The Roker End revisited

Written by Brian Leng

Along with thousands of others, I was fortunate enough to witness my first ever home game from a vantage point high on Roker Park’s vast Roker End terracing.

It was September 1956, I was nine years old and had finally persuaded my father to allow me to join him and his pals and watch Sunderland take on Spurs.

Almost fifty years on and the memories of that first ever visit to Roker Park remain crystal clear. I’ll never forget the rush of excitement as we approached the ground along Roker Avenue and the first site of the floodlights and the stands as we turned into Roker Baths Road.

Entering through the ‘Boys End’ turnstile, I climbed what seemed like endless flights of stairs under the terracing before emerging into the daylight to experience my first ever view of one of English football’s most famous grounds.

The almost exultant feeling I felt at that moment would be repeated every time I entered the ground thereafter - there’s nothing quite like that first glimpse of the arena on a match day, it never fails to get the adrenalin pumping in preparation for the battle ahead.

Although Sunderland lost 2-0 that day, somehow it didn’t seem to matter. I was mesmerised by Roker Park, those wonderful supporters and that incredible ‘Roker Roar’, an awesome noise of such magnitude that it could be heard for miles. On that afternoon Sunderland Football Club became the single most important factor in my life and the Roker End, on a spot high at the back just in front of the number 12, my second home.

In the years that followed, I travelling the country supporting ‘The Lads’, and soon discovered that the Roker End was quite unique in terms of football stadia design. At virtually every other league ground the open terracing would be constructed in an earth or ash mound with the terracing superimposed in concrete or timber. However, when Sunderland Football Club decided to enlarge the Roker End in 1912, they opted for a revolutionary design using reinforced concrete.

The concrete terracing was supported on a maze of pillars, supports and struts with access provide via a series of stairways - three at pitch level, four at a mid point and two at the highest level. The whole scheme cost the club around £20,000 but increased the ground’s capacity to around 50,000 and also provided a covered area beneath the terracing for the players to train.

A clubhouse was also constructed in the corner abutting the main stand although this was demolished during a World War Two bombing raid. After the war the site was cleared and a new single storey gymnasium built, which was used exclusively by the club until the late 1960’s when they moved to a new training ground in Washington. For a brief period thereafter, the gymnasium building became the headquarters for SAFC Supporters Association who also ran a thriving souvenir shop on match days.

Viewed from the outside, with the passer by able to peer deep into the dark cavernous web of concrete beams, the Roker End could hardly be described as an attractive facade. Yet the structure had withstood so many massive crowds over the years and it came as a huge blow to many Roker Enders when, in 1982, the club announced that in order to comply with new Health & Safety regulations, a large part of the concrete structure would need to be demolished.

During the 1982 close season the bulldozers moved in, the first indication that time was beginning to catch up with Roker Park. In it’s new ‘decapitated’ form, only the lower part of the original Roker End remained, reducing capacity of the terrace from just over 17,000 to 7,000.

From a personal point of view, that was the end of my love affair with the Roker End. My particular spot, and any terrace fan would tell you the importance of standing in the same place for every game, had disappeared into history and I ‘defected’ to the opposite end of the ground. The protection of Fulwell End roof for the same admission charge suddenly seemed infinitely more attractive.

Nevertheless, I’ll always have a special affection for the Roker End. For the best part of twenty-six seasons I witnessed so many great games standing high on it’s unique terraces. It was a significant part of my life for so long and, even now when I drive along Roker Baths Road, I fully expect to see the massive concrete structure come into view.