Since the moment Martin Bain appeared in an interview with the club website in the summer, there has been a barrage of spin, cheap compliments, rehearsed interviews, meaningless slogans and empty statements. He has not only laboured to point out the club's forgotten identity and its lost connections with the city and the region, he has promised to restore them and in doing so, rediscover the success of years gone by.
The world is currently obsessed with returning to how things were in the ‘good old days’, a common reaction when there is a downturn and circumstances become desperate. Opportunistic figureheads inform the people that they can ‘Make America Great Again’, or return us to a United Kingdom that is strong and independent. Instead of trying to accept the world as it is and adapting to it, their view is to build walls and to look inwards and backwards. It’s appeal is in it’s simplicity, but the world is not simple and does not work like that.
We have been asked to put our faith in a plan that has been inconsistently applied, is ill-defined and, in my opinion, deeply flawed. As far as I can tell, the blueprint for our future is little more than a return to the past. The only question is whether that past is Sunderland's or David Moyes’, who seems intent on assembling some of his favourite guests for a farewell tour of his Premier League managerial career.
Up until this season, I gave no real thought to the business operations behind the scenes, though I was of course aware of the nature of modern football being first and foremost a business. Despite my knowledge that football is governed by the elite and - in several instances - the corrupt, I have always been able to retain the belief that football is an escape from the real world and not a manifestation of it. However, this season I have become irked by the clubs rather cheap and vacuous PR campaigns.
This PR focuses on emphasising the clubs history and showing an appreciation and understanding of the City, the region and the fans. This is, in my opinion, nothing more than an experienced businessman seeking to quell discontent and distract from the problems on the pitch - some of which are the fault of current employees at Sunderland AFC - by appealing to the fans pure connection to a sport and club that they love and exploiting them.
Most businessmen who make their fortune from football want fans to remain confident that football is still pure and belongs to them. And for the most part this is an illusion that is largely sustained by the fans themselves. We feel such a strong emotional connection to our clubs, that we can ignore and tolerate a lot of the nonsense that happens in the background. However, at a club where relative success and enjoyable moments are in short supply, the fan base are generally less forgiving and tolerant of businessmen and their background maneuverings.
In the absence of entertainment and the demonstration of any semblance of passion or organisation on the pitch - which Moyes has had plenty of time to produce - we have been given a previously unseen amount of nostalgic obfuscation, in the form of hashtags and cheap slogans. Through scripted interviews we are provided with ready-made scapegoats from the past who are responsible for our plight, and a current Manager and Chief Executive who are blameless, humble, invested in the club and in possession of a long term plan.
The relentless dissemination of this PR strategy is, in my opinion, intended to distract Sunderland’s perceptive fan base from the catastrophic, directionless and spineless ineptitude that still plagues our club. It appeals to our desire for a return to the times when we were witnessing memorable moments created by a team we could be proud of. All fans have to do is keep the faith, show their colours and display unity, and a world of nostalgic bliss shall be theirs.
And the sad thing is, this PR does seem to have worked to an extent.
Through a sequence of shoddy seasons, even without these inspirational PR campaigns, fans have continued to cheer and attend because we have such a strong bond to our club and we do not demand trophies, top half finishes or champagne football. However, though I have been to games and cheered the lads on through bad times and worse, I have still criticised managers and the board when they deserve it. Contrary to the notion implied in these PR campaigns, that to be a true fan you must demonstrate blind faith, I think criticism of those in charge of the club - when you feel they are pursuing decisions that are damaging - is a sign of loyalty.
A few weeks ago, David Moyes was wheeled out in a painfully contrived and scripted interview, against a backdrop of Sunderland shirts adorned with slogans telling us to ‘Keep The Faith’, that ‘Unity Is Strength’ and asking fans to ‘Show Your Colours’, among other ultimately meaningless slogans. This is made all the more ironic, considering Moyes’ season long determination to absolve himself of blame, deride the players he has at his disposal and insinuate to the media that he would never have taken the job if he’d known the budgetary restrictions in place. But these slogans don’t have to correspond with reality, they just have to be catchy and repeated everywhere to take hold.
Also in the background is the clubs establishment year, 1879, reminding us that the club we support today is the same one created back then and has enjoyed a long history with so many great moments. Invoking the memory of a brave and glorious past is always an effective way to secure loyalty in the present. The problem is this is all spin and does nothing to address the current issues - a lot of which are due to prolonged mismanagement - but some of which are also down to the current manager, his recruitment strategy and the ill defined and questionable nature of this ‘long term plan’.
Similarly, trudging three new signings up to Penshaw Monument, once again adorned with a slogan and the local press in tow, does not mean anything. It doesn’t mean they care about the city, or understand the club and it does not mean they are proud, invested or even paying attention. It is a PR stunt to create that impression, all the while distracting from the incompetence and indifference we have seen on the pitch, where they should be showing their dedication and understanding.
I still love and support my club. It is a key component of my life. I have many memories of great days at the match with my family and friends and - despite my knowledge of what modern day football is - I still get that mixture of excitement, anticipation and a hundred other feelings when I walk into the stadium, or when the match kicks off. This is not created by a two minute video or a potent hashtag, but by a genuine attachment to my club and the hunger for more memories like ones I have experienced before.
I know people will think the club are just trying to give the fans a lift and that it is harmless. But this PR strategy does not come from the same pure place that our support comes from. This is business and it serves a business purpose. The dishonest and manipulative way the club have sought to disguise their failings and negate what would be legitimate unrest has genuinely irritated me. I quite simply do not like how disingenuous, fake and exploitative it is for the tens of thousands of fans who have not waned in their support and who have continued to part with their money to watch and cheer on their team. This is not just about getting the fans to cheer and attend, this is about subverting and subduing criticism and protest.
The majority of football fans are fully aware that our clubs are now businesses and that money brings with it a lot of baggage. But as long as there is a plan - preferably one not as empty and redundant as returning to the past - which creates great moments and new memories for a new generation of fans on the pitch where it counts, the fans are capable of distracting themselves from the bullshit that swirls around the beautiful game.
I know football clubs have changed. I know players have ill deserved team-building breaks to New York. I know they’re obscenely well paid mercenaries and I know the people at the bottom of the pay grade are the ones who will suffer if the people at the top don’t do their jobs. It’s a business and this is how business works. We can’t change that and go back to how things were while maintaining our place in the top league of English football. I am not naive or in denial of the role of business in modern day football. I know, for example, that all clubs market merchandise to gain money from our dedication. But in this instance, where PR is used to negate legitimate anger and seeks to demonstrate artificial passion, commitment and investment that most of the players do not show on the pitch, I simply refuse to accept it as ‘part of the modern game’.
I want good moments and new memories. I don’t want to be told that the new plan for success is to look inwards and backwards. I also don’t want to have my commitment to my team exploited and manipulated to subdue legitimate anger and unrest. I want a team who prove their dedication on the pitch, not by repeating buzz words in scripted interviews and spreading hashtags on Twitter.
So stop insulting my intelligence and provide me with some dedication and improvement on the pitch. Give me some hope that a plan of substance going forward is possible, instead of trying to distract and manipulate my genuine connection to the club with third rate PR techniques.