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Church And State: Team v Club

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It’s a good time of year to reminisce - nothing to worry yourself about in the football world and not much to get excited about – a time for reflection, for cautious optimism looking ahead, for wondering if there’s a verb for those funny hand movements the sub does when he runs onto the pitch and which comprehensively explain to the rest of the team that they’re going to move from a 4-3-2-1 to an inverted diamond with overlapping full backs on the counter and for the number 4 to nail the oppositions number 6 when he moves into the predetermined key areas otherwise they’re going to get screwed.

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So, I started thinking about what the Club means to me, about what’s really important. Is it success on the pitch, staying in the Premier League, moving up the table, success in the Cups? Yes – all of these, but they’re not the most important. Most  important to me, by a country mile was  - respect. How the Club is seen and viewed, not just by ourselves, but by the wider world.

I guess most people judge us by team performance, we were a yo-yo club, now we’re a perennial relegation fighter from a (perceived), not so attractive part of the country – and I can live with that, it doesn’t bother me. Why? Because the Club itself is sound, and the Club is not the team. The team changes every week, has been up and down like Ashley Young in the penalty area, and will continue to do so in the great scheme of things.

The Club though, is separate, it’s far more important and it is the respect and reputation of the Club that we must preserve at all costs. It is the behaviour of the Club away from the pitch that defines how others will view us. We all know clubs that have had greater success than ours recently, only to fall apart when details of financial mismanagement and poor leadership come to light, and it’s the reputation that suffers as well as the league position, and it’s the reputation that takes far longer to repair, if at all.

We came very close to crossing the line last season with the AJ saga, for whichever way you look at it, it was badly handled. It appeared to the outside world that we were ignoring the known facts to keep one of our best players on the pitch. And I’m not delving into the legal aspects of the situation, purely on the potential effect it could have had on the reputation of the Club. On that point alone it was important that Margaret Byrne stepped down because for whatever reason, she didn’t ‘get it’. She didn’t ‘get’ that this is our Club, that we’re proud of it, and if you take that away from us then we have nothing. Would I want the Club to be seen to be doing the right thing even if it cost us points and maybe tens of millions of pounds. Yes – every time. Money can’t save your reputation.

Of course the team have a big part to play in supporting the Club – they are the shop window and how they conduct themselves on or off the pitch is critical. We all remember players from the same side brawling on the pitch, misbehaving on pre-season tours and the more serious off-pitch incidents that have stuck in the public’s mind. I want our team to play the game as it should be played, no diving, excess fouling or blatant cheating. At their peak, Leeds were ‘Dirty Leeds’ and for many that tag has never gone away despite everything that has happened to them since.

We, the supporters play an equally important role and our reputation, it has to be said is solid, if not stellar. Most, if not every time we’re televised, the commentary has positive things to say about us, the numbers who attend home and away, the distances travelled, the volume and the passion and that has a huge effect on the public’s perception of us as a Club. People who know little about football, less about Sunderland probably know that we have an amazing support and that speaks volumes about what sort of club it is. Hell, we’re good.

The Clubs relationship with the town itself, is I would argue, stronger than for most other clubs, and the interaction between the two is massively important. The community and charity work that comes out of the Club feeds that relationship, and events like Niall giving his testimonial money away, and the extraordinary reaction by supporters to the Ukraine tragedy are vivid demonstrations to the outside world as to what our Club is all about and makes me want to run up to complete strangers in the street and shout at them – ‘Do you see? Do you see what my Club does?’

And we must never lose sight of that relationship, because I’m a firm believer that the Club exists to serve the people of Sunderland and its supporters and not the other way round. Yes, we are trying to establish the Club as a ‘global brand’ but the minute it becomes more important to sell mugs in a motorway service station or replica kits in Kuala Lumpur, if we jeopardise our reputation by signing up questionable sponsors (seriously, who wants to see a team wearing ‘Wonga’ on their shirts – for so many reasons) or do anything else to ruin the reputation and character of our Club, then I’m out.

Don’t get me wrong, I want us to grow with the times, to compete both on the pitch and financially with our peers and I welcome the ambition, but not at the cost of what we’ve built up over the past 137 years. And I hope that Martin Bain, the new CEO gets that.