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.