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Champions! And still with our sights set on a curious double. The week in which we clinched promotion at Bury and then avenged Barnsley’s defeat earlier this season to land the inevitable championship has to go down as one of the best weeks ever for Sunderland fans, at the end of an unbelievable season by anyone’s standards. Congratulations to all concerned. It was important for the club to do something so spectacular to avoid a perennial tag as the team that lost on penalties in the best play-off final ever, and the manner in which this has being achieved is stunning. The hundred points mark is surely a formality now, the hundred goals unlikely, but my favourite statistic of the season is nicked from Radio 5 after the Barnsley game. If we beat Birmingham on the last day of the season, we will have beaten every team in the league during 1998-99, an absolutely unbelievable achievement.

In terms of the future success of the club, however, it is equally telling to take stock of the reserve team situation. Regular readers of S&C will notice that we’ve a bit of a soft spot for the Killer B’s, and now that the first team has sown up the Nationwide League, we look to the Pontins for excitement in the run-in to the season. As things stand at the time of going to press, the stage is set for a stormer. Sunderland Reserves are two points clear of 40-point Manchester United with three games remaining. Third place Liverpool have three games in hand which, if they manage to win, would also put them on 40 points, with a possible nine remaining. However, one telling fact is that the three games Sunderland have left to play – Preston and Derby at New Ferens Park and Stoke away – are the three bottom clubs.

Nothing is predestined in football, but boasting the top reserve side in the North would certainly be a confidence boost for the squad to take to the Premiership. Good luck to the Lads, and if anybody’s at a loose end on Monday night, get yourself down to New Ferens Park to grab a taste of double championship honours.

Now the playing’s been done it’s time for the talking to start, as half of Sunderland sets its mind to reflection and prediction. The player of the season debate looks set to be an interesting one. Phillips and Clark both sat out large portions of the season, and whilst it took the latter a little time to recapture his best form, SuperKev’s goalscoring feats in spite of his lay-off are truly phenomenal. He can’t be counted out. But the player of the season title for me is about consistency over the course of the whole season as well as performance at key moments. To this end, Makin, Melville and Summerbee are all particularly worth a vote. Sorensen might be undone by the excellent protection he has received from the back four, preventing him from displaying the full range of talents, and in a season containing but only three defeats, it goes without saying nobody has been poor – Butler, Ball, Gray, Scott, Johnston, Bridges, Dichio and co have all had their moments this season, and all displayed consistent quality. For me, though, Niall Quinn was the man when we needed one most. With Kev and Clarkie out, it was his goals that fired us to the top of the league and kept us there, rolling the pebble for a championship landslide.

It is interesting, then, to hear some of his recent comments in the press with regard to next year’s Premiership campaign. His general take seems to be that this season’s achievement should not be underestimated and supporters of the ‘Reid needs key signings of undisputed quality' school of thought, run the risk of upsetting the team spirit apple cart, and undoing the good work of the past two years. Whilst this is duly noted, we need only look at the recent FA cup semi-final replay between Arsenal and Man Utd to gauge what we’re up against next year: teams that can leave the likes of Yorke, Cole and Giggs out of the starting line-up and still beat the side that that did the double last season with ten men. Whilst it’s all well and good to dismiss them as the best side in the country, what happens if we go to Old Trafford on the last day of the season needing the points, either to stay up or qualify for Europe? We need a team competing in every game of the season, regardless of injuries and suspensions, and, to my mind, this can only be achieved at that level with three or four quality additions to the squad. But Quinny is definitely right on one front – we can’t do anything until the current season has ended anyway, so let’s enjoy the remaining time, celebrate our many achievements and look forward to establishing ourselves where we have always belonged.

Passion And Glory

More than any other region, with the possible exception of Cornwall, the North East has a distinct identity and with our identity goes our own heritage. That is why the article in issue 7 of S&C advocating a museum of football struck a chord with me. The North West may have had greater success in the second half of this century and higher profile managers, and the quote of Bill Shankly “football is not a matter of life and death… it is more important than that,” but I would defy anyone who would claim that football means more to people of any part of the country or even the world than it does to the people of the North East. It is intertwined with our culture and our history. I’ve heard it argued that the Sunderland/Newcastle football rivalry is an extension of the town’s opposite positions in the English Civil War.

Our recent passion is founded on the common purpose of the working classes from the great industries of shipbuilding, mining and steel. We need something which commemorates this and preserves it for the future. I was sorry when Roker Park was sold for a fraction of the cost needed to build the SoL and I think an opportunity was missed by the club and the city. Like Harry Pearson in his book “The Far Corner” I believe that one of the old traditional grounds of North East football should have been preserved as a Heritage Centre “so that in a hundred years time our ancestors could come and marvel at the sight at its open-topped urinals and the way the smell of frying onions still lingered round the floodlight pylons.”

Roker Park was a place where we lived and breathed, won and lost and competed with the best. I don’t know about you but I don’t have to close my eyes to conjure vivid images of the place. Approaching the Fulwell in all its living glory from any direction quickened the heart – and the step – and drew you like a moth to the rectangle of light at the top of the steps that framed the vivid green of the pitch. Paraphrasing Shankly, it’s been more than a bereavement, but there’s a difference, there’s nowhere to go to remember.

Supporting the club at the SoL is not better or worse, its different – another era. I’d love to be able to sense the atmosphere and see the images of Roker once again. Bob Murray has done his best to incorporate parts of Roker into the SoL – as any family forced to move from a traditional family home would do – but they’re lost in the new surroundings.

A museum to the club, its history and its supporters should be built and would be a fitting final touch to our superb new home. There must be a latent demand and I’m sure there’d be a constant stream of visitors. Recreate the feel of climbing the Fulwell steps and you’re onto a winner Bob.

Roker Park was as much a strong symbol of our past as Beamish and it was the last of the big grounds to go. It may now be left to an enterprising council to preserve Brewery Field, Spennymoor or Croft Park, Blyth. Or maybe there’s an opportunity of some entrepreneurial spirit to build us a monument, which is an inspiration for our future.

But there’s an opportunity for even more. Football is not part of the heritage of Sunderland but of the entire region from Ashington to South Bank and from West Auckland to South Shields. Whether it be the heroes of the professional or non-league teams or the exploits of our football exiles there’s much to treasure, celebrate and remember. The North East is renowned for underselling itself. No other region can boast the teams and the players that we can, that have entertained for generations. A museum of North East football would surely draw visitors from all over the country and from abroad to remember icons like 1973, the Charlton Brothers, Raich Carter, Jackie Milburn, Len Shackleton, Wilf Mannion, Bob Paisley, Blyth Spartans and all the rest. What a place to visit that would be. It shouldn’t have been an Angel we erected as a landmark but a monument of football.

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