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Pondering Martin Bain’s summit with Sunderland fans groups this week; Is protest still a no-no?

With Sunderland AFC teetering on the edge of financial oblivion, the time has come to discuss our options as a fan base. Is it a choice, or a responsibility?


Much has been said of the efficacy of protest, in Sunderland circles. That isn’t to say that any real protest has been attempted, organised or even considered, and therein lies the problem; we’re told nothing will work. So have we become too afraid to try?

Whatever your personal feelings on an active resistance coming from the fan-base, we have to discuss the possibility of it and the potential power that it allows us.

But what can we do? We’re only fans. While many of us would give our good arm just to be involved with this club, none of us have any power to combat the disease that rages through it. I can’t stand this gutless idea that protest is powerless; true protest is a potent weapon, and you can arm yourself with it if you but choose to.

What is Protest?

Obvious question, I know, but one that I feel really needs clarifying for a large portion of concerned parties. So let’s tackle this briefly.

A statement or action expressing disapproval of or objection to something.

Note that doesn’t say: “being a bunch of melts” or “acting like mags”; it’s actually a good thing. Protest is one of the the oldest and most reliable vessels for change. Many immediately associate the word with placards and bedsheets, and those are absolutely acceptable and effective, but there are many forms of protest. Another go-to for those in the nay camp is the idea that a protest has to be a boycott. Of course it doesn’t; there are over fifty forms of protest, of which boycotting is only one.

It isn’t simply about overhauling a regime; it’s about expression. Like much of our language the word itself has roots in Latin, and essentially means “to bear witness”. I think we can all agree that as Sunderland fans we have certainly borne witness, and we’ve done it long enough. Why not do it with a purpose?

Sunderland v Hull City - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Club stance on protest

The following is an excerpt taken from the minutes of the meeting held between Sunderland fan group Red and White Army and representatives of the club, on 16th January.

[Martin Bain, MB] said he can understand fans frustrations and anger and why there would be calls to demonstrate. If fans want to protest with the aim of pushing the owner out, then it is common knowledge that the owner is willing to sell the club should the right offer come in. If protests are against him or the “regime” then it’s part and parcel of the job he’s paid to do. The CEO asked that any potential protesters consider the impact such may have on the young players who are already going through a hard time and any demonstrations won’t help confidence or performances on the pitch. Chris Coleman is working hard to keep us up and he believes the manager has started to instil real change in the dressing room. MB said he would also point out that protests only play into the hands of the opposition.

Oh boy. Where to begin?

New Sunderland Manager Chris Coleman Press Conference Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Protesting the owner

Bain states that it’s common knowledge that Ellis Short wants to sell the club, but we haven’t received the “right offer”, ergo implying that there is no need to protest Short’s ownership because of this supposed fact. Bain tells us in the above excerpt that it’s about the “right offer”, but Short stated in his interview in the first week of November 2017:

There is no longer an advisor. The club is not officially for sale.

I may or may not sell the club at some point in the future. That’s completely beyond my control – well not completely, but mostly beyond my control.

Common knowledge is it? Might want to have a word with your boss. Oh, wait... there’s something about that in the RAWA minutes, also;

MB confirmed he does not speak to the owner on a day-to-day basis but has guarantees that he will help to service debts and other deficits whilst the club works to “living within its means”, or if a suitable buyer comes forward and of course will listen to anyone who is right for Sunderland. The owner is not holding out for an unreasonable price. MB said that if, and when the club is sold no fan will consider the sale price to unreasonable.

These two really should sit down together - some people might consider it important.

One of the main frustrations associated with Ellis Short (other than the contradictory statements made by himself and his CEO) is the idea that he knows what’s best for a club that is teetering on the edge of financial oblivion, one that has reached that precipice under his stewardship and is only floating because it’s been stripped of assets and employees. Simply put: we don’t trust Ellis Short to make that decision and he has never at any point proven that he should be trusted with it. That alone is worth protesting.

Sunderland v Burnley - Premier League - Stadium of Light Photo by Richard Sellers/PA Images via Getty Images

Protesting Martin Bain and “the regime”

Martin Bain implies quite unequivocally here that he isn’t at fault, stating “it’s part and parcel of the job (he’s) paid to do”. In a sense he’s correct; Ellis Short gave him his remit no matter how ugly that might have been, or how adversely it affected morale in the dressing room or in the stands. It wouldn’t hold up in Strasbourg, but it’s good enough for us. Or is it?

While I personally feel Ellis Short could have chosen someone other than Bain, a man whose tenure with one of the largest and most respected footballing institutions in British football in Glasgow Rangers coincided with their subsequent insolvency and sale to a new owner for ONE WHOLE BRITISH POUND, there isn’t a lot of evidence to support the idea that Martin Bain has a personal stake in the tanking of our club.

But just because he’s doing a job doesn’t mean we want him doing it. Just because he was hired doesn’t mean he’s indispensable, in fact, I’m sure he’d be the first to tell you that it’s easy for someone to lose their job because of someone else’s mistakes; just ask the near-100 club staff he oversaw the dismissal of.

The fact is that we’ve been told at multiple times by multiple sources, albeit some more credible than others, that Ellis Short has left the running of Sunderland AFC to Martin Bain. Since his appointment nearly 100 people have lost their jobs, the Sunderland Ladies team is (embarrassingly) without any financial support to speak of, we sold our only asset in Jordan Pickford, put almost-nothing into recruitment, hired three managers, were relegated and are now on the verge of being relegated again if things don’t turn around soon, not to mention are making a guaranteed loss on the purchase of several players, including Ndong, Borini and Lens.

Instead of telling us why we shouldn’t want to get rid of him, how about telling us why we should keep him around? He’s symbolic of the owner’s intentions; his right-hand man. They come as a package and they should leave as one. Without Short, there would be no need for a headsman like Bain.

Sunderland v Millwall - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

The effect of protest on the players

Bain’s comments here actually made me laugh because not only are they stupid, they’re downright manipulative. But for the moment let’s treat it like an argument based on reality.

If you take an objective view to the issues raised by fans over the last few years (the remit of several departments within the club who have the outreach, funding and infrastructure to catalogue such things) you would note that talk of protest has never been caused by the individual efforts of those on the pitch. No one’s running around shouting “GET HONEYMAN OUT OF THIS TEAM OR I’M NEVER COMING BACK!” You don’t see “ASORO OUT!” banners in the stands. Pull the other one.

The sheer gall to suggest that Sunderland fans would set out to damage the confidence of any player, let alone the academy lads who are frankly comporting themselves with a dignity beyond their years, can only come from a man that either does not understand what protest is or is scared of it. Why else would you make a comment like that? Why else would you imply that any protest against the regime is a protest against the squad? The alternative to that accusation is that the players aren’t capable of being able to differentiate between any message directed at them and any message directed at the club. Not to mention; this ignores the very real possibility of a protest that involves increasing the attendance at the stadium as a display of solidarity, not decreasing it by boycotting.

These are base tactics employed to turn the fan base against anyone that expresses their objection to the ongoing actions of the hierarchy. There’s no justification for that simplistic belief. A protest is not by its very nature negative. We need to move away from this misconception.

Sunderland v Birmingham City - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

The manager and the opposition

Chris Coleman is doing a fantastic job. That’s my personal belief, and that’s based on the slow but steady improvement we’ve seen on the pitch when he’s given a fit enough squad and enough time to prepare. More importantly: Chris Coleman is an intelligent man. If he were to look to the stands and see a banner expressing protest against the club, he wouldn’t start to cry as all his fears and insecurities come to rob him of his delicate sensibilities. He’s a grown man, and he’s been in the game a lot longer than the owner. I trust him to manage the squad and I certainly trust him to understand the psychology of fans and the commitment, and I dare say obligation, that supporters have to their team.

There is no relationship between owner and manager; if I had to guess I’d say they’ve met a half dozen times at best. A vote for Coleman is not a vote for Short, and Coleman knows that. Organised, efficient and effective protest will not have an adverse effect on the team and their displays on the pitch.

Besides – has anyone ever stopped to ask the players what they think? Of those that have been employed by Sunderland AFC under the owner’s tenure, how many have given their opinion on record of the club and its direction or lack of? Is there even anything to suggest that the players don’t give a toss about who owns what or when, or is this just a variant of the misconception that footballers are thick?

I wonder how many players would see positive protest and think “Finally! They’ve clocked on it’s not us!”

Sunderland v Hull City - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

The need to protest

I can’t sit here and tell anyone what to think. It’s true that I’d love to, and that if I had the opportunity I’d march with every single Sunderland fan on this planet to achieve a club that is worthy of the people, the region and the sport. To me, Football deserves a better Sunderland AFC.

But again – I can’t tell you to do it. I can’t make this situation so grave, so upsetting, so emotionally-charged as to start a fire inside you that won’t burn out until we’ve seen real, tangible change. You need to decide what you want. You need to decide how you’re going to get it. That’s the truly hard part; convincing your fellow man that you can not only achieve the impossible, but that you’re going to do it via non-violent action, and with the purest of intentions. The hardest task is the organisation, but really it’s only a few words away.

Do I believe there is a need to protest? Absolutely. I believe that any owner’s position can be made so untenable, so uncomfortable, and even distressing, that he will have no choice but to actively and openly seek the sale of his business. The need to sell the club to someone that has the money to get us out of the hole he oversaw the digging of is the key reason to push this agenda. I won’t accept that such a person doesn’t exist, not in this industry, not in a million years. I won’t accept that Ellis Short will or won’t sell the club depending on how he feels on the day, as evidenced by the contrasting comments from himself and his CEO.

Something I also won’t accept is the idea that my lack of acceptance is akin to some kind of soppy pedantry or treachery against the club I love. It is our responsibility to challenge the club in these desperate times, failing to do so is failing generations of fans.

Are we not tired of hearing excuses for a deflated fan base? I’m tired of pondering, of wondering about what we should and shouldn’t do – I’d rather get out there and do it.

I’d sooner travel the hundreds of miles on the fuck-all money I’ve got to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with 40,000 Sunderland fans that had to squeeze through another 40,000 just to get inside the Stadium of Light, and when I’m in there I want to hear them all.

I want to hear them support their team, but more than anything, I want to hear their voice, and that they know how powerful that voice really is. This cause is righteous enough to be championed. We should never simply accept the status quo because people with more money and secrets than we’ll ever have told us what’s best for us.

We decide what’s best for us. If it means protesting to get it, so be it.

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