No game this weekend, but Niall Quinn's been making plenty of headlines in Sunderland. Roker Report's very own Micheal Graham weighs in with his thoughts on the latest statements from our chairman...
Niall Quinn has really developed a taste for statistics these days. Indeed, it is tough to even go anywhere near a newspaper, be it online or on paper, without our chairman using numbers as a stick to beat his adversaries with. His adversaries, in this case, being Sunderland fans who he believes ‘choose’ to watch Sunderland home games illegally in local pubs with what he presumably believes is an unholy amount of alcohol passing their lips rather than in person at the Stadium of Light. Now let me get this disclaimer out of the way immediately because, amongst Sunderland fans, discussing Niall Quinn without offering almost obligatory blanket praise is a risky endeavour. I think it is clear that we have an almost immeasurable amount to be eternally thankful to Quinn for and I have personally hailed his achievements and leadership on these pages before. I also think it cannot possibly be doubted that everything he does, he does it with the best interests of Sunderland AFC at heart. That earns him leeway, and a hell of a lot of it, but not a sufficient amount to be allowed the luxury of dragging the good name that Sunderland fans have EARNED through years of loyalty (and far in excess of what the club deserved for most of them) through the mud so publicly and relentlessly without being held accountable for it.
Yes, we know that he always insists upon insisting that he would never have a bad word to say about fans who regularly attend the Stadium of Light and those who would but for financial constraints, but when we picked up a paper two weeks ago, what was the headline that we were hit with? "Quinn "despises" Sunderland fans". Cheers Niall. It would be bad enough if only the Sunderland fans saw it, but at least we would then have the interest to read on and ascertain the context. Could we say the same for the rest of the people who see it? All they were likely to see was the headline, which didn’t make for flattering reading. Scaremongering and threats to "consider his role" have since ensued, to the further delight of the headline writers, and now we are being told if it doesn’t change it "may be the end of his vision". No prizes for guessing which part of that extensive interview the headline writers pick up on that one. Speaking on The Three Legends Real Radio programme earlier this week, Quinn said he had chosen his strong words very carefully to provoke debate. Well he certainly grabbed himself and his argument some attention but, since he achieved that by disparaging his own fans, I am not sure the ends really justify the means in this particular case.
But, nevertheless, Quinn wants debate. It just so happens that I love a debate, so, once I got past the manner of its delivery, I started to look at the actual argument itself. As a starting point to illustrate the need for urgency and heavy-handed action, Quinn quotes two figures; an average attendance of "44,000" in 2007/2008, which he claims has fallen to "about 38,000" this season. These figures are inaccurate. A quick check on the Official website of the Premier League and we learn that it was 43,344 in 2007/8 down to 39,351 at this moment in time. A difference of less than 4000 - not the 6000 that Quinn claims. Still it is worthy of further examination, I am prepared to concede, given the level of investment and the vastly better league performance of the club now, so I had a look to see how our drop in crowds compares to other Premier League clubs in the same period.
What is apparent is slightly dwindling numbers is not uncommon in the Premier League and not something unique to Sunderland, which must surely begs the question as to why is the Sunderland chairman alone laying the blame at the apathy of his club’s fans? I am no economist, but it does not seem a stretch to believe that either directly or indirectly, the vast majority of the drop in fans attending both of the region’s major football stadia can be attributed to the economic downturn in the area. On Thursday, the Journal reported "the region’s dole queue increased by 13,000 to 129,000 people" within the space of just a couple of months at the end of 2010. The numbers are frightening. But we surely can’t just assume that only the recently jobless have been forced to make cuts, including football, from their budgets. How many now live in uncertainty regarding their job security and feel it would be irresponsible to their families to commit to a full season worth of football at this time? How many who have previously been devoted match-goers have been forced to leave the region in search of continuing employment opportunities? With unemployment particularly high amongst the "lost generation" of 18-24 year olds, how many previously loyal fans have reached the point where they are physically no longer up to it, without many being able to take their place? Is it really hard to believe that just 1 in 10 of Sunderland’s previous crowds are being affected some way by the current economic climate? The game has changed too, of course, and the sterile environment and unbalanced competition of modern football simply isn’t to everyone’s taste. That’s just the reality.
The objective here isn’t to dismiss entirely the impact of games being easily available to watch on the internet and in pubs, but to ask the question whether the severity of the problem justifies Quinn’s heavy-handed approach to grabbing headlines. Even if the problem exists in the kind of numbers that Quinn claims, surely it is a battle that can be fought without the need for publicly questioning the loyalty and passion of the Sunderland fans. Quinn has never struggled to make friends and inspire with his words, so perhaps the failure to win over those in the pubs suggests that they are not there to be won. Perhaps they are the people who were always in the pubs, and always will be, regardless. Surely these few people are not worth unleashing what has become a constant and needlessly aggressive bombardment of words and disdain upon those who have faithfully embraced his "vision" for years. He may not being pulling the trigger himself, but he is very deliberately handing the headline writers the shells.
For years, the Sunderland fans have almost embarrassingly out-performed their team. Just about everyone in the same kind of attendance bracket as us has enjoyed regular European football and at least an occasional whiff of silverware, while our fans have been watching poor teams, second tier football, and even the odd national humiliation. They have all had their period of investment and growth at some point or another, just as we are now, but whilst their support has been earned through sustained success on the pitch, Niall Quinn has 40,000 people right now who have proven their loyalty and passion does not need to be coerced with success and prestige. It is offered unconditionally. Now, when there has been only a mere suggestion that some relative form of tangible success is within grasp, for the club to turn to us and openly question whether WE deserve THEM is callous and almost cruel, as is happily dragging our name through the mud for some cheap yet impactful headlines. Quinn would surely be better served redirecting his energies to devising and putting into practice methods to entice people into the ground, not attempting to shame them into it. The biggest enticement is the football itself, and Quinn would do well to not get too ahead of himself regarding that. Yes, the squad on paper has some real quality, but as we all know football is played on grass, not paper, and for all its promise this squad has failed to deliver an eye-catching cup run or bring European football within the grasp of would-be attendees. Until then, Quinn’s lament seems premature, largely contrived, and very much misguided.