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Martin O"Neill"s search for Sunderland"s soul

Martin O'Neill, a late-night drive and his search for… the soul of Sunderland

Roker Park. They were two of the most evocative words in British football for a century. These nine red and white letters welcomed visitors to a cramped stadium with wooden seats and a unique atmosphere.

Behind the goal, the low roof of the Fulwell End housed Mackems who stood, swayed, sang and celebrated. The Roker Roar, the Clock Stand and the bearpit in front of the main stand. Put simply, it was a great place to watch football.

In the mind's eye of a small boy in Northern Ireland, Charlie Hurley would proudly emerge from the mini-tunnel within the main stand. Ball tucked under his arm, he would run up the embankment to the pristine turf. Roker Park will always be home to Sunderland supporters like Martin O'Neill.

Mad for the Mackems: O'Neill has been a lifelong fan of Sunderland

Mad for the Mackems: O'Neill has been a lifelong fan of Sunderland

Restless a few weeks ago, after a full day at the club training ground and another evening with his 'boring' (his word) coaching staff at the local Italian restaurant, O'Neill had the sudden urge to find Roker Park.

This was the Aston Villa manager who walked in the footsteps of Brian Clough, leaving the team hotel in Middlesbrough to find Cloughie's old house and the housing estate which was once Ayresome Park.

'That was sentimental because of the connection with Brian Clough,' he says. 'He would have come out of that house and walked across the park to Ayresome Park for training.'

He was also the Wycombe Wanderers manager who visited the house that was used for the exterior shots of Fawlty Towers which was in Oxfordshire not, in fact, Torquay.

'When I found out I had to find it.' But this was different. O'Neill was searching for Sunderland's soul. 'Exactly that,' he said. 'It felt like searching for Sunderland's soul. You consider they had almost a 100-year history there. And all the things that have happened in that century there. It's amazing.'

The car journey with reserve team coach and former Norwich teammate Keith Bertschin to the football heartland of Wearside is evidence that Sunderland AFC isn't just under O'Neill's skin, it pulses through his football body. He takes up the story.

The way they were: Massed crowds standing on packed terraces for a league game against Blackpool in 1953 where neat terraces now stand

The way they were: Massed crowds standing on packed terraces for a league game against Blackpool in 1953 where neat terraces now stand

The way they were: Massed crowds standing on packed terraces for a league game against Blackpool in 1953 where neat terraces now stand

'We were in Romanos, Bertsch and I –
Keith played for Sunderland for a little while himself – so I just said,
“Come on, let's go and drive and see where Roker is”. I knew it was a
housing estate now, but I'd never been. Whenever I'd visited Roker Park
as a player, we'd just come up on the bus, park outside, in, play the
game and home again. I wasn't even aware it was that close to the
seafront. I didn't know.

'Keith
was all on for it. We're in the car, he's driving and we've got to a
place where we think we know where it is. I said, “Well, Bertsch, you
played here. You should have an idea”. He replied, “Er, I think I've
lost my bearings a wee bit”.

'So we were driving around the area once or twice and, remarkably, kept missing the spot. We had to ask this fella, rolled down the windows and stopped him.

'I knew it was going to be one of those moments. I wanted Bertsch to lean across and speak to him. “What is it” the fella said. “You couldn't tell us where Roker Park was, could you” And the minute Keith said that, of course, he's interested, because this boy happened to be a big Sunderland fan.

'He looked at Bertsch and then looked at myself. And he said, “Forget that, you want to come to the pub with us. We're heading to the bar”. We told him, “No, no, not tonight, thanks, just tell us where Roker is”. He directed us, no problem. “Down this way, back there”.

'We went there but it's not fantastically sign-posted. There's a Midfield Drive, a Promotion Close, Clockstand Close, Turnstile Mews, Roker Park Close. So we stopped again and asked this young fella, who said he lived there.

'I think he just saw two men in a car at half-past-ten at night and thought, “Hmmm, might be a bit dodgy”. But he said, “Yeah, it's all here, this is it.”

'We just drove round a couple of times, to see it, try to get the bearings right. And then, of course, when you see a couple of the wee markings and the new houses against the side of the road, Association Road, you realise all the new part is where the stadium was.

'There's a great aerial picture in here in the Academy of Roker Park and it all comes so clear then. The Fulwell End, the Roker End and stuff like that. I felt something, though, absolutely – the sense that somebody is living in a house where Tommy Harmer scored for Chelsea in a vital promotion match in 1963.

How it looks now: Roker Park has disappeared, but reminders of its famous history remain

How it looks now: Roker Park has disappeared, but reminders of its famous history remain

How it looks now: Roker Park has disappeared, but reminders of its famous history remain (and below)

'It makes you think. Of 1964, when I
listened on radio to an FA Cup quarter-final replay against Man United
which was drawn but which Sunderland eventually lost in the third game.'

O'Neill may have been a Sunderland
fan as a kid in Derry, but he had never visited the famous old ground
with his red and white scarf. He did go one better, though, when, as a
20-year-old, he played there for Nottingham Forest in 1972.

'I just had to see it … to relive my childhood'

'They murdered us,' he recalled. 'Our
scout, Bert Johnson, said they were the first proper side he'd ever
seen. And he had great perception. He once said, “If you are early to
rise, you can lie all day”. One of the great quotes of all time.'

Roker
Park meant something to him back then. The Fulwell End, the Clock
Stand, the mini-tunnel where his hero Charlie Hurley proudly strode out
in his red and white stripes, ball under arm. Before it was all
demolished for houses in 1998, O'Neill did visit the ground as a fan.

At the time, he was manager of the
Leicester City side who fittingly, perhaps, were the visitors for the
opening game of Roker's 100th and final season. He sat among the other
managers and scouts for the penultimate game at home to Southampton.

But it was more than just a scouting
mission. It was a personal homage to one of game's great homes. The
Stadium of Light was a necessity, and a very good one, but Roker Park
oozed history.

Marking the spot: The position of the old centre circle has been remembered

Marking the spot: The position of the old centre circle has been remembered

'I just wanted to see it, because they
were going to be leaving the stadium,' he said. 'I'd have loved to have
gone into one of the ends, but I bottled it and took a safer seat in the
main stand. It meant a lot emotionally to make that trip up. Listen,
it's a fantastic football club and it was probably reliving my
childhood.'

Now he is finally Sunderland manager,
he is fulfilling the wishes of fans who have clamoured for his
appointment since Peter Reid was forced to leave the club's new home
after three years. The fact he has made such an impact comes as no
surprise to them.

Seven
victories from 11 games have them back in the Premier League top 10 and
a place in the FA Cup quarter-finals for the first time in eight years
have backed owner Ellis Short's decision to sack Steve Bruce and bring
in O'Neill.

One
striker very happy with life under O'Neill is Fraizer Campbell – fresh
from the birth of his first child, Isla Rose, on the night he won his
first England cap.

The former Manchester United trainee
said: 'Everyone keeps telling me that these things come along in threes,
so hopefully this (victory in the derby) can be the third one.

'I
was gutted to miss the birth of my first child but at the same time if
I'd have left the England squad she might have been born the day
afterwards and I'd have been gutted not to have got the chance to play
for England.'

Sunderland's
preparations were disrupted by Stephane Sessegnon's delayed return from
Africa.

The midfielder was stranded in Paris yesterday after
difficulties coming back from Benin's Africa Cup of Nations qualifier in
Ethiopia. He is expected to be back in time for Sunday's kick-off.