Apparently, last month signalled that twenty years have passed since the Stadium of Light first opened it's doors to a willing and hungry public. Twenty years (ish) since we waved farewell to Roker Park, that titan of the stadia old guard. Gone are its vaunted terraces, its hallowed corridors and its open-air urinals. No sir, they do not make them like they used to.
A much needed lull in the this fierce division sees us twiddling our thumbs and (hopefully) pondering free strikers. A fitting time then to consider the legacy handed down to Roker Park’s successor, and to ponder whether or not the forum of our fandom is truly done any justice by it’s custodians.
You’ll notice that above I use the word “apparently”. I use this word because if you were in the crowd on the day of the so-called Dafabet Cup you would have been hard pressed to notice anything interesting was happening at all. We were told to expect a celebration... and I think we all missed it.
In lieu of the appearance of any local celebrities, any pomp or anything remotely resembling a celebration, we had an online poll to vote for our finest moments at the SoL. Well excuse my french but whoop-de-fucking-doo.
I'm not even going to go in to the fact that we got hammered 5-0 in a 'friendly' that was marginalised first by the lacklustre way in which the club went about its 'celebration' and then by a cocktail of socio-economic division and patriotic prejudice, as fans on both sides endeavoured to fight, jeer and generally make an arse of themselves in the name of a mob-handed piss up.
I can't be the only one here thinking some of this could have been avoided, were there but the desire to make an effort. Now, I'm certainly guilty of criticising the way in which Sunderland AFC have conducted their business, from the boardroom to the bogs, over the last five years or so. But it would be remiss of me to accuse them of failing to overcome centuries of ignorance and social division; to somehow remedy the human condition in anticipation of a half-arsed and meaningless platitude to a questionable sponsor – sure, I could highlight their terribly unethical sponsorship choices, of which there are many, but let’s keep that to one side for the moment. But they could have tried to lighten the affair a little bit, no?
You can't have a birthday party without a cake, now that's a fact. Where were the bands? Where were the balloons? The banners? The fireworks? A colleague of mine noted that a small group of fans can commission a plane to fly overhead given a few days notice, and he's right. And yet those responsible for nurturing the enjoyment of fans can't even manage a pound shop imitation.
What concerns me is that there's no logistical nightmare involved here, there's no insurmountable obstacle when committing to the celebration of the anniversary. I can assure you that no more security need have been involved than was first deemed necessary (in fact, following this theory there may have been no need for security at all, ultimately), no extra catering (unless you count cake), no unsightly mess (beyond what you can expect 9,000 Glaswegians to leave in their wake, regardless of your best intentions) and ultimately no great cost to Sunderland AFC. There are quite literally dozens of Colliery bands that would have been overjoyed to take part in such a celebration, the entire region is swamped with performers and artists and people with a strong sense of community and club loyalty. None of them wanted to do it? I think it far more likely none of them were asked.
Is it wrong of me to expect a little pomp? A little... je ne sais quoi? I mean, it’s not as if the whole institution has been overcome by some workman-like attitude of rolling sleeves up and cracking on and so it can be ignored in consideration of our exemplary displays in more important areas - Gibson was smashed a few hours after the match and slagging off the club better than I ever could.
You know, Sunderland fans put up with a lot, and I do mean a lot. And anticlimax is synonymous with football support, it's all part and parcel of following the beautiful game. But some of it? Some of it is just a step too far.
We can tolerate years of abject misery, so long as it's interrupted by the occasional, dizzying elation of good football. We can tolerate the unavoidable effects of inflation and ungodly levels of finance now channelled into the modern game: ticket prices, travel, even the EFL-imposed law that requires the club to charge for the audio commentary - none of the blame for these few things can be lain at the feet of the club. I've never been one for demanding lower prices with Sunderland AFC – the prices are very reasonable and I commend them for their efforts in that.
However what we can't tolerate – and what we must never tolerate - is an absence of effort. You've heard the old adage, 'It's the thought that counts.' Well, it's true. Making an effort and being seen to be doing so is as important, if not more important, than the achievement. The achievement IS the effort. So where was the effort?
One of the great lures of sport is the crowd. It is the sense of belonging, it is the smells of pies and chips, the sounds of nervous anticipation before a match and roaring emotion during, and it's the bright lights, stark against a night sky when your breath mists in front of your face and you watch your family and friends living in this moment with you. The view down to the pitch: it seems so close you can reach out and touch your heroes – there's always a part of my childish mind that can't shake the shock at how small the players actually are up close, I clearly still deify them like a kid – and the desire to do so hasn't changed since I was standing on my father’s feet to see overhead. But the crowd alone isn’t enough to take you there, it’s a tit for tat relationship we have with our club. They can’t expect unending, relentless support and give back half-hearted, half-arsed handouts in return.
Imagine an alternative reality wherein Sunderland fans who likely can't spell IRA without an A, B, C book didn't cheer “fuck the IRA”, where Celtic fans didn't cheer... whatever they were saying in that brogue. Imagine a stadium full of bright colours and warm voices, imagine smiles on the faces of the children and the laughter between friends. Imagine what a friendly celebration is supposed to be. Now grab a pint glass and smash it over the head of your imaginary world, screaming “Ya see ye jimmy!?” That was Sunderland's Stadium of Light Twenty Year Anniversary match, except there were never any smiling, laughing people because no one bothered to make them smile in the first place. Am I dramatising? Yes, very much so, because if I don’t, regaling you with the story of that day is enough to cause your brain to melt and bubble in a grey paste from your ears. It’s great being able to forget a twenty year anniversary the day after it occurs, but when it’s not through alcohol consumption? Something’s wrong here. Something is wrong because the taleaway from that event was some casual nationalism and the sheer ineptitude of the party planners.
This should have been a day to remember, but as with so much of what occurs at this club, sometimes being a Sunderland fan just makes you feel like Oliver Twist. There you are with the proverbial bowl held out in supplication, begging for more, to the utter incredulity of the horrendous people that dispense the gruel.
To nurture the excitement and enjoyment of the fans should be the intention of every member of the football club – players, coaches, manager, boardroom, the lot. It's the ultimate reason money is paid, loyalty is given and journeys are undertaken. We don't go there for the cheap burgers on sale outside or the scenic route over the bridge. We're there for the emotional roller-coaster and, if we're honest, the rickety old mess has broken down. If we were having fun there would be no need for this conversation.
When I sit at the Stadium of Light now I feel flat. The whole place feels flat. A fanbase that once prided itself on support home and away can now only pride itself on the away. Away will never change because away is comprised of some of the most committed, passionate and proud soldiers that ever existed in a supporter army. You can't take that away from them, nothing ever will. Nevertheless, the loss of the home atmosphere is a tragedy of epic proportions.
A few days after the “game” we took to Twitter to ask our readers their views on the atmosphere: if it needed improvement, and how? Over one thousand of you responded in a few short hours and the truth is overwhelming – everyone recognises that something is wrong inside the Stadium of Light, that change is not only desired but it is necessary. What's more, the reasons given for the limp mood were uncannily similar: most cited the relocation of the away section as a huge problem. Calls to shut down the upper tier and focus on filling the lower are numerous, and of course everyone concurs that the team needs to actually perform well to make us feel better.
And that is at least partly true – an unbeaten run in the Championship, some dazzling football and heroic displays pitch-side would cheer us up a bit, absolutely. But in the absence of that (the duration of which is as long as a piece of string) people need to feel welcome, they need to feel loved and appreciated. I don’t feel that when I walk through the turnstiles. I feel like I’m not welcome, and I feel like the club’s ideal scenario is to take my money and then forget I exist.
Don't get me wrong - pink seats are a pain in the arse (buh dum tss). They're an eyesore, they're embarrassing and they are used as a rod to beat us with metaphorically, but they're also so utterly meaningless to the game. To the fans, and to the club, they are treat with such disdain and low priority that they've actually become a problem. The lack of minimal funds to achieve basic, aesthetic goals is indicative of the kind of haphazard, ill-conceived effort that permeates the very bedrock of the club.
For myself, I can see the connection between those pink seats and our disinterest, our apathy; without giving them too much focus, they’re almost symbolic of what this club stands for now. A huge organisation, with multi-million pound assets, unable to source enough paint to cover the cracks. Such small things like those pink seats, like the god-awful excuse for an anniversary celebration, like the lacklustre social media content, are just too fine to be ignored. The devil is in those details.
If things like performances on the pitch are ‘the big picture’, perhaps it’s time we focus on those little ones. Our house isn’t in order and it needs to be. Perhaps it’s time Sunderland AFC started focusing on what makes their fans tick, and go with that. Give them what makes them happy and fight against whatever makes them unhappy - that is, after all, what we all expect of them. Anything short of absolute symbiosis between club and fan is an absolute failure on the club’s part: a failure to understand your support, a failure to provide for them and a failure to recognise that you need them as much as they need you.