We're here today to talk about loyalty.
In the wake up some frankly distressing allegations centering around the goings on at the Academy of Light, in which Sunderland AFC's commitment to the development and support of it's youth products have been called into question, I think we should all take a moment to consider the moral ramifications of such supposed negligence.
The idea of “Academia” no longer conjures ideals of education or progress so much as it does privilege and class-division – but this should not be the case. At it's very core it's supposed to represent a safe place of learning, somewhere to develop mental faculties in a scholarly environment. Alongside other Grecian-inspired systems that all but created sport as we perceive it – the gymnasiums in which athletes train, the stadia in which the spectacle is witnessed, etc – the Academy is a fundamental building block in the institution of Football.
The journey of a child taking his or her first steps towards self-accomplishment and the endeavour evident in their journey from young, raw-talented prospect to first-team professional football player should be something we can look upon with joy and respect.
It should be a safe path to tread because of the experience and compassion of all those that trod that path before them, because their forebears should desire their success and well-being above all else. At Sunderland, Kevin Ball is that man, by all accounts.
(Side-note: Is there anything this guy can't do? We should have a whip-round and fund his purchase of the club to guarantee that the next time all of our money is thrown down the toilet it's by a person that actually deserves to make that choice, not some group of incapable interlopers.)
Yes, believe it or not the lifeblood and soul of a football club's academy are people unlike Martin Bain, people who don't look at a crowd of individuals and see simple digits and pound signs. These are the people that should hold sway over the development of young talent, not football-phobic money-men (if you can believe such a creature exists at Sunderland AFC, a place where you can't buy a smile).
A club the size of Sunderland AFC, regardless of their success in any financial sense, should strive to match that endeavour given by young academy products and their families. It should bend over backwards to reward the commitment and the naked optimism of those that allow all of their hopes and dreams to be carried away on aspiration and put the sweat and tears in to boot.
These people are reaching for the stars and it seems that rather than build them a ladder to help them on their way, Sunderland AFC would rather be petty and weigh them down.
In a world of cold, hard statistics, what is right and what is wrong are two very different sides to the same coin. On the one hand: a football club is a corporate entity, regardless of any sentiment implied, encouraged or cultivated by the supporters of that club. It is a profit-making business and the very existence of it depends, technically, not on the number of people that love and respect it, but the money that is transferred in and out of its respective bank accounts.
On the other: a football club cannot exist without support. Not only are those afore-mentioned bank accounts affected by ticket sales, catering, licensing and advertising - all of which are the pivotal revenue generators for any professional football club - but without fans to use those services the club will fail. But this isn't as simple as buying tickets for shit football while you eat shit food. The support of the fan-base spans generations and is dependent on so much more than merely results on the pitch. A sense of community, a sense of righteousness – both of these things are not merely desirable but necessary.
We've argued the case before: if clubs like ours tried harder to unite themselves to our own core beliefs, if they made efforts to be relatable instead of being seen to be relatable, we might find them to be far more worthy of our love and our support as a result.
So how do we balance what is right with what is profitable? Well, the truth is you can't. There will always be a gross imbalance in the revenue generation undertaken by professional football clubs, no matter how much you or I might question the morality of those making the decisions. This is because no one likes handing over their money for nothing, and when years of mismanagement and awful decision-making leads you to the inevitable relegation and humiliation we've recently suffered, you'll do anything to keep your head above water.
Sadly, this seems to be including but not limited to selling out the dreams of the young men and women that have depended on you and served you, many since they were in primary school.
The stupid thing here is that it is possible to fulfill the duty of care owed to these young men and women whilst still acting like a professional business rather than a Sunday-league pub team. You see there is another rarely-used revenue generator in this game of life/football we call Sunderland AFC – it's called the Academy. It's a big machine with a lot of moving parts, but the gist of it works thusly: find talent. Nurture talent. Use/sell talent.
Literally dozens of established organisations exist within Sunderland AFC's catchment area of players; organisations that are willing and able to take potentially talented young individuals under their tutelage and support and nurture their development.
Some are well-funded, some have no funding at all. Having recently spoken to just a few of them I can assure you that if we got them all in a room and asked for their feelings on the goings-on at the AoL their response would be damning, and rightly so.
Many of these people actually entertain human emotions when dealing with children and families that sacrifice their time, effort and money to follow the path laid down for them by greedy little men with nothing but money on the mind. There are plenty of educators – footballing and otherwise - that feel compassion and obligation to their students.
These people are good people, and if more of them worked in that huge money-vacuum we give our devotions to every other week there would be no need for my own personal outrage.
I'm not going to sit here and explain to you why I believe Sunderland AFC are one of the greatest and best-supported club's in the world, chances are you're only reading this because you believe that too, but I can happily tell you that the expectancy of this fan base and the deservedness of the people that follow the club is second-to-none.
I truly believe we deserve not only participation in the elite echelons of National football, but recognition as one of the largest club's in English football.
But whether you believe that or not: with that expectation must come obligation.
And so with the suspicion that there has been some dereliction of duty to these young individuals, I have to wonder: how, as fans, do we react to these alleged failures of our club in the matter of the surely irrevocable moral obligation we can all concur that they hold; how do we react to the news that the young men and women that come through the doors of the Academy of Light are handled about as delicately as a Scotsman wading through your finances?
How should we react to the dismissal of the sacrifices and commitment they make and the well-documented hardships they suffer?
I'll be honest – it's getting to the point now where tales of wankership and arseholery are a dime a dozen coming out the Sunderland AFC facilities. Should we expect any less by this point? Probably not.
But imagine for a second that there's a vessel in front of you. For every lie, cheat and account of moral ambiguity that spills from the great corporate entity that our club has become, the vessel fills up that little bit more. When the vessel is full there won't be an outpouring of rage or some cataclysmic toppling of the regime, there will be no systematic elimination of every single person/problem that occupy the offices of this entity (as there should be), no. What pours forth from that vessel after years and years of betrayal and ineptitude will be something far worse than outrage or anger, something that we've been glimpsing for a few months now.
Silence. The enemy of joy. The antithesis of support. The cold and real absence of sound that can only be found in an empty stadium, abandoned and crumbling to dust.
All that remain on the terraces now are the hardy souls that can't believe it can be this bad and the rowdy ones that want to drink and party to forget it. As more horrible little facts and figures are thrown from the office of the CEO to land in the vessel in front of us, the silence grows louder and fiercer. Anger turns inward and festers, and only the light of community and human spirit can combat it. Two things that are curiously absent in our hour of need.
I tell you now: if no light shines from that stadium or academy, one day soon we may glance up and realise that the silence has become thunderous, and that my friends will be the end of Sunderland AFC.
“Stadium of Light” indeed.