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Are Sunderland Serious About This 'Back to The Community' Rhetoric?

Cynicism - it's healthy. Valuing truth and integrity and bristling at faddish claptrap. So what do you make of this back-to-our-roots rhetoric of the new broom at SAFC? Grandiloquence, or a return to what this club means to all of us?

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Sunderland v Hull City - Premier League Photo by Chris Brunskill/Getty Images


Q. Is it possible to return a multi-million pound global enterprise back to the people who built it? Or at least part of it?

There's a shift in rhetoric at the Stadium of Light. Sunderland AFC have gone from bouncing with the kids at Beyonce to carousing with the carousel that makes the Qashqai; from funding projects with African miners to reconnecting with the Wearside community - when did all of this happen, and why?

Football is a global business and sold its soul many years ago. That much money corrupts even the purest of pursuits. To compete you need cash, and lots of it. I think we all get that.

But, Sunderland's football club has been a curious cocktail in the 21st Century - it has been all pop concerts, attempts at tapping new markets and sponsorship deals with the highest bidder. We've had marketing initiatives inviting heaven-only-knows-who to 'Invest in Africa' and welfare programmes for the children of Tanzanian workers.

Does anyone know what the purpose of that is? Has has anyone ever explained it to you? Is it to tap into an unchartered pool of young African football talent or is it to make a million from diamond mining? Damned if I know.

In truth not much of this fluff meant anything to the very people who buy the football club's product. You know that, I know that, but no one at SAFC knew that.

None of it has ever been very lasting or built upon foundations of substance. The one and only constant has been the people who troop to the Stadium of Light every fortnight. Attendances have been remarkably consistent considering the product on offer and the lack of engagement from a hierarchy which seemed to believe the masses who paid their money would come regardless.

And then the club faced a crisis of such enormity that it threatened the very soul of the organisation built by Victorian school teachers, so it closed its doors and hoped no one would knock.

Because the previous regime at the Stadium of Light was a Willy Wonka affair. The gates were locked and curt communications from nameless souls were issued from within. The club appeared to be terrified by the people of the town outside its walls.

There were occasional forays into the fray. A PR exercise to North America which masqueraded as a pre-season tour. But also an owner who seemed to only dare speak to those fans exiled in London or the US who wouldn't give him a hard time, and a Chief Executive who scowled down from the directors' box at the hoi polloi gathered below her in the stands.

So, anyone who purchased a programme on Saturday would have noticed these notes from manager David Moyes and may have raised a wry eyebrow:

I would like the club to be viewed as one that's working really hard for its own people in its own region.

We are planning a whole range of visits to schools, community projects and such like and I hope that in the future you get a chance to see myself and the players.

We want to meet supporters, both young and old, because those are the people to whom this club matters most and who we want to do well for.

Now knock me down with a feather. That's some whole big words there David, and an even bigger concept.

And it's not the first time we've heard this message. New Chief Executive, Martin Bain, arrived quietly in July; but by September, having thwarted the frantic menace with the FA and a transfer window of hideous inadequacies beyond his control, he had the measure of Sunderland's football club:

It's probably lost its identity at times, trying to be a club it's not. We want to get back to basics. The football club has to be synoymous with its North East identity.

I want to get out to the fanbase with David - lets talk to them in a way they'll relate to.

And so they have started. Off to Nissan and everyone scoffed. But it worked - six points from two games and five goals. David Moyes hailed it as a triumph, and said again on Saturday:

Our recent visit to Nissan was a very positive experience for the players, but importantly it was a sign to the supporters that as a club we appreciate the backing you give.

I am very keen to show out fans that we want to be a part of the community, we want to engage with the people who support the club - especially during challenging times.

That final sentence is the thing here. Willy Wonka has opened the gates, and next time it gets a bit tough - why not come on in and help us get through it. It'll work you know, because we're tough as old boots up here. The peoples of Wearside, County Durham, South Tyneside et al have been through more tough times than most.

And on Saturday, a quiet group assembled, and invited the greatest player Sunderland has ever seen to cut a ribbon to unveil some wrought iron gates bearing his name. Martin Bain beamed and spoke eloquently. And David Moyes beamed. And the lights went out and Sunderland beamed.

Those gates had been rotting for thirteen years, barring access to a training centre that the club no longer wanted, but that they didn't seem to want the city to have back. They'll sell the land, and so they should - but they rescued the gates. And it was symbolic.

If you're of a certain age, you'll recall the Caring Club. No one was ever entirely sure what it meant. But, when I was young I was always aware of Sunderland's football club doing stuff in the community. I know it had a bus and came round the school. Beyond that I really don't know.

But lately, I've happened to come across some really good people saying really good things about the work of the club's community outreach projects. This is work with disabled people, or troubled people that traditional services struggle to help, but they engage with SAFC people once a week. It needs a wider audience, but in truth the staff don't do it for the thanks.

Signing up with a pay-day loan company wasn't a brilliant start, mind. The nonsense spouted here about how the ethos of a high-interest lender "mirrors our own" was, frankly, ludicrous in a region of poverty and debt. But, the quest for cash knows no bounds, and perhaps we can forgive the deal passing the new CEO's nose early in his tenure. But, let that be a lesson - perhaps you will think more carefully next time now that the engagement plan has been sold?

Regardless, Engaging with fans sounds like a natural extension of running a football club. Representing your community sounds like a natural extension of running a football club.

It isn't as easy as that. It takes work and trust, and visibility. It needs a sustained culture shift at the Wonka club to permeate its boots. Owner, board, executives, staff, players - you all need to sign up. We don't want to be like the Wonga club. Differentiate yourselves and represent us.

There may be some pain ahead. You need us.