“Football can be the greatest game in the world but without people to watch it, it becomes nothing.”
As College basketball in the US goes into overactive hyper-drive each March, it seems the aptly named title for this highly anticipated, single-elimination tournament of 68 teams could also be applicable to Sunderland and our supporters on this side of the pond.
‘March Madness’ is here and has been all month at the Stadium of Light.
We’ve moved from one pathetic, submissive and joyless defeat after another and the consequential desolation that follows, to the asthma attack-inducing giddiness of dreaming about survival after beating Derby County last night.
Talk about the highs and lows of football - we Sunderland fans are churned through an emotional cement mixer on an almost daily basis.
Since the beginning of the Football Association 155 years ago, the landscape of football has undergone an extraordinary evolution, growing into the most watched sporting league in the world. Our game broadcasts across 212 territories and earns £3.2billion in television rights and incrementally more millions from merchandising and marketing.
The game has developed and adapted to the needs of its ever-growing audience and Sunderland supporters have been witnesses, visionaries and participants in every step of that breath-taking journey.
And yet here we are.
Many of us have been down, depressed and disengaged for much of this season. The game that created us is now devouring us. The club that inspired us is now deflating us. We pray for a hero, a generous billionaire, preferably a son or daughter born of Seaburn or Ryhope, who won’t mind casting aside a few hundred million just for the love of it.
Even the slightest hope of a Niall Quinn led consortium was enough to get champagne corks popping and understandably so. We’ve been so starved of genuine moments of footballing utopia that we become frantically excited at the simplest of achievements or, as in the Niall Quinn scenario - a rumour, a whisper.
There have been scores of academic research papers submitted to respectable educational institutes that delve into the psychology of football fans. Our devotion perplexes the progressive mind that has little connection to the game itself.
They call us ‘consumers’, and we consistently confuse them because we act like no other consumer in the fiscal market place and therefore it’s foolishly reductionist to label fans as mere customers - when you’re checking the sell-by-date of raspberries in the fresh fruit aisle you don’t hear fellow shoppers heartily singing ‘We love you Sainsbury’s, we do!’ or when you’re eating your chicken wings you don’t burst into a chorus of ‘Sunderland’s KFC are by far the greatest team, fast food has ever seen’, do you?
Our loyalty does not come from habitual financial transactions alone. Our loyalty comes from family, from community, from belonging and love. There is a much deeper connection that lies draped in history and culture.
As Sunderland fans, yes, we want to rid ourselves of Ellis Short and his negative malpractices. Yes, we would be ecstatic with a new owner and a chance to breathe again as a footballing entity. But, while this confusing wrestle over ownership and finance continues, we shouldn’t forfeit our ability to hold on to what matters - and more importantly who.
Regardless of which wealthy individual or consortium that owns us, irrespective of what league we compete in and in-spite of which motley crew dons the red and white stripes and take to the field, the most important and crucial stakeholders at this club are the same people they’ve always been. It’s us. It’s you. It’s me.
Long after our new owner and the owner after that are gone we will remain. After a spin cycle of hundreds of players in the decades to come, Sunderland supporters will still be celebrating, bemoaning, clapping and crying at every ball kicked and at each decision made.
I absolutely agree that to a large extent we’ve been abandoned by the shadowy and distant powers that make decisions we cannot control but impact us regardless. I’m not deluded enough to believe we should be in complete control ourselves and I’m not calling for an all-out revolution, where we storm the boardroom in a hostile takeover, blindfolding Martin Bain and forcing him walk the plank.
To some extent the message of a mass protest has already been expressed by our falling attendances and news that parts of the stadium will now be closed as a result. Our anger and bubbling feelings of betrayal have been embraced and expressed in a way that was unavailable to our parents or grandparents.
How many critical articles via blogs and websites have we read calling for Short’s head? How many posts on social media have been written using every vulgar expletive in the book describing Bain and Short? How much money has been lost from the coffers of Ellis Short as a consequence of empty seats and a rebellion against purchasing merchandise while he is in charge? Short knows our feelings and if he doesn’t, he’s too distant and beyond caring to flicker a moment of interest in a foot-to-ground march fuelled by further anger.
We want him out and he wants out. No handcuffing ourselves to gates or burning our underpants in protest will change that.
But we should not lose focus on our power as a united group. We should not forget the strength and magnitude of our collective voices. We understand the state of play - we know Short is actively seeking a buyer, while cutting and slashing his asking price, perhaps even forgoing it altogether.
Therefore, the forcefulness of our unity and the raw muscle of our collective body should no longer be used only as a heat seeking missile aimed at the rich American. Instead of organising a protest largely based on angry, negative emotions and the rage of disappointment, perhaps there is an alternate vehicle by which we can magnify our bellowing voices.
Rather than continue to pour out our bile to an owner who is no longer interested in our criticisms, we should galvanise that energy and use it as a force for good.
As a consequence of all the hideous and depressing dramas that have unfolded in the last several years, I’ve almost forgotten what it means to be a club. When Sunderland AFC and other iconic football institutions were formed in the late 1800’s we were called clubs because the teams were forged from members of working bodies, like teacher’s unions or factory workers. Then it spread outside of the tightknit clubs into the wider community and it’s this beautiful, bustling and proud community of ours that remains the jewel in the crown of Sunderland AFC.
Not share values, not marketing strategy, not the stadium, the players or the owner. It’s us.
The supporters. The people. The hardworking, salt of the earth, eternal pessimists. The descendants of pitmen and ship-builders, the children and grandchildren of humorous, no-nonsense matriarchs, who fed 5 kids in a two-bedroomed terraced house with little but air to feed the dust-laden and messy haired children. We are so much more than what we have been forced to become.
It’s time for us once again to show our worth, our value. Not as soulless consumers, but as the lifeblood of the club, without whom, the institution itself would shrivel and die. A new owner would provide the air for us to breath but it’s the supporters that provide the heart of this frail and failing club of ours. A new saviour would only be transformative with our blessing and our overwhelming support - without it they would fall on their gold plated swords.
So, rather than a protest against Short, I suggest a counter protest. An anti-protest-protest, so to speak. For the last two home games of the season, relegated or safe - win, lose or draw, lets pack out the Stadium of Light as much as we possibly can.
Let’s scream ourselves hoarse, let us clap till our hands bleed. Not for Short, not for Bain, not for those charlatans posing as players - but for us, for this club, for this community.
Let the message to any potential investor be loud and clear - WE ARE WORTH YOUR WHILE.
Sunderland supporters are the very soul of a community-forged club and our unbridled love for this shaky behemoth, will be repaid back in full to any owner whose integrity matches our own. But we must show them.
There are several parties rumoured to be sniffing around the supposed carcass of a once roaring black cat. Sunderland fans and only Sunderland fans can genuinely symbolise the club’s worth in a way that a mathematical spreadsheet will never do.
We, the people of this club are the gatekeepers of our footballing heritage and hold the priceless key to its very future.