No Winners In Sunderland Stand-Off

Scott Heavey

The 'Sunderland standing debate' - and not the win over the champions - has dominated talk on Wearside since Boxing Day. While the rest of us bang our heads against a brick wall muttering 'communication, man!' repeatedly with a frustration born out of the obvious being inexplicably ignored by people who should know better, surely it is time for both sides to accept this is a fight neither can win?

If we are speaking candidly, then I feel obliged to confess that this was a topic of discussion that I was happy to leave well alone. It isn't really my place to critique club policy and neither is it my place to lay down judgement on the manner in which Sunderland fans support their club.

Sadly, the situation has now snowballed to a point where by it needs to be at the very least acknowledged, though it is important to stress that I say that without seeking to attach sole blame to either side for it.

Frankly, the reason I have tended to stay out of this debate is two-fold. Firstly, the discussion is absolutely frivolous in its nature with neither side seemingly able or willing to pinpoint the other's perspective, meaning that, secondly, I don't really find myself able to sympathize exclusively with either.

For the sake of some housekeeping, lets have a brief recap before we wade to far into what has become some very choppy waters. For the Manchester City game, fans arrived at the Stadium of Light's singing section to discover some select seats taped up with a sign attached informing people the season card for said seat had been 'suspended due to persistent standing'.

The club have since issued a statement via their head of safety, Paul Weir, which read:

The figure for fans ejected due to persistent standing last season as a whole was just 20 (editor's note: as opposed to 38 so far this season) so we can see that there has been a significant increase in the early part of the season.

We certainly don't wish to spoil the enjoyment of any supporter, we want a vibrant matchday atmosphere just as much as the fans do, but we also have legal obligations that we must be seen to adhering to.

We also have a duty of care to all our supporters, including elderly and disabled fans who have contacted us very concerned that their enjoyment on a matchday is being compromised because people around them stand throughout the game.

Naturally we want to ensure a safe, comfortable and enjoyable experience at the Stadium of Light and we'd ask supporters to listen to requests from stewards and help us to eradicate persistent standing for the sake of all fans.

On the surface, that is fair enough I guess. A positive and professional message imploring that we all cooperate like grown-ups and work towards a common goal to benefit us all. Perfectly utopian.

You have to ask yourself, however, what is professional about pinning up signs on seats in an attempt to shame the individual and essentially threaten the rest. There is nothing grown-up about that. In fact, it would be borderline patronizing behaviour even for a primary school teacher dealing with an unruly class. In other words - 'we make the rules and you will abide by them or be punished'. That is the very clear message that such actions convey.

But Sunderland AFC do not make the rules. The rules are very clear and are set by the Premier League and The Football Association, and whether we know it or not we agree to adhere to them every time we set foot in the Stadium of Light.

13 Nobody may stand in any seating area whilst play is in progress. Persistent standing in seated areas whilst play is in progress is strictly forbidden and may result in ejection from the Ground.

[...]

Entry to the Ground shall constitute acceptance of the Ground Regulations.

Whether fans know that or not is another matter entirely, though. I had a paper ticket for a League Cup game this season and decided to dig it out to check out the way the terms and conditions addressed this matter yet couldn't find anything other than sentence or two inviting you to read them on safc.com. So I went to the official website and had to search for some time before I actually found them, and when I eventually did they were not, so far as I could tell, accessible from the tickets page.

And here therein lies the crux of the problem - a lack communication leading to the two parties at loggerheads over two completely irrelevant issues. The club are furious with fans for not maintaining a part of a bargain that they don't know they have made and fans are furious with the club for rules that they didn't make. It is all so maddeningly superfluous.

Essentially both sides are sat there with their fingers in their ears, their eyes shut, saying 'la la la la' at the other loudly, all whilst singularly blaming what has escalated into an embarrassing public mess on the other's unwillingness to see the other's point of view.

The club are issuing statements almost daily from various people and in various forms asserting their perspective in the most rigid possible terms, and fans are threatening and planning various forms of protests and actions asserting their perspective in the most rigid possible terms. 'We will suspend season cards'; 'we'll stand when we want'; 'we have obligations and rules we must be seen to uphold'; 'your rules are rubbish'.

What no one is doing is listening.

When the club first mooted the idea of a singing section, they contacted us here at Roker Report, as well as other Sunderland fan group and fanzines, to request a little feedback on their plans. We all told them the same - brilliant idea, but you have to accept that, whilst we acknowledge the club could not be seen to actively encourage or advocate it, it must be accompanied by a relaxed view on persistent standing. Seats and season tickets in those blocks could have been sold with a disclaimer that fans remaining seated could not be guaranteed and fans unwilling to accept that would have the rest of the ground to choose from instead. It is simple enough.

Meanwhile, those fans who have complained about what has been going on in the South Stand and forced the club to act clearly failed to listen to the words of Ellis Short and Margaret Byrne who were at pains to insist the new section would be 'vibrant and energetic'. And the fans threatening protests and seemingly believing they have carte blanche to do what they want in the stadium as long as it falls under the umbrella of support need to listen to what the club is telling them about their obligations to their safety license and the fanbase as a whole.

I don't know what the current policy at the club regarding liaising with fans is, but that there could be such a pronounced breakdown in communications in this day and age does not speak very well of it. I understand that they meet with branch members and I know from experience that I have already mentioned that they speak to websites and fanzines, though it does seem a little limited and dated. The technological age has given everyone a voice who wants one - including the club - and communication breakdowns like this should simply not be allowed to happen.

I just hope that sooner rather than later some attempt is made by someone to try and resolve this sensibly, because the one thing that is a certainty with the current path is that no one at all is going to emerge from it with any credit or victory at all. In the last couple of days no one has been talking about the brilliant win over the champions of England, they have been talking about a petty squabble between fans and club, which is very sad indeed.

Each side needs to open their ears, talk it through, and hug it out, because the only thing sitting in entrenched positions throwing excrement at each other will achieve will be us ALL - the name of our club included - sat here covered in the stuff with the issue no closer to a resolution.

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