Football: Roker getting ready for its final roar

In the third article of a series on clubs moving to new grounds, Simon Turnbull looks back over Sunderland's 99 years in a stadium they leave in May
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The Independent Online
Long after the bulldozers have knocked down the last brick and turnstile of Sunderland's sadly condemned home, the night Roker roared its loudest will live on in the hearts of those who were there to behold it. "The night of nights," Bob Stokoe calls it. "Of all the memories of 1973, that's the one I cherish, even more than the semi-final, or the final...I can still picture Vic Halom's goal."

So can the other 51,782 of us who saw it: a first-time drive from the right-angle of the Fulwell End box that flew past Joe Corrigan and cracked in off the far post. You had to blink before realising it was not a dream.

Sunderland were 1-0 up against Manchester City - Bell, Marsh, Lee and Co - and heading for the quarter-finals of the FA Cup. This was the same Sunderland, with only four exceptions, that less than 10,000 of us had seen open the previous season against Birmingham at Roker Park; the same Sunderland, virtually, that were fourth from bottom of the Second Division when Stokoe arrived from Blackpool to replace Alan Brown as manager in November 1972.

In his first programme notes Stokoe claimed: "I am no miracle worker." Less than three months later, on the night of Tuesday 27 February, we long-suffering Rokerites began to suspect otherwise. Manchester City were not just beaten 3-1 in that FA Cup fifth-round replay, they were outclassed.

Roker Park had not witnessed such a stirring home performance since the March night in 1964 when the ground drew its biggest crowd - an estimated 70,000 inside, after the Roker End gate collapsed, and some 50,000 outside. Manchester United needed a Bobby Charlton goal with two minutes of extra- time remaining to deny Brown's Second Division team an FA Cup semi-final place.

Sunderland, the one-time "team of all the talents", had won nothing since 1937. By tea time on 5 May, 1973, Stokoe's Sunderdogs had seen off three of the pedigree sides of that era - Manchester City, Arsenal and Leeds United. The miracle had been performed: Sunderland and their managerial messiah were running round Wembley with the Cup.

The football world beyond Wearside will long remember the final... Ian Porterfield's goal... Jimmy Montgomery's double save... and Sunderland's trilby-topped manager galloping on at the final whistle. But Stokoe's favourite chapter in the fairytale he inspired will always be one of the fondest of memories Roker Park will leave behind when the demolition squad moves in after Everton's visit on 4 May.

"I've never seen a team performance like the Manchester City replay," he said, "and I've never known an atmosphere like it. To have 51,000 people there just three months after we were getting 11,000 gates... I don't know whether it would have happened at St James' Park."

Stokoe, who spent his best playing days at Newcastle, lives in retirement now, at 66, in his native Northumberland. He will not be alone in treasuring the memorable night Roker beheld the vision of a trophy-winning team: of Porterfield, Bobby Kerr and Micky Horswill holding sway in midfield, and of Halom, Billy Hughes and Dennis Tueart running the City defence ragged.

The thing is - 1973 apart - Roker Park has witnessed more than 30 years of hurt. You have to delve back for 41 of its 99 years to find the last team that finished in the top half of England's top division. Even then, with Len Shackleton performing his princely clowning antics, Sunderland were struggling to recapture their past glories.

Part of Roker Park's enduring charm is that, with the exceptions of the Fulwell End roof and the near-total demolition of the Roker End terrace which seemed to reach for the sky at the opposite end, it remains much the same as it was when Sunderland were last champions of England. And that was before even the ultimate Roker attack: the old club offices were destroyed in a 1943 air raid.

When Alex Hastings raised aloft the championship trophy in 1936, the main stand behind him bore the same criss-cross balcony visible today, the trademark the grand football ground designer Archibald Leitch also left at Goodison and Ibrox.

Horatio Stratton "Raich" Carter, the hero of that team, was Sunderland's captain when they won the FA Cup for the first time the following year. In his youth Carter clung to the Roker End railings watching another of England's all-time great inside-forwards, Charlie Buchan, in the Sunderland side that came within a 1-0 Cup final defeat (against Aston Villa) of claiming historic spurs as the century's first double-winners.

Roker Park will not see the likes of Carter or Buchan again. Nineteen months short of its centenary, its time is just about up.

"I'll be sad," Bob Stokoe said. "But I suppose in one way I'll go into the history books with it - as the last manager to take the Cup there. It'll be a little bit of history to remember."

And those of us who roared at Roker could never thank you enough for the memories, Bob.

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