Twenty years ago today, Sunderland played their final game at Roker Park. Chief Sports Writer, Scott Wilson, spoke to the club’s former chairman, Sir Bob Murray, about his memories of the ground, and his decision to relocate to the Stadium of Light

SIR BOB MURRAY can still vividly remember his first visit to Roker Park. It was 1954, he was eight years old, and he left not having a clue what the result was.

“We were playing Wolves,” said Murray, whose chairmanship of Sunderland spanned two decades from 1986. “Wolves were the best team in the country at the time, the reigning champions, and I remember my dad telling me to watch Billy Wright.

“There was no segregation of home and away fans in those days, and I remember feeling like the whole stadium was shaking when the Roker Roar went up.

“It finished 0-0, but because the crowd was so excited and passionate, I assumed there had been lots of goals. I went away thinking Sunderland must have won, and my dad never put me right.

The Northern Echo:

BOYHOOD MEMORIES: Sir Bob Murray watched Sunderland at Roker Park with his dad

“I have so many happy memories of going with my dad to those games. It was always a really important part of our lives. I sometimes look back though, and wonder what my dad would have said if someone had turned to him in the Clock Stand and said, ‘See that lad there – one day he’s going to knock all of this down’.

That moment came 20 years ago today when Sunderland played their final game at Roker Park. The match was relatively insignificant, a 1-0 victory over Liverpool in a post-season friendly, but the occasion could hardly have been imbued with any more emotion.

Roker Park had been built in 1898, and opened by the Marquis of Londonderry, the then president of the club, who turned a gold key in a ceremonial lock that led onto the playing field. Almost a century later, and Murray was locking the gates for good and calling in the bulldozers.

“Was it an easy decision? No,” said Murray. “But was it the right one? Yes. It was something I knew, deep down, had to be done from the moment I took over the club.

“Roker Park was a great old stadium, but it was becoming archaic. The infrastructure of the whole club was. Football was changing, you’d had the start of the Premier League and the introduction of the new television deal, but Sunderland hadn’t changed with it.

“I remember in our first season in the Premier League, the players were preparing for a game against Manchester United. They’d get changed in the dressing rooms at Roker, then get into their own cars to drive down to the training ground at Cleadon. Then a couple of hours later, you’d see them drive back in and shake the mud out of the cars that was still on their boots.

“That first season in the Premier League, the capacity at Roker was capped at 22,000 because of the safety regulations. Other clubs were growing and bringing in increased revenue, but we were basically stuck at that limit. It was obvious something had to change.”

That something was the construction of the Stadium of Light, but Sunderland’s move would not have come about had Murray not been able to exploit a new revenue stream that was created in December 1996.

With the initial cost of the Stadium of Light having been set at £15m, Murray turned to the stock market for capital. Sunderland were one of the first football clubs to float on the Stock Exchange, and the move raised £12m of new money, which was completely ring-fenced for the construction of the club’s new home.

Murray’s controlling interest reduced by around 30 per cent, but while other football club owners were to make huge profits from the public flotation of their assets, Sunderland’s chairman did not sell any of his own shares and committed more than £1m of his own money to the Stadium of Light building project.

“I was adamant that the football club would not be harmed,” said Murray. “If we were going to build a new ground, we were going to do it in such a way that it didn’t saddle the club with debts that would last long into the future.

The Northern Echo:

HOME TURF: Sir Bob Murray committed more than £1m of his own money to the building of the Stadium of Light

“Clubs were just starting to get involved with the stock market, and we saw that as the ideal way to raise a significant sum of money without it impacting on the day-to-day running of the club. I had to take a big hit with my shareholding, but that was a sacrifice I was happy to make if it meant we could have a brand-new stadium fit for a club in the Premier League.”

Having consulted extensively with Steve Gibson, who had just overseen the construction of the Riverside – “Steve’s one of the best guys I met in all my time in football, and I’m proud I can still call him a close friend” – Murray appointed Ballast Wiltshier as the lead contractors.

The company had just completed the construction of Ajax’s Amsterdam Arena, and their plans for the Stadium of Light immediately met with Murray’s approval.

“We looked at a number of companies and a number of different designs, but I went over to Ajax a few times and was really impressed with the stadium that had been built over there,” he said.

“We settled on the Stadium of Light name at a fairly early stage, and when the stadium was built, we future-proofed it by putting in the foundations to take it to more than 65,000. I still hope, one day, those seats will be needed.”

The stadium was opened on July 30, 1997, as Sunderland played a pre-season friendly against Ajax, but the day did not pass off without some teething issues.

“I remember walking into the stand with a massive smile on my face, but someone was sitting in my seat,” laughed Murray. “The game was kicking off, and I couldn’t sit down!

“They’d got all the rows out by one. It was just one of those things, but as I waited to get sorted, it meant I could look around and see the stadium, full of people and with an atmosphere of its own. Straight away, I just thought, ‘This is going to work’.”

The Stadium of Light has subsequently staged England internationals as well as sold-out concerts, and Murray is justifiably proud of his role in its creation. Even now, though, he still regards Roker Park as Sunderland’s spiritual home.

“That’ll never change,” he said. “If you’re part of my generation, you’ll always have an emotional attachment to Roker Park. But time moves on, and there’s a new generation of supporters now who have always known the Stadium of Light as home.

“I’ll always miss Roker, although I bought a third of the pitch at the auction and it’s still there now, outside my home in North Yorkshire. Actually, and I probably shouldn’t say this, it looks better now than it did when we were playing on it!”

Murray stood down as chairman in 2006, although he remains heavily involved in Sunderland’s charitable foundation, which will soon be opening the Beacon of Light, a multi-million pound education and sports facility situated next to the Stadium of Light.

He doesn’t attend every home game anymore, but will be back on Wearside this afternoon for Sunderland’s final home fixture of the season against Swansea.

“I’m still a fan, still going through all the highs and lows that go along with that,” he said. “I was obviously sad to see us get relegated, but I’m sure we’ll be back.

“I’m just pleased to have been able to play my part in the history of this great football club. Yes, we made mistakes, and we were rightly criticised for some of those at the time. But I can honestly say with my hand on my heart, that every decision we made, every penny we spend, was with the interests of the club at heart.

“Whatever we did, the club was always sacrosanct. It was an honour to be chairman, an honour to be able to represent those glorious fans. I was very lucky, and I wouldn’t have changed a minute of it.”


What was the best match you attended at Roker Park?

Manchester United in the 63-64 season. It was an FA Cup replay – I’ll never forget it.

What was the worst?

It was against Sheffield United at home – Lawrie McMenemy’s last game. It was the 86-87 season, and I think the reason the hatred was so intense was that people were willing Sheffield on just to get McMenemy out. We lost 2-1, and the crowd was about 8,500.

What did you like most about Roker Park?

The people that filled it. The North-East is a special place, and I have always been proud of my roots. Whenever I’m away, I know I’ll always feel home when I come back, and people in the North-East have always been so good to me.

What did you dislike about Roker?

The general failure of the club at that time. It had basically been going backwards in the previous 40 years and the ground and infrastructure was neglected through a lack of investment.

What was your highlight as chairman in your time at Roker?

One of the biggest achievements I had was getting Sunderland out of Division Three at the first attempt – that was important for me and the club. And ultimately it was finding the means to build the Stadium and Academy.

Which manager did you like working with the most?

It was only for a short time, but I’d have to say Bob Stokoe – he was a true gentleman with integrity.

Which manager did you least enjoy working with?

No contest – McMenemy.

Which player that played at Roker Park was your favourite as a fan?

Charlie the King – and we are still friends today. And I got great pleasure from watching Clough.

Who was your favourite player signing at Roker Park?

Kevin Phillips. And we got him for £700,000.