The stabbing pain of relegation; No 217 Sunderland; Martyn McFadden

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The Independent Online
In the last season in which Sunderland graced the turf of Roker Park, it is typical that we go into the final game uncertain of our Premiership safety. In spite of the late flurry of transfers, Peter Reid's attempts to treat a broken leg with a Band-Aid might prove too little too late.

One point at Wimbledon tomorrow might mean the difference between success and failure. Although we hold our fate in our own hands to a certain degree, our future hinges on a number of variables. One bad decision from a referee, one dodgy offside, a penalty not given, or a missed tackle could mean the difference between playing Manchester United or Bury at our new ground next season.

Whatever the outcome, the farewell to Roker against a Liverpool XI next Tuesday will be a heartfelt occasion.

I first visited Roker Park on 24 October, 1970, at the age of three. We played Oxford in front of 16,376 and lost 1-0. I stood in the Fulwell End with my mam and dad under the floodlight, Main Stand side. It was actually a clever move by my dad to take me there at such a young age, because by the time I went to school, in Newcastle, I knew Sunderland were my team. I remember him asking me before my first day at school: 'If anyone asks you which team you support, what do you say?" I knew the answer all right.

There was one other Sunderland fan at Archibald First School in Gosforth. We joined forces to battle the enemy. Gordon Armstrong became my best mate and would play for Sunderland 349 times.

At the start of the 1973-74 season we moved from the Fulwell End to the back row of the Clock Stand. I remember thinking that the Clock Stand was posh because it had its own half-time scoreboard, oddly positioned into the side wall as you could not see the main scoreboard in the corner of the Roker End from those seats.

During this period we were one of the top teams in the then Second Division. We had, famously, won the FA Cup and our next aim was to gain promotion. We eventually achieved our goal on 24 April 1976. We were at home to Bolton Wanderers and 51,983 expectant Sunderland fans were packed inside Roker. In those days, the Roker End held more than the entire stadium does today. A young Reid played for Bolton that day and he made no difference whatsoever. Towers and Robson scored the goals. It was the happiest day of my life. I was eight.

The 1976-77 season was my first watching Sunderland in the top flight, and my old man's insistence that we hadn't strengthened our squad sufficiently was not going to dampen my enthusiasm. However, it was soon obvious that we were going to struggle. Bob Stokoe resigned and Jimmy Adamson took over. He gave youth its chance by playing Rowell, Arnott and Elliot, and for a while it looked like that we might achieve the impossible and stay up. In an echo of tomorrow's match, it all hinged on our last game of the season, away to Everton.

My dad picked me up from school that day at lunchtime, told the teacher I had a dentist's appointment and we hit the road for Goodison.

The game itself was a nightmare and we lost 2-0. Some Everton fan threw a dart at me and it landed in my knee. I though I was going to die, but I pulled it out, and although it hurt, it was nothing compared with the pain I endured watching my first relegation.

After you've tasted such failure, it is becomes a test of character, of your loyalty to the cause.

Throughout my time watching Sunderland, history has repeated itself over and over again. We develop a team capable of getting into football's top tier, then fail to invest in strengthening it. This season has proved no different. Which brings us back to tomorrow's fight for survival.

We face Wimbledon not knowing which division we will be playing in next season. Our special game at Roker will be emotional enough, but the threat of relegation will make tomorrow's situation almost too much to bear.

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