Remembering the uproar when Sunderland's ‘Stadium of Light’ name was announced
In the very early hours of Wednesday, July 30, 1997, the media assembled in the Sports Bar at Sunderland AFC’s new ground to hear club chairman Bob Murray announce the stadium’s name – a once-in-a-century event.
After a peculiar preamble about “ideas and inspirations from a wide range of sources” and how the name would “radiate like a beacon” came the big moment.
I was in the room and contributed to a polite round of applause; which was immediately followed by muttering.
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“Light” referred to the area’s pit heritage and miners’ lamps. Quarter-of-a-century later people are used to the name. But when it was announced it went down like a gravel sandwich.
To his credit, deputy chairman John Fickling went outside to discuss the matter with a clearly irate crowd. The moment was captured in the BBC documentary Premier Passions. Feelings ran high. Supporters were thrilled with the stadium, but bewildered by its name.
Mssrs Murray and Fickling were good people and genuinely loved the club. However, they seemed to have miscalculated and supporters’ resentment was still rumbling following relegation from the Premier League.
No one outside SAFC’s boardroom seemed enthused. Everyone had another preference and relegation had scuppered the idea of a sponsor’s name.
The Echo editorial of July 30 said: “Many fans will be disappointed that the location and the site’s historic past have not been reflected in the name. Wearmouth was the fans’ favourite in our own recent survey.”
The paper's letters page was completely unforgiving. Not one supportive letter arrived. Had one been received, it would have been published.
One letter writer opined: “Long-term quirkiness and eccentricity have now given way to full-blown delusional psychosis.”
Another correspondent said: “The name of the stadium is, quite frankly, embarrassing and does nothing to restore the pride of the supporters.”
Also: “The capacity of Sunderland FC’s directors to score own goals seems to know no bounds.”
Many such harshly worded letters arrived. Occasionally the writer’s anger took them completely overboard.
Not every letter received on the subject was printed. Of the 12 that were, 11 were against the name. The other correspondent said he didn’t care as long as the team was winning. Ultimately it was the single indifferent correspondent whose opinion prevailed.
In the short term, fans' anger became more pronounced when the 1997-98 season started badly. But the football improved rapidly and the team began to play some of the best stuff many Sunderland fans can remember.
The Reid-Phillips-Quinn era gathered apace and in 1999 the squad won their league with a record points total. Two seventh place Premier League finishes followed.
At any football club, if the team does well, perceived shortcomings are overlooked. The furore of the stadium’s name dissipated, along with some similar annoyance when the current club crest was unveiled some months earlier.
Twenty-five years on, outrage over the name “Stadium of Light” has gone. That said, no one seems to profess a deep love for it either. It’s just another fact of life.