Football: Sunderland stroll into the Light

Simon Turnbull attends the unveiling of a sparkling stadium in the North-east
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The Independent Online
With the exception of 1973, and the blinding flash of their dream- like FA Cup success, Sunderland spent the last four decades of their life at the late Roker Park as a football club fumbling in the shadows. It was with some irony, then, that the great underachievers of North-east football set up home last night in a new ground they have chosen to call the Sunderland Stadium of Light.

It should not be confused with the Lisbon Stadium of Light, though it would be no bad thing for Sunderland if the odd Continental leading light bound for a new career with Benfica ended up in Wearside by mistake.

Bob Murray, Sunderland's chairman, spoke of the pounds 15m new place "radiating like a beacon through the football world" as "a sporting cathedral in a city searching for international excellence". And such international excellence was in immediate evidence when the doors opened last night.

To the chagrin of the staggering 41,600 who filled every seat in the house, it was evident only in the ranks of the guests. It was just as well that Ajax turned up for the house warming party. Status Quo were on the guest list too. And they might have offered a reminder of Sunderland's status quo in the domestic, let alone international, scheme of things.

Having spent just pounds 3.8m of a supposed pounds 10m set aside to bring Peter Reid's squad closer to Premiership standard last season, they always seemed doomed to go spiralling "Down, Down".

The programme cover proclaimed: "The dream becomes reality". But the reality for followers of the red and whites is that Sunderland's standing has been far from dreamland for 42 years now. It is that long since they last finished in the top half of England's top division.

"Believe me," Murray said, "the new stadium will attract players to the club." Indeed it has.

But while the Evening Chronicle up the road on Tyneside was pondering whether Newcastle United would be making a bid for Alessandro del Piero the Sunderland Echo last night carried news of Jody Craddock's arrival from Cambridge United.

The pick of the players Sunderland have thus far lured to their Stadium of Light happens to be Lee Clark, who was a bench man at Newcastle even before Kenny Dalglish set about his personal recruitment drive at St James' Park.

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."

There was no doubting the brilliance of the new arena, even if the outside still had a building site look about it. In fact, a safety certificate was refused on Tuesday and only approved, on a temporary basis, after emergency work was completed by noon yesterday.

The most striking feature last night, though, was not so much Sunderland's sporting cathedral as the size of the congregation. Old Trafford is the only other club ground in England capable of accommodating more than the 41,600 in attendance. And blind faith is hardly an essential requirement for following the nation's champions.

Not that the blind faith of Sunderland's followers has been reciprocated by the club. Indeed, there has been much bad feeling caused by the decision to curtail a policy of free admittance to the blind. It was the prospect of local embarrassment, though, which prompted one call to BBC Radio Newcastle's phone-in show yesterday.

"We've had years of Newcastle fans calling our ground Joker Park," he said. "Now we've handed it to them on a plate. I'm sure they won't take long to come up with something which rhymes with light." And that something was not very polite either.