When Shakespeare penned his legendary play Hamlet I’m not sure if he realised that his quill and wit would often symbolise the sorrows of a set of football supporters some 600 years later. When the tragic hero of the piece digs up his old court jester in a graveyard, he holds the former entertainer’s skull in his hand in a famous scene that many across the globe recognise.
As a child Hamlet found the jester Yorick amusing and entertaining. They used to play and frolic in joyful and innocent ways. Now that Yorick is a stinking corpse the memory of touching him seems revolting and makes Hamlet feel ill. He can’t bear to view his old mate as a rotting skeleton when he remembers him as someone so full of life and energy.
As the flesh from the body of Sunderland Association Football Club continues to rot, many wonder how long it will be, before we will be looking at the bony remains of something we once remembered fondly. A place we once knew to be exciting, enthralling and unifying. An organisation that has filled our weekends and lives with meaty and memorable occasions that will last a lifetime. Will Sunderland supporters reach Hamlet’s stage, where the Skeleton of his childhood friend is such a sad symbol because it confirms there is no coming back? Are Sunderland heading to the graveyard of once proud football clubs, many of whom are finding a resurrection very difficult to come by?
It seems there is no doubt for some that we must join together as a unified body of like-minded people and march as a well planned, strategically organised demonstration of passionate stake holders genuinely concerned about the long term future of their footballing institution. I’ve seen varied and very convincing arguments by genuine supporters very much at the limits of their patience with the current ownership of the club and everything such slovenly leadership represents.
I’ll state right now, that I completely and wholeheartedly understand that point of view. If you can’t see the very visible and tangible frustration, or feel the anger and anxiety of Sunderland fans right now then that means one of only two things. Either Kim Jung Un has shown an utter disregard for counterfeit Greek monuments and sent one of his warheads crashing into Penshaw Monument or you’re related to the Tin Man from the Wizard of Oz and have no heart. In a very footballing sense, the Sunderland fans are hurting and it’s obvious to everyone connected to the club. Well… almost everyone. For all of its rights and wrongs, football support naturally entwines our most vulnerable emotions and jumbles them together with belief and faith until the conversion into a team supporting zealot takes over.
So is it any surprise that a significant number of Sunderland supporters are calling out for a mass revolt? Like all fans we don’t just invest our money - that would be bad enough for little to no recompense in return - but we invest our souls, our families and our precious time. We often invest the most personal aspects of ourselves - our dreams, our fears and our hopes. So when those things are thrown back in our faces like they don’t matter and when suddenly the personal investment of much we hold dear is perceived to be unwelcome or bothersome, then the outrage and disappointment we currently feel is both inevitable and well deserved. I completely empathise with those that wish to march against something which they passionately disagree with that eats away at the core of this club.
Likewise there are many others, who feel the continued dwindling of home crowds, down recently by some 22,000 is protest enough. They believe and understandably so, that this form of silent, dignified protest is the most effective as it hits Short and Bain where it hurts: the wallet. Of course there is also the obvious and practical symbol of empty seats that are a direct and stark reminder to the powers that be, that actually, Sunderland fans will not just sit there like thoughtless lemmings and simply tolerate diabolical decision making and club killing leadership. Every week Martin Bain must live with the fruits of his shambolic labour and view the unmissable, unmistakable and heart breaking reminder of his inability and failure - the depressing sight of row upon row of empty seats.
Then there are those supporters who believe that any form of protest is somewhat a waste of time and they’re equally entitled to do so. Does Ellis Short really care if an angry mob walk around with banners asking him to leave the club? Is he really losing sleep in his £27,000,000 castle or in his £11,000,000 Kensington town house, that there are empty seats in a place he no longer cares about or has any emotional connection to whatsoever? And If we stay away does it really only hurt those who need our support the most - our team? Thereby making the protests counterproductive anyway?
All of these viewpoints are valid and we’re all entitled to them. But what of fan protests? What can we learn from their successes or failures of others who have marched and waved flags to overcome footballing tyranny?
Have there been any protests that have revolutionised the club for the better or have they temporarily changed something that wasn’t working only to eventually return to the wheel of disappointment once all the dust had settled?
There have been some notable successes. One we should remember well. Liverpool’s hardworking supporters were sickened by increasing ticked prices for a largely working class community. £77 was the highest priced match day ticket and it proved simply too much. The Kopites staged a mass walkout during their home game against us if you recall, during the 77th minute and got their reward. The Fenway sports group who own the club lowered the prices and issued a statement of apology. Since then the Premier league has put a cap on prices for match day away tickets. A definite success.
Some look to Villa fans, who after many years of depressing repetition with Randy Lerner as owner eventually ran the American out of town. The bitterness caused him to sell the club at a rock bottom price to Recon Group Limited, a Chinese consortium led by businessman Tony Xia. However they still remain in the Championship and are not exactly setting the world on fire, so time will tell if the fan protests were ultimately successful in the long term.
Ajax fans staged a protest at increasing ticket prices and in an organised protest refused to enter the stadium till the 14th minute (14 being John Cryuff’s number) against AC Milan in the 2010/11 season. Banners read ‘Ajax against modern football’ as the spectators waved flags criticising the Dutch FA and UEFA. Unfortunately, the protest didn’t work, Ajax were fined for misconduct and prices remained just as high.
Remember the anti-Glazer green and gold rebellion at Old Trafford? It was when the Glazer family announced a new debt restructuring plan in 2010 that the "Love United Hate Glazer" campaign really revved up the gears. Fans were encouraged to wear green and gold scarves to Old Trafford as a nod to United's predecessor, Newton Heath. A supporters' group dubbed the "Red Knights" then attempted a takeover of the club but failed to meet the Glazers' valuation. Once the excitement and thrill of the revolt subsided it was pretty much business as usual and the Glazers still remain at the helm.
Then of course there are the never ending sagas of Blackpool, Blackburn, Coventry and Charlton. These supporters have been in a perpetual state of protest for years. Those poor souls have all been dragged through the pool of despair only to be dried out in the volcano of doom. Despite ongoing and well organised fan protests that have been well covered in national and regional press nothing seems to change expect the personal bitterness of the fans which grows deeper and sadder as each season passes.
Indeed the Blackpool supporters trust who are at war with their allegedly corrupt and unscrupulous owners the Oyston family complain of ‘protest fatigue,’ so long and arduous has their protest been – and to some degree fruitless, although I’m sure the hardcore remaining few who valiantly maintain the remonstrations will feel vindicated by their actions. Likewise with the other once proud clubs dangling into the lagoon of insignificance - the fans have had enough, even the most ardent agitators of rebellion can barely take it anymore.
Do we really want to go down that route? I understand the fury, absolutely, but the long term commitment both practically and emotionally must be draining on both accounts.
While there have been successes where fans have been victorious in battles with club hierarchy over individual issues it seems those who fight to rid their clubs of billionaire owners for good entangle themselves in burgeoning hatred, increased effort and rising bitterness where in the end such ongoing protests seem only to add further cracks down the spine of the clubs, fracturing them deeper - sometimes beyond repair.
Short, like many owners of clubs where the majesty of love has long left and all that is left are dirty looks and sarcastic rebuttals, is a man who wants his money back or as much of it as he can get. He’s invested hundreds of millions - financially, more than any of us put together and more than all of our other chairmen put together and walking away from that must be difficult because if it was easy all these owners would be dancing off into the sunset by now including him. Billionaires generally don’t need the hassle.
Do I want new owners? Absolutely. Do I want new investment? 100%. Do I want better football with larger crowds? We all do. Has Short had his day? YES - there is no doubt and we are all sick to death of failure and pathetic excuses. If fans want to organise protests, that is absolutely your right and you should feel free to do so. It may well be a cathartic experience, a positive way to vent your fury and channel your energies.
But beware of ‘protest fatigue,’ and long term commitment for it seems billionaires do not become so ridiculously wealthy by walking away from millions leaving it behind as a generous gesture bequeathed to angry mobs they’ll likely never meet. It seems Short wants his money and I’m not certain any amount of protest will change that. Only the right offer.