"Nothing I have ever heard equalled the intensity of that wild roar" - Danny Blanchflower
For almost a century, Roker Park was home to Sunderland Association Football Club. A buoyant footballing fireside situated in a housing estate, the famous ground was the pulsating heart of an industrious community.
Opened on 10 September, 1898, the stadium was constructed to house the rapidly swelling brotherhood of the 19th century ‘Team of all talents’ - a phrase coined by the founder of the English Football League, William McGregor.
McGregor’s quote was fitting; Sunderland - with freescoring Johnny Campbell the figurehead of an outstanding team - were a potent force in English football in the 1890’s, contesting dominance of the league with Aston Villa for the decade.
During this period, The Groves Field in Ashbrook, Horatio Street in Roker, The Abbs Field in Fulwell and Newcastle Road in Sunderland had been home to the club before Roker Park became the long term venue of choice.
With matchday attendances continuing to increase in the years prior to The Great War, Roker Park was redeveloped significantly in 1913 under the guidance of Archibald Leitch, the UK’s most renowned stadium architect. Contracting Leitch was not cheap, and despite raising the capacity to 50,000, the costs of redevelopment work almost bankrupt the club.
A financial collapse was not the only issue to confront the stadium during its life. In 1943 a Luftwaffe raid on the Wearside shipyards, a vital artery in Britain’s war effort, saw an errant bomb detonate on impact with the hallowed turf at Roker. The resultant explosion destroyed a corner of the ground and killed a patrolling police constable.
In the years following the war Roker Park remained one of the most abundantly attended sporting venues in the UK, with audiences regularly topping 50 or 60k. The high figures were often at odds with the team’s performances, but were never in advance of the tightly packed 75,118 which witnessed an FA Cup sixth round replay against Derby County in 1933.
The recommendations of the Taylor Report in 1990 sounded a death knell for a proud ground now dowdy and downtrodden. With redevelopment prohibitively expensive and redesign ambitions curtailed by location, a choice was made by then chairman Bob Murray to move. In May 1997, Sunderland played a lachrymose final match at Roker Park (a 3-0 victory over Everton) before decamping to the newly erected Stadium of Light at Monkwearmouth.
As part of the exquisite Homesick project, artist Steve Welsh has chosen Roker Park as the subject of his latest topographic tour de force.
Homesick is a series of geographical portraits of iconic football grounds that, due to club relocation, have been confined to history. The first two entries in the series, featuring Arsenal’s Highbury and Manchester City’s Maine Road, have proved hugely popular and I fully expect Steve’s latest work to receive further, and entirely justified, adulation. This a marvellous idea, delightfully executed.
Steve’s use of a vivid red against a white background is not only a reflection of Sunderland’s celebrated plumage, but also a perfect representation of the area featured. As a kid, I can recall being struck by the red of the houses in the streets that surrounded Roker Park; the cloaking white fret that often rolled in from the North Sea made the brickwork appear more scarlet than other buildings in the region. It was entirely appropriate and, to a young football fan, looked most intentional. This was clearly a red and white town.
Roker Park is now extinct and a famous piece of football’s divine fabric has departed, but it is as synonymous with Sunderland as Charlie Hurley, Raich Carter and Jim Montgomery. If Sunderland is your passion, Steve’s arcadian artwork preserves the honour of a hubristic abode and is available to buy at Society 6, alongside Steve's other work.