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Sunderland are in danger of losing an entire generation of supporters - but we can change that

“It’s never been more difficult to hold onto the next generation of football fan, and every one of us has a responsibility and duty to pass on the baton of culture to the young people who surround us”, writes Craig Davies.

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Clive Walker. There you go - a man who enthralled and pained me in equal measure.

Balding, skinny and never going to gain a lucrative contract for image rights. Not one of the greats perhaps, but certainly responsible for inspiring some great moments in his two years at Sunderland. He’s not one of my all-time heroes and he wouldn’t get into my all-time XI, but he was the first Sunderland player I ever saw score at Roker Park.

The wonder of that goal was only matched by the excitement of a sensational come back against a strong Manchester United team - a team that included Bryan Robson, Mark Hughes, Gordan Strachan, Jesper Olsen and Norman Whiteside to name but a few. They were beating us comfortably 2-0 at Roker Park, with Hughes and Robson on the score sheet.

A quick response from Sunderland saw us pull a goal back, courtesy of Walker. Clive subsequently added two penalties to complete a surprising hat-trick that won us a dramatic game. So, at around 5pm on a windy November day in 1984, my dad and I were walking back towards town, hand in hand, where I was pretending -in that moment- that I was Clive Walker and kicking several imaginary footballs along the way.

Oh, the glory, I imagined would come Sunderland’s way in the years to come. Oh, the sweet naivety. I was 9. This was my first match at Roker Park. The first real football match with my Dad. It was momentous.

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Fortunately for me my dad has kept some tremendously detailed journals, because my decrepit memory can only recall fragments of the day. I actually didn’t remember all of the incidents, such as the two sending offs, the Chris Turner howler, or even the penalties truth be known. I could remember Walker’s first goal though, and I do remember the way that going to the match made me feel. It was powerful - almost overwhelming.

I was suddenly at a point where the sheer innocence of childhood was just beginning to mix its wondrous DNA with the strained, yet liberating bloodline of growing up.

Now, at approximately the same age as my old man when he took me to watch us beat United, the wondrous naivety of my childhood is replaced with a cynical, world weariness and a grizzled approach to football support, where all too often the hypocrisy, greed and failures of football - not to mention the eternal upheaval at Sunderland - has up until recently held me on the precipice of supporter oblivion.

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I was where many football supporters find themselves occasionally, when the entity of professional football morphs into something unpleasant, and bitter to the taste. It’s where a supporter’s bristling excitement is transformed into boredom, a contemptuous attitude to the constant gluttony, the lack of loyalty and the disconnect of huge corporations to the supporter on the street.

Gratefully, I have a secret weapon that reminds me at all the right times that football is more than simply an opportunity for children to grow into a sceptical world - a chance to shake off the glorious innocence of game playing and giggling, to finally earn the respect of our dads or our peers. Football is more than an adult-only fight against all the wrongs that the modern game throws in our faces like unwanted snowballs.

My nine-year-old son and his bouncy happiness is reminding me that football is not about the conclusion of a lifetime of sporting frustration, but is a way of joyfully re-calibrating our identities as we grow - and not just from childhood to adulthood but all the way through, ‘til our pipes and our slippers can no longer catch the bus to the Stadium of Light or drive gleefully to away games.

Sunderland v Manchester United - Premier League Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

To my nine-year-old boy it is a means of re-shaping the world. His cheerful attitude towards matches has reinvigorated something of the boy within me.

The boy for who football was a joy. The boy who played for hours in the street, always annoying that one grumpy family who would never hand the ball back if it went over their fence. The boy who would wait outside Roker Park for autographs, no matter the weather or the time it took to get them. The boy who at the age of twelve got stitches in the head when he was hit by a flurry of crazily tossed coins away at Rotherham. The boy who at 15, alongside his mate, put on our Sunday bests and sneaked into the Vaux breweries and pretended we were on work experience when the Sunderland squad came for a tour of the site. That boy. The boy who just loved Sunderland and for that lad, that’s all that really mattered.

I can honestly say, hand on heart that I can’t remember giving a monkey’s uncle about being relegated into the old 3rd division, a fate that seems to be looming once again for this football club of ours.

But I do remember meeting Marco Gabbiadini when I was not much older than my lad is now. I do remember how great Gatesy and Gabbers were as a strike force, and I do remember how much me and my mates laughed and talked about David Speedie fearing for his life when the glorious Benno threw him into the crowd and throttled him.

This is when football first took me to where my little boy is heading now. Not off to a world of disgruntlement, but a world of wonderment.

And yet am I painting a rose-tinted spectacle? I must be, because when I’m in my ‘grown up’ guise I am full of irritation - full of perceived grievance. Only when I’m with my boy does my reason for loving football return to its genesis form.

Sunderland v Manchester City - Premier League Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images

‘That was the best game ever dad!’ he proudly exclaimed after last Saturdays frantic 3-3 draw with Middlesbrough.

He talked passionately all the way back to Durham about the frantic nature of the match. In fairness to Joel it was the best game he’s witnessed. It’s not a very tough ask, considering he never saw a home win for over a year and the football served up was as dull as dishwater.

Whereas I was confirming in my own head the likely disaster of League One football and what that would possibly mean, he was just excited about the goals, the noise, the madness. He’s not interested in fiscal stability or the value of shares. Like I was over 30 years ago, I wasn’t devastated at the thought of the 3rd Division (or League One in our case). I was still enthralled by the atmosphere, the sounds, the groans and the celebrations. Even though I was a child, it felt I was on the shoulders of giants and almost being counted as one of them, which was exhilarating.

The smallest things have my lad hypnotised when it comes to attending games. When he puts his red and white scarf on before we’ve even left the house I can see a decided change in his countenance. He’s instantly one of the red and white army. He’s on the inside of a very unusual circle, an unorthodox footballing family, that are as addicted to pain as they are pleasure.

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I come from a time when Reuben Agboola was the most exotic-sounding footballer in Britain, and when working your way from the Roker End to the Cage was a mark of footballing progression for young Sunderland fans. I wonder, if in all the turmoil of what is happening on and off the field, if Sunderland are in danger of losing a generation of young fans, whose parents (understandably and perhaps rightly) have decided to protest with their feet and no longer attend games.

When I was my son’s age we’d spend time building ridiculously dangerous ramps, in back alleys, from bricks and planks of rotting wood, but going to the match was an opportunity for escape and a chance to belong to something bigger than your little set of pals in your regular, little street.

Today’s world is different. When children stop attending games, there is an unfathomable amount of countless clubs and activities that could replace the match in an instant.

They’re all exciting, safe and engaging in their own ways. Many are cost equivalent and all perhaps as socially-addictive as attending the match. My eldest daughter (who used to come to games with us) has sadly bit the bullet and been seduced by horse-riding. She used to love coming to home games, every bit as much as my boy - if not more so. But a little older, and wiser, she became bored of the dire football and the general angry bitterness that blows around the Stadium of Light like a contagious poison.

Sunderland v Burnley - The Emirates FA Cup Third Round Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images

Today, football is an entertainment industry. And this, as much as anything, frightens dad’s like me. We can’t simply bequeath much of ourselves via sheer entertainment: We’re not in boy bands or skilled at a myriad of circus stunts. Our kids are consumers now, not just a few cheeky rascals playing ‘nicky, knocky nine doors.’ And as consumers they’re fulfilling that right to choose by buying the other activities to engage in, or other clubs to support.

Clubs with more success, bigger stadiums, a wider fan base or whatever other metric they use to purchase their carefully chosen club. There is no history required, no personal bond, no local link needed.

Culture, on the other hand… this is where parents like us can compete with entertainment.

The culture of supporting Sunderland is not something bought or pre-ordered. It can’t be arranged via contactless payment or encouraged by Celebrity Love Island. It’s something personal, a piece of our history, a piece of our childhood, a piece of our soul. It’s what makes us weak and equally strong. It’s passionate, absurd and occasionally hysterical, but it’s the real me - the real us.

Too much of the Sunderland fan within me of late, has been miserable and disenchanted and if I’ve any hope of keeping my boy as culturally linked to this club as I would like him to be, I have to become the boy I once was, and joyfully support the club as liberally as I ever have. Free from bitterness, cynicism and fear.

Today, English football has never been safer, better televised or more entertaining. Sadly, it has never been less about the culture of the people who forged and mapped our football clubs. Because of the lack of cultural link and a failure from the clubs to engage young people, they leave for another form of entertainment as soon as its winks flirtatiously or asks for Facebook likes.

It’s never been more difficult to hold onto the next generation of football fan, and every one of us has a responsibility and duty to pass on the baton of culture to the young people who surround us.

Without them, our future will be bleak, regardless of what league we’re in. But with them, there can always be a new dawn, even when all seems lost.

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