‘It was a completely new phenomenon’ - Sunderland AFC fans recall 20 years at the Stadium of Light

Sunderland fans gathered for a special photograph to mark 20 years since the Stadium of Light opened.
Sunderland fans gathered for a special photograph to mark 20 years since the Stadium of Light opened.
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Here’s to the next 20!

Sunderland fans have been celebrating two decades at the Stadium of Light ahead of this weekend’s anniversary game against Celtic, almost exactly 20 years to the day since Peter Reid’s team hosted Ajax.

George Forster, chairman of Sunderland AFC Supporters' Association.

George Forster, chairman of Sunderland AFC Supporters' Association.

The Black Cats left Roker Park after 99 years in May 1997, starting the next season in August that year at their current home.

The capacity at the ground was then 42,000 before the stadium was extended so that it could fit in just under 48,000.

SAFC’s time at the stadium has been eventful to say the least, with three promotions and three relegations between the Championship and the Premier League.

The ground has also hosted three England matches, with the Three Lions winning all matches there.

England fans at the Stadium of Light for the England V Australia game.

England fans at the Stadium of Light for the England V Australia game.

Ahead of the game, hundreds of Sunderland fans gathered on the stadium pitch dressed in their red and white stripes to create a SoL20 logo in human form.

The supporters were joined by former SAFC captain Kevin Ball, who said: “It’s great to be able to commemorate this milestone with our supporters, who are the lifeblood of the club.

“It doesn’t seem like 20 years if I’m being honest, I can remember the opening game like it was yesterday and the pride I felt in leading the team out in such an amazing stadium.”

We spoke to fans for their memories of the club moving grounds back in 1997.

Veteran supporter George Forster, of Sunderland Supporters’ Association, said: “At first I was against leaving Roker Park because I thought it should be redeveloped.

“There was an idea that the new ground could be at Nissan and that wasn’t something I was keen on either.

“But really it’s worked out very well and I changed my mind on the whole thing.

“The ground is in the right place and in the first few years when we were getting more than 40,000 fans in regularly that showed it had worked.

“It’s a great stadium and the facilities around it are very good too.

“We’ve got a lot to thank (former chairman) Bob Murray for what he did in sorting things in the first place.

“It’s just a shame at times that we haven’t had the team to match the place they play in.”

Asked what games have been most memorable since the club moved to the Stadium of Light, George added: “Beating Chelsea 4-1 is one I remember well as well as the derby wins against Newcastle particularly in the last few years.”

Paul Dobson, joint editor at SAFC fanzine A Love Supreme, said: “We obviously needed to move grounds because sadly, Roker Park was dying a slow and painful death and we could’ve ended up with lower crowds.

“But I remember going after home games at Roker when they were building the stadium to see how it was coming along.

“When it was finished and I walked in to find my seat for the first time, the hairs stood up on the back of my neck. It was just a completely new phenomenon.

“It’s a shame that the quality of the team hasn’t matched the quality of the stadium at times but if we look back to 1999 when we got promoted with a record number of points, beating teams by four or five every other week it felt like, they were special.

“Carlos Edwards’ goal against Burnley to take us up under Roy Keane in 2007 is one I remember well too.

“Let’s just hope now we can get a team which will take us back up as soon as possible.”