Roker Park and the World Cup

Just a few weeks to go now. Football fans across Europe are gearing up for the European Championships, and the international focus stays in Europe  after this eagerly awaited tournament as we look forward to the next World Cup finals which will be staged in Russia in 2018.

No matter how things go it will all be a far cry from 50 years ago when England famously hosted, and won, the World Cup.  Given that Sunderland staged no fewer than four matches in the tournament (at a time when only 16 clubs competed in the finals) the 1966 World Cup will be forever fondly remembered on Wearside.

The decision to host the World Cup in England was made in August 1960 in Rome. England pipped West Germany (at the time Germany was divided into East and West) by 34 votes to 27 and the selection of Roker Park as one of the venues was suggested from the very start.

Once the dust had settled on the Chile 1962 World Cup finals preparations began in earnest. In February 1963 the FIFA World Cup Planning organization group met for the first time, and by May was discussing the dates for the tournament and confirming that the tournament would be split between England’s North West, North East, Midland and London areas.


It was quickly agreed that all of the games were to be televised and the draw itself was scheduled for January 1966, by which time all of the organization and planning had to be completed.

That early 1963 organizing group was based at London’s White City Stadium, then a passable but not spectacular venue in London known for hosting speedway and dog racing. Never intended to host a World Cup football match, it was ultimately to stage an unlikely fixture when a prior dog-racing commitment meant that Wembley couldn’t host the Uruguay v. France fixture. It’s a lovely ‘going to the dogs’ story that probably won’t ever be repeated in a World Cup finals context.

Accommodation was a big issue as the visiting nations needed be housed near the stadiums where their matches were allocated. This might seem an obvious need today, but in the 1960s neither mass travel or choice of big hotels outwith capital cities were commonplace. Training facilities were also needed and even organizing food and meeting the demands of various chefs was an issue, with some nations bringing culinary preferences and diets that were quite different to those of England.

As a precaution block bookings of hotels were made to ensure that everyone who was participating in and traveling to the World Cup could be adequately housed.

Programme Cover

In October 1963 came the announcement that the grounds had been picked for the finals and at that time the north-east group was destined to be split between Sunderland and Newcastle. The prestigious quarter finals were to be be shared out between Wembley, Everton, Sunderland and Sheffield Wednesday. The Government recognized that the World Cup was going to be the biggest event since the Tokyo Olympics of that year and announced that it had set aside £400,000 to assist with upgrading the various stadia.

Huge numbers of extra telephone lines had to be installed to ensure that the anticipated 1,600 journalists involved in covering the tournament could relay their stories back to base – this before the age of satellites, mobile phones, laptop publishing, or the current raft of television channels. Indeed, the BBC and the then independent broadcaster ITN agreed to pool their resources to avoid duplication of effort.

In March 1965 the Football Association Council met and agreed to approve £150,000 from FA Funds to help the six provincial clubs who were destined to be part of the 1966 World Cup (the others beyond Sunderland being Sheffield Wednesday, Aston Villa, Middlesbrough (who had stepped in to replace Newcastle), Everton and Manchester United). A special grants and loans committee was keen to see facilities at all of the selected grounds improved and the loans were to be interest free for five years. Clubs were thus ultimately able to collect funding from FIFA, the Government and Football League, above and beyond the FA loan.

By September 1965 The Times described Sunderland as ‘resembling a battlefield with cranes, bulldozers and concrete mixers changing an antiquated past’. The little Sunderland match programme of the 1965/66 season frequently carried a message on page two updating fans on World Cup news. The momentum was building.

That upgrade of Roker Park was indeed welcome. Some would say overdue.

In March 1964 the grand old stadium was tested to breaking point during a sixth round FA Cup replay with Manchester United – and police felt that round about 40,000 people were locked out. Safe to say that the game captured the imagination of football fans up and down England.

United, were not only cup holders, but a huge ‘celebrity’ draw and in Best, Charlton and Law arguably had the three most famous footballers in Britain in their ranks. As the crushes both inside and outside Roker Park worsened ambulances carried injured to hospital and a house near the stadium was used to treat the injured. Two gates were broken down and fans were gaining vantage points on the floodlighting pylons and a stand roof. Well and truly caught out by the interest the club had to concede later that it was a mistake that the game was not all-ticket.

There were six-mile traffic jams approaching Sunderland and when the game was underway Sunderland police force took the highly unusual decision to call on  reinforcements from Newcastle, South Shields and Durham to cope with the crush outside the stadium.   Just under 100 causalities were dealt with at hospital with almost 20 of those detained for further treatment. After the game a Sunderland official recorded that an official crowd of 46,727 had paid a healthy £9,800 at the turnstiles, but he admitted that there could have been “around 70,000 in the ground because two gates collapsed and many entrants didn’t go through the turnstiles.”

As it happens another big game was scheduled for Roker Park shortly afterwards as the English League tackled the Scottish League – an annual fixture in the 50s and 60s which, whilst already waning in importance, sparked some interest. Whether the Manchester United debacle had an impact is hard to say, but only 9,000 turned up for the 61st meeting of the old foes at league level; interestingly the stars of the show were arguably Jim Baxter (Rangers) and Neil Martin (Hibs) who would both later call Roker Park home. Baxter was nonchalantly classy whilst Martin scored the second Scottish goal in the 2-2 draw.

Jim Baxter

But back to the 1966 World Cup. Roker Park underwent a series of visually pleasing improvements, Sunderland taking full advantage of the loans and grants on offer.

The pitch was extended by three yards; an additional 9,000 seats were installed. The two tier Clock Stand saw permanent seating put into the rear section, and both this and the main stand had seating inserted into their paddocks whilst the Fulwell End was no only covered for the occasion, with a substantial roof, but seating went in there too. Add to the mix a suite of offices on stilts behind the main stand, and a TV gantry adorning the clock stand, and it is fair to say Roker Park got a real make-over.

Of the four matches Roker hosted three of them featured the USSR. However, it was Italy 2, Chile 0 that had the honour of being the first World Cup fixture at Roker Park. USSR then beat Italy 1-0 and Chile 2-1 and thus won their group and earned the right to play Hungary at Roker in a quarter final, which they duly won 2-1.

Russia featured heavily in Sunderland’s 1966 World Cup experience, and who knows, Sunderland might just provide players who influence the 2018 finals in Russia.

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