LIBERATING FOOTBALL TRAVEL

Sunderland AFC

Heir to sporting fortune looks to relight SAFC

A fan’s guide – the club from early doors to today

Having sunk to a new low in 2020, Sunderland are now looking an heir to a sporting fortune to push the club back up the league pyramid. After play-off misery, including a bitter last-minute defeat in 2019, the Black Cats broke the spell to climb out of League One in 2022.

Barely in his twenties, Kyril Louis-Dreyfus learned his football watching Olympique Marseille, a club transformed post-Tapie by his father, Robert, the former CEO of adidas.  Swapping the Med for the North Sea, Louis-Dreyfus Jr previously learned first-hand how his father rebranded OM to the masses in Marseille. Now he needs to show the long-suffering Sunderland public that promotion can be achieved, not once but twice. 

Before his arrival, pre-Covid crowds at the Stadium of Light were 32,000, nearly twice those of the next team down. A third-tier club was rarely better supported, and these supporters were rarely more poorly served.

Stadium of Light/Darren Turner

Back in the late 1800s, the team that were the first non-founders to enter the Football League were one of the greatest to grace it. They were also the first to win the World Cup. In 1895, the three-time English champions, a passing team based on the Scottish model, beat Scottish champions Hearts, for the so-called ‘The Championship of the World’.

Strangely, this dominant Sunderland side never won the FA Cup, the team of 1913 denied the double by Aston Villa. In front of an estimated 122,000 crowd at Crystal Palace, a young Charlie Buchan, Sunderland’s all-time record scorer, failed to reach the target.

Born in Sunderland that year was Raich Carter, the other great name of the pre-war era. The youngest captain to lead his team to the title, in 1936, this elegant inside-forward scored in Sunderland’s first cup win a year later. His golden years, however, were lost to the war.

Sunderland also suffered a sharp post-war downturn in fortunes and finances.

Relegated in 1958, they were dragged back up by captain Charlie Hurley, later voted Sunderland’s ‘Player of the Century’. Classy defender Colin Todd made his debut as sub for the giant Irishman, in 1966.

In 1973, under Bob Stokoe, Sunderland were still a Second Division side when they pulled off a shock 1-0 win over Don Revie’s Leeds to lift the FA Cup. Ian Porterfield scored the only goal, but Jim Montgomery won the day thanks to a famous double save. On the final whistle, Stokoe dashed straight to his goalkeeper, arms outstretched, trilby somehow still in place as he tore across the Wembley turf. The man and the moment were immortalised in statue form decades later outside the Stadium of Light.

Sunderland have reached two major finals since but their main preoccupation has been top-flight accession or survival. They were even relegated from their debut season in the Premier League, the year they left Roker Park, 1997.

Installed at the new Stadium of Light in time for the new campaign, Sunderland were also rebuilt as a team under Peter Reid, though unable to secure the European football his efforts deserved.

SAFC Store/Colin Young

Under Reid, Kevin Phillips became Sunderland’s highest scorer in one season, establishing a record a young Brian Clough might have still held had his playing career not been cut short on the Roker turf in 1962-63. Reid’s Black Cats still needed two seasons to regain top-flight status, their first attempt stymied by one of the greatest play-off finals of all time. In a game of glaring misses and surprise substitutions, goalscorer Phillips was taken off with extra-time looming.  After a ding-dong 4-4 battle with Charlton, the Londoners won 7-6 on penalties.

Sunderland’s eventual return was crowned by the prolific Phillips, awarded Europe’s Golden Shoe for his 30 goals in 1999-2000, one of two consecutive seasons in which SAFC came close to a European place. The England international also finished Sunderland’s top scorer in 2002-03 – his six goals representing nearly a third of the club’s entire total during a dreadful campaign which set all kinds of negative records.

Stadium of Light/Colin Young

After another poor Premier League season in 2006, the Irish Drumaville Consortium, headed by old boy Niall Quinn, took over the club and appointed Roy Keane as manager. From New Year’s Day 1997 to mid-April, Sunderland went 17 league games unbeaten, rising from near bottom to win the Championship.

The arrival of new owner, Irish-American hedge-fund billionaire Ellis Short, found little favour with Keane, who had antagonised too many players as Sunderland struggled in the top flight. Former team-mate Steve Bruce stepped in, signing Darren Bent for a record fee. Bruce then took a bashing following a 5-1 horror defeat at Newcastle on Hallowe’en 2010. 

Promising locally born midfielder Jordan Henderson was named the club’s Young Player of the Year two seasons running – and was duly sold to Liverpool in June 2011.

A Love Supreme/Colin Young

With money in the bank, Short appointed boyhood Sunderland fan Martin O’Neill as manager. Spending big, on striker Steven Fletcher and Adam Johnson, O’Neill kept Sunderland mid-table.

Replacing him with controversial Italian disciplinarian Paulo Di Canio, though he saved Sunderland from the drop in 2013, was always going to backfire. Under Gus Poyet, Sunderland not only rallied but gave a brave if ultimately doomed performance in the 2014 League Cup Final against Manchester City.

2014-15 ended with temporary manager Dick Advocaat reduced to tears as he saluted Sunderland fans celebrating a relegation-saving draw at Arsenal. Sam Allardyce then had his work cut out to avoid the drop in 2015-16, crucial goals from Jermain Defoe keeping the Black Cats up. Not only had they stayed up, Sunderland had relegated Newcastle, and done so with a tight defence.

As former Sunderland defender Allardyce danced on the pitch in front of buoyant home fans, the FA prepared their move to hire him as England manager. As Short stewed and seemed to lose interest, he hired David Moyes. Allardyce, meanwhile, stayed in the England job for 67 days. Months later, Moyes was gone hours after relegation was confirmed, Sunderland also forced to sell England goalkeeper Jordan Pickford who had performed heroics at the 2018 World Cup.

Stadium of LIght/Colin Young

Could it get any worse? Inevitably, it did. And with cameras there to record every grim detail. A crew of Netflix documentary makers set up at the Stadium of Light in August 2017 to make Sunderland ‘Til I Die, an affectionate tale of a return to glory, as incoming manager Simon Grayson saw it. Instead, it was a compelling horror show of how not to run nor manage a football club. Grayson was gone after winning only three games, Chris Coleman fared little better. All made for great TV, the irony being that the film company was owned by Sunderland fans.

This second straight relegation also proved to be Short’s last sacking. He sold SAFC to Stewart Donald who, although reasonably experienced  overseeing a club in the Conference South, was out of his depth here – here not being Oxford, the club he had supported all his life.

Bringing in Scots manager Jack Ross, Donald managed to hold onto holding midfielder Lee Cattermole and Irish international Aiden McGeady in a desperate bid to leave League One for the first time of asking. Drawing ten games at the Stadium of Light, Sunderland let an automatic place slip away, but came through a brutal battle at Portsmouth to reach the play-off final. 

Awaiting them were Charlton, who seemed to have lost their magic power over the Black Cats when they conceded a strange early own goal. But the hoodoo came back in spades. With the game tied at 1-1 and seconds remaining of stoppage time, Charlton’s German defender Patrick Bauer bundled in the winner. 

SAFC Store/Colin Young

As Donald ramped up his search for a new investor, Ross’ replacement Phil Parkinson was just putting together an unbeaten run when lockdown struck. Sunderland’s easier run-in was made irrelevant by the season’s premature finish. Eighth place in the third tier signalled a new low.

Out went Donald, in came Kyril, scion of the super-rich Louis-Dreyfus dynasty tied up in shipping, sport and real estate. Barely in his twenties, this son of the former owner of Olympique Marseille initially oversaw a six-week unbeaten league run following his surprise takeover of Sunderland in February 2021. 

Then the play-off hoodoo struck again, and SAFC suffered defeat at the hands of once lowly Lincoln. With crowds again around 30,000 at the Stadium of Light in August 2021, automatic promotion was the aim – but, inevitably, the play-offs loomed. 

With feisty Scot Alex Neil in charge, Sunderland at last rose to the occasion, vital strikes from newly capped Scottish international Ross Stewart and former England youth cap Patrick Roberts allowing SAFC to overcome Sheffield Wednesday in a tight semi-final before a triumphant appearance at Wembley in front of 72,000. Having brushed Wycombe aside, Sunderland then had to seek a replacement for Stoke-bound Neil, Tony Mowbray the steady hand chosen to steer the club through the choppy waters of The Championship.

Ground Guide

The field of dreams – and the stands around it

Sunderland moved to the Stadium of Light in 1997, after 99 years at Roker Park.

But Roker Park was not where the great Sunderland side led three successful league campaigns of the 1890s. That was Newcastle Road, the club’s first real stadium, too modest by even late Victorian standards, as Sunderland brought in record crowds.

But Roker, with its roar and its Clock Stand, was the real stuff of Sunderland legend. Improvements came with the 1966 World Cup, though only the quarter-final here, a sorry farewell to a great Hungarian side, was well attended.

Post-Hillsborough, Roker Park was obviously unsuitable for modern-day use.

Built on the site of the old Wearmouth Colliery, the Stadium of Light is perhaps the most impressive of the dozens of new-build stadiums across Britain. With an original capacity of 42,000 increased to 48,000, and scope to expand by 20,000 if required, the arena is a worthy stage for top-flight football, and internationals. England thrice playing here over the last couple of decades.

Two stands, the North end and the main West, share an upper tier that runs around this corner quarter of the stadium. Away fans are allocated the upper tier behind the north goal, nearest the aquatic centre. You have to climb a fair few steps to get to your seat, but visiting fans more used to grounds of under-10,000 capacity in League One will quickly appreciate that this is five times bigger.

The sideline East Stand faces the executive boxes of the West opposite, while home fans gather behind the south goal and lower north one.

Other features include the statue of Bob Stokoe in iconic dashing celebration, and two monuments to mining, representing a Davy lamp and a pit wheel.

getting there

Going to the ground – tips and timings

Metro stations the Stadium of Light and St Peter’s both serve the stadium a short walk away. Away fans should use St Peter’s.

Note that after the game, metro trains only run north (towards Newcastle) from the Stadium of Light station and south (towards Sunderland) from St Peters.

Several buses also connect with Sunderland city centre. Frequent Stagecoach routes 3, 4, 12, 13 and 16 run from Fawcett Street by Sunderland station to the Wheatsheaf, by the pub of the same name, Southwick Road by the Colliery Tavern one stop along, then Southwick Road-Stadium nearest the away end, another stop up. Journey time over the river is 5-7mins. Go North East’s Cherry 35/35A run from Sunderland Interchange to the same stops every 30mins. 

It’s also straightforward 15-20min walk from the station, over the Wearmouth Bridge.

The sat nav code for the Stadium of Light is SR5 1SU. There’s little parking at the stadium and the streets nearby about are mostly given over to residents-only-zones. The Stadium of Light metro station (SR5 1JE) has its own car park (£1.20/car Mon-Sat up to 5pm, free after 5pm/all day Sun). 

There’s a free match-day Park & Ride service for home and away fans which operates out of Sunderland Enterprise Park, Wessington Way (SR5 3XG). Shuttle buses to the stadium run every 5mins from 90mins before kick-off. After the game, they set off from Kier Hardie Way north of the stadium at 5min intervals until everyone has been reunited with their vehicles.

getting in

Buying tickets – when, where, how and how much

The ticket office (usual opening hours Mon-Fri 9am-5pm, match-day Sat 10am-kick-off) is behind the East Stand by the Hilton Garden Inn hotel. When closed on non-match day weekends, the club store (Sat 9am-5pm, Sun 10am-4pm) behind the West Stand distributes  The ticket hotline (UK only 0371 911 1973) operates the same hours as the physical ticket office (see above). There are also online sales. With a capacity of 49,000 and average gates around 30,000, availability is rarely a problem.

Standard prices are £25 along the sidelines, £22 for over-65s and £10 for under-16s. Behind the goals it’s £23, £20 and £8. These rise slightly for the most attractive opposition, and there are nominal booking fees for ordering online or over the phone..

what to buy

Shirts, kits, merchandise and gifts

The SAFC Store (usual opening hours Mon-Sat 9am-5.30pm, Sun 10am-4pm) is by the main reception behind the West Stand. There’s another outlet (same opening hours) at the Galleries shopping centre in Washington, halfway between Sunderland and Gateshead. Away kit for 2021-22 is a Villarreal-like yellow and blue, with plenty of retro tops available, most notably ones with deep V collars of 1973 vintage, long- or short-sleeved, with trackie tops to match. 

For an unusual read, pick up a copy of Colin Grainger’s autobiography, The Singing Winger, the tale of the only man to have scored for England against Brazil and shared the bill with the Beatles as a performing artist. His international career was as brief as his one in pop music, but the Sunderland flankman made a tidy living in pubs and clubs.

stadium tours

Explore the ground inside and out

Regular tours (£10/£5, not matchdays) should be running again at some point in the 2021-22 season, providing a behind-the-scenes look at the Stadium of Light.

Where to Drink

Pre-match beers for fans and casual visitors

Those determined to push the boat out on match day, either before or after the game, should head for the waterfront around Roker Beach, perhaps even further up at Seaburn Beach. There, bar complex Stack Seaburn comprises a cluster of terraces warmed by umbrella heaters and fuelled by the drink of each outlet, Heineken, Hop House 13, The Gin Cabinet, and so on. Ideal with kids or if there’s a big group of you. 

Right on the beach itself, BAR88 provides more of a meditative experience over cocktails. Attached to the hotel of the same name, the Seaburn Inn combines beer, quality pub grub and sea air. You’re a good 30min walk from the stadium, so leave plenty of time before kick-off.

Overlooking Roker Beach, the contemporary Poetic License Bar specialises in small-batch gins, Roker Slings and craft beers from the local S43 Brewery

Closer to the stadium, the Harbour View behind Sunderland Marina, features live sport and regular live music, along with the watchwords ‘Set Sail for the Ale’ spelled out in neon. It’s about 15mins from the ground, along Roker Avenue. About halfway there, on Zetland Street, The Avenue has a beer garden alongside and framed photo of the Sunderland ’73 side inside. Away fans welcome.

Another five minutes’ walk towards the ground, The Wheatsheaf, popular pre-match with home and away fans, occupies its own round building at a major junction over the road from the stadium complex. There’s live entertainment most weekends if you stick around after the game. 

At the same junction, tucked away around Monk Street, Vaux is the taproom outlet of the revived Sunderland brewery of the same name. Open Fri-Sun only and occasionally midweek, it takes justifiable pride in producing quality brews and merchandise carrying the name of an ale enterprise synonymous with Sunderland from 1837 to 1999. 

Nearby down North Bridge Street, The Victory, is a major SAFC pre-match haunt with TV football.

In the other direction, at the roundabout opposite the ticket office, the Colliery Tavern is essential to the match-day experience, displaying photos of the ’73 team and the many title-winning sides from the second tier. A marquee copes with match-day demand on busier days. Although it’s a solid wall of red and white, away fans are welcome and usually congregate in a separate part of the bar, close enough for friendly banter. 

Just over the roundabout, the Karbon Grill steakhouse inside the Hilton Inn Garden hotel doubles up as a smarter pre-match bar for home and sensible away fans. 

Over the road, the Beacon of Light sets up as a fan zone at 12.30pm on a match-day, so that kids can play on the inflatables and do battle on the 4C football pitches, with actual coaches laid on to provide a little tactical nous. It’s all free and there’s a bar for Mums and Dads. Open to home and away fans. 

On the same side of the ground at the opposite corner, the Roker End Cafe occupies the same building as the long-established SAFC fanzine A Love Supreme and provides themed breakfasts (‘The Full Mackem’, ‘The Veggie Mackem’), pies, burgers, quality coffee and soft drinks from mid-morning until kick-off time, as well as daytimes Mon-Sat. 

At the stadium, themed Quinn’s Sports Bar pays homage to former chairman Niall, who would rub shoulders with fans after the match. Today it’s used for hospitality packages for home fans only.

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