End of an era: From red-card protest to the Stadium of Light

Bob Murray (right) and David Watson of Ballast Wiltshire pic on the site of what was to become the  Stadium of Light.

Bob Murray (right) and David Watson of Ballast Wiltshire pic on the site of what was to become the Stadium of Light.

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WHEN I met Bob Murray for the first time as the Echo’s new Sunderland writer, it turned out to be an exchange which neither of us particularly anticipated.

It’s fair to say that the chairman was a hate figure at the time with many Sunderland fans.

I had seen it first-hand, standing on the terraces of the Fulwell End as a news reporter the day the red card protest against him was held in 1995.

I had witnessed the demonstrations by fans fearful for the club’s future outside his boardroom.

And I know that so implacable was the hatred of some supporters at the time, they’ll probably go to their graves despising him.

But when I met him for the first time, he did not match the image of the embattled, self-doubting, potentially paranoid character I suspected he might be.

Bob spoke in that polite, trademark monotone whisper, but behind that voice there was a confidence, buoyancy and optimism that surprised me.

I asked him why that was.

How he could be so positive when everyone felt so negative and he said: “It’s because I know more than they do. I can see what is coming.

“I can see the fantastic new stadium that is going to be built for them, I can see the Academy we’re going to create for the club, the money that will be raised, the way the club will be reborn.

“It’s the most exciting time and there are so many big stories that you’ll be covering over the next few years Graeme that you’ll be on a national newspaper in no time.”

Then it was my turn to surprise him. I didn’t want to be on a national, I told him.

I’d just got the Argus job at the Echo – leaving in a season or two would have been a bit like the Doctor leaving after one series!

I would have felt I’d let down the tradition of those previous writers who devoted half a professional lifetime to covering Sunderland for the paper.

Most football writers evaluate their worth by the size of the games they cover and are naturally keen to cover as big as games as possible – broadcasters Guy Mowbray and former Echo columnist Tim Rich are just two examples of the brilliant seam of talent that passed through the North East on their way to the very top, both covering the World Cup in Brazil this summer.

But I wasn’t like that.

While most football writers would have wanted to be at Liverpool v Manchester United or Arsenal v Chelsea, I would have always have preferred to be at Sunderland v Whoever – even if it was Crewe, Colchester or Cheltenham.

I’ve had chances to move onwards and “upwards” from the Echo over the years, but I never took them.

And I can honestly say I never regretted those decisions.

Chairman Bob was right about the exciting future though.

The Stadium of Light and the Academy of Light utterly transformed the image and quality of the club and they are likely to ensure that history at least remembers him more kindly than some fans will.

The only problem was that Bob was never able to generate the sort of funds that his successors, Drumaville and Ellis Short, were able to.

If I had one sadness about the way Sunderland developed in my time covering it, it was that the successful progress under Peter Reid did not dovetail with the huge investment that was to follow years later.

Twice he had Sunderland flying high at Christmas before the wheels began to fall off a small and over-heating squad of players and they subsided to seventh place by May.

Had Reid been able to spend big in those January transfer windows, it’s just possible the club might have taken the next step forwards that fans still crave today.