Since the inception of early settlers on the banks of the River Wear, Wearside and its tightly-knit horde of localised, surrounding communities have lived and breathed in unifying purpose, for one eternal and unflinching symbol – Sunderland. The city, its people, its club.
From our genesis as a small Wearmouth habitation, we have pushed, strived and scratched to maintain our reputation as a proud and hardworking people. From overcoming longstanding political agendas in the 1600’s to forge a strong and workable port, to putting bodies on the line in the Civil war to protect local people from Royalist tyranny, to entire communities attending funerals of people they didn’t even know during the blitz of Wearside in World War Two - we have shown on an infinite amount of occasions, that when the time comes to make a difference in the lives of our regional and city-based cousins, we are always prepared to answer the call.
Having one another’s back is part of a working-class mentality forged from the dust-filled, lung-busting coalmines and the back-breaking, prolific ship yards where thousands of unrepresented men, left socially paralyzed by industrial greed, would march with one another to improve their meagre salaries and health-destroying work environments. Mother’s left at home with ration books and babies, sharing what they had with neighbours, caring for one another’s children during times of troubles and still maintaining a strong matriarchal led society we still fell the benefits of today.
While the Northeast to some ignorant souls may appear largely unremarkable, those who have ever been fortunate enough to cross our bows and build bridges with our people have always been left embellished with memories of forgiveness, friendliness and generosity.
With little practical riches to offer anyone, by tradition, we offer the best of ourselves to those who enter our lives. It’s the same for our football club. We offer it the very best of ourselves leaving us emotionally interconnected for better or for worse – in recent history it’s definitely been for the worst and up until this season, the club’s failures had become our failures and we felt every tinge of bitterness, disappointment and anger that comes along with sporting deterioration.
As a football club, chasing the Premier League dream (almost at the expense of everything else) there is no doubt the club and to some extent its people were suffering from an identity crisis.
We’d chased the dream for so long and so hard that, in many ways, the footballing fantasy of premier league paradise had for some, become to define who we were as club and more worryingly, as a people.
The pyrotechnic displays, the obscene wealth and the diamond encrusted culture that surrounds the bedazzled, gluttonous glitz of the Premier League, while hypnotic and addictive, are not intrinsically linked to the DNA and heritage of the average working class north-easterner. While its wonderful and enthralling to partake in the elite feast of football and wonderfully exciting to reap all the instant benefits that playing in the top tier brings, the sheer selfishness, narcissism and self-absorption of this money-spinning, media driven merry-go-round, can take a toll on clubs and their supporters who can’t afford to pay the entry fee to the most economically-fuelled football party in town.
That cycle of footballing self-indulgence can quickly burn you out and with burn-out, your opinions become warped and distorted, as does your view of the game itself.
This is why the timing of Sunderland AFC’s ‘Gift of Football Initiative’ could not be any more perfect or well-intended.
The idea to donate tickets to fellow fans struggling to attend the Boxing Day game at home to Bradford City is of course wonderfully benevolent and ideally suited to the Christmas season. The most impressive aspect of the initiative is the genesis of the concept. It came from supporter Simon Baty rather than any marketing executive at the club or some faceless, London-based PR firm.
Its fan born. Conceived by a fan and for the benefit of the fans. This seasonal gift-giving idea is an ideal addition to Stewart Donald’s refreshing approach of community inclusivity. With the power and influence to stretch Simon Baty’s innovative and generously minded seed of an idea, Donald has used his position to turn that seed into a giant oak - covered in baubles and tinsel, of course. He, his fellow directors, the players and coaches have joined in, allowing us to stand as witnesses of the in-house unity that now exists at the club.
Already over 1,000 tickets have been donated to the Foundation of Light charity for distribution to fans. Donald and directors Charlie Methven and Juan Sartori have donated 50 each towards the 2,000 target.
It’s a beautifully simple initiative that serves a multiple array of uplifting purposes that are beneficial for all connected to the club. On the matter, Jack Ross has said:
It encourages supporters to believe that the players here at the club appreciate them, and they have bought into this club and they understand the area, the fanbase.
That’s a positive because it needs to be like that here. Charlie (Methven) asked if he could speak with George (Honeyman) to make sure they understood the idea behind it.
It’s always easy if you believe in what’s being done and it’s a genuinely brilliant idea that will be of benefit to people who ordinarily wouldn’t get to watch us play.
From day one Methven and Donald have hit the local PR trail with all the passionate enthusiasm of owners on a mission. They’ve been like footballing pastors trying to whip up their congregation into a flock of frenzied believers. Some, initially argued the localised public relations campaign was somewhat of a cynical ploy that wouldn’t last. But it’s not slowed down and indeed, has picked up pace.
As astute marketeers themselves, our new owners quickly established that the true beauty and majesty of Sunderland AFC is not the division they play in, how much they pay their star players or how many times Gary Neville can criticise our back four on panoramic, interactive touch screens.
The real strength of the club, the core heartbeat of our institution, the massed molecules that collectively make this entire red and white body work, are the people. The region, the city, the community, the families, the individuals.
While we may have lost our way somewhat, having been blinded by the infinite bright lights of the Premier League, we have found our feet once again. The seething bitterness many shared for our previous owner and consequent disastrous setup has dissipated. The brooding menace of anger and perpetual rage that emanated from every corner of the Stadium of Light, like a hellbound spectre has been replaced with smiling, singing and optimism. The sense of hope and unity has returned.
It feels like a proper football club again, where supporters are part of the family and not just consumers or numbers on a spreadsheet. The sense of community is blowing its buoyant breath back into the lungs of one of football’s original giants.
The Gift of Football initiative reaches out to the very community upon whose shoulders this club rests. This club is for ALL within its reach and not just for those who can afford to attend.
There are many, who for a myriad of reasons, find it challenging to get to matches and their blood is as red and white as ours. Their loyalty every bit as committed. So, let’s continue to participate in this initiative and buy a ticket for someone who usually can’t afford it or finds it difficult to attend matches as much as they would like.
Not just because it’s a great and generous act, but because it’s so much more than a symbol of one person’s kindness or a one-off act of unselfishness.
It penetrates the very essence of who we are as a familial community. It resonates with our heritage as hard-working, often under-valued, hardy men and women of generous spirit, whose band of friendship is felt by all who travel our roads and byways and who requires a dose of salty, humorous crack to help them on their way.
Our black and white cousins up the road may mock us for our apparent footballing fall into degradation and despair, but from our humiliation comes our rebirth. From our indignity comes our renaissance.
We may well have lost our place at the pantheon of Premier League Gods, but through people based, community projects like the meaningful Gift of Football initiative, it appears we have re-found our soul. And for Sunderland fans and folk of this gritty region, that’s more important than the fleeting blur of high rank or vaulted status.