gray and Ferguson handled as he rose to challenge for the left-wing cross which followed. Her Majesty's sometime guest of Barlinnie, having been nudged in the back, protested his innocence, but Keith Burge judged him guilty of intent and Paul Stewart buried the penalty.

Roker revelled in the relief, Lionel Perez having been required to perform last-line heroics to thwart Ferguson and Michael Branch. But the old place witnessed scenes of unbridled celebrations after half-time. First Waddle's left foot struck a 20-yard free-kick into the Fulwell net. Then his right delivered a left-wing cross that made Alan Johnston's headed finish a mere formality.

Johnston was known as "Magic" by the Tynecastle crowd in his days as a Heart of Midlothian player. Yesterday Roker was gratefully spellbound by the enduring wizardry of the man with the magic feet. Without Chris Waddle, Sunderland's season would have already been irredeemably tragic.