Once Upon a Time...
In 1997 Sir Bob Murray laid out his vision for The Stadium of Light, his “affordable football for all”. The stadium, Murray’s dream, signaled a rebirth of a proud old club.
Murray made no apologies for offering pricing concessions. He saw it as his duty. He built a stadium that many thought was too big for our then fan base, and he refused to make the stadium season ticket only.
Everyone could take part - everyone was valued.
Of course there was more, much more….
Thrilling, attacking football played by a team full of hard workers and hard players with values and value. But value came in both directions, a free gift with a season ticket renewal. A real gift - not a book of discount vouchers to spend at Frankie and Benny’s or a preferred corporate partner, but a poster of the SoL, a book on the history of the Club - history and pride, values to be passed down. A brick in the wall to leave your name on the stadium forever. Support was valued, we paid and we received. It meant something.
Of course, this being Sunderland, sadly it didn’t last and on the pitch fortunes fell away far too quickly. Some supporters fell by the wayside - that’s life.
As the Murray years ebbed away, pride in the club diminished.
On the pitch it was miserable - off the pitch it was worse. Bitterness, anger - we were no longer the caring club. A legacy all but lost, yet history remained. We had that at least.
Niall Quinn and Drumaville came to bring enjoyment back - smiles, pride, values. There was excitement off the pitch as well as on it.
Quinn did a round of tours in the area - Sunderland, County Durham, the heartlands, he found the support and he understood what a club should be all about.
He visited supporters’ groups, he spoke, he listened, he cared. He paid for taxis from Bristol. He had his own values and he valued the support. There was a new atmosphere; value was given to the fans and he was fully repaid in real and valued support.
Quinn loved us and we loved him - value, values.
A love lost….
But it was not enough - it was never going to be enough. Not enough for us to compete, not enough to last. The new Premier League era demanded money, big money, money that is rare in this country and non-existent in the north east of England.
So in rode Ellis Short, an American and a Billionaire.
He got great value on acquiring the club, but he lost it all because he had no values.
The corporate nature of the Premier League was brought to the SoL by the American and his advisers. The Short era embodied it.
Fans were marginalised, excluded, ignored, irrelevant, history was whitewashed over, disregarded, tacky gimmicks abounded the SoL, the marketing department reigned supreme.
In came the commercial partners, out went the banners on the concourse, the banners named after ex-players. Loved and valued heroes were gone, in came in the gimmicks - the voucher books, a free hot dog if you bought a beer - out went the soul, the history, the value, the values.
Hundreds of millions poured in, more went out, our value and Ellis Short’s value disappeared into nothing - gone. The love for many, lost.
Values of a once proud club shot in shady deals, poor marketing and no communication.
Instead of discounted tickets to those who needed them, free tickets were issued to corporate partners. Cheapening the meaning of support.
Tickets issued not sold, empty seats, gaps of pink plastic, remnants of a club made of pink plastic marketing mush - no value.
The desire to support was cheapened. We were thanked for our continued support; nobody believed there was any sentiment in the message from the marketing department.
And now, a one club future…
The fourth generation of owners in the SoL era have now arrived. Its early days but it feels like renewal, renewal of pride and a renewal of values.
“The p*ss-taking party is over”, fans are installing new seats in their own time, with their own hands - ownership not of the club, but ownership of their space within it.
Challenges laid to supporters and encouragement to buy and not be given a seat.
The ‘one club’ mentality - “come and join us”, take some pride in your club again, buy in to it. Some can buy a box, others a season ticket, some can only go match-to-match, but they are invited to get involved, to get close, to love the club again.
A club - do we have a club again? Maybe.
That’s the message that the new regime are putting out. Time will tell if they get it and get it right. They seem to value support, they need to, and they must. After all, it’s all the Club has, and perhaps that’s where the previous incumbents went wrong.
They ignored values and lost everything by never placing any value on the only thing that any football club has got, and that’s its support.
Let’s hope that as time moves on this won’t be forgotten, again.