For over 20 years, the early morning commuters of Prestwich have been staring in bemusement at the large group congregating at the bus stop outside TGI Fridays. As they wait for the 98 bus to Bury, the conversation from the people stood next to them is about whether Sunderland AFC will finally win a game this season.
Come rain or shine, there is a gaggle of men, women and children waiting across Greater Manchester for their ride to the north east. The Greater Manchester SAFCSA has brought together exiles from all corners of a region dominated by footballing excellence, to transport them to a region of footballing mediocrity.
Since 1997, the bus has become an integral part of the matchday experience. It has helped to forge friendships, provide great memories and maintain that link between Sunderland and those supporters that have moved away.
As a teenager living in Bury in the early-2000s, the Greater Manchester SAFCSA gave me the opportunity of regularly attending Sunderland matches. It meant I could take mates to the matches, I didn’t have to fork out extortionate rail fares and I could have the rare occurrence of being in the company of fellow Sunderland supporters keen to talk all things red and white. The football has never been that good but the journey is usually is more important than the destination, although I still haven’t won a 50/50 draw (reckon that number 33 got lost in Thirsk, ey Glen?).
In the latest installment of our Meet The Branches series, we speak to founder Dave Bowman about the origins of the Greater Manchester SAFCSA, its current state and what his hopes are for the future.
RR: Hi! How did you come to start the Manchester Supporters Branch, and how long has the branch been going?
Our full name is ‘Greater Manchester SAFCSA’ as Greater Manchester includes lots of other towns such as Stockport, Wigan, Oldham, Bury, Rochdale and Altrincham.
The idea was to cast as wide a net as possible, but - in reality - some members over the years have come from a much further afield: Lancashire, Cheshire, Merseyside, Derbyshire, Staffordshire and Shropshire. And we have members in West and North Yorkshire as our coach to the Stadium of Light has pick-up points on the M62 near Huddersfield and in Thirsk.
The branch was started by me in 1997 after the Lads were relegated from the Premier League after losing to Wimbledon on the final day of the season. It was a gut-wrenching moment for red and whites everywhere, but the amazing turn-out of Sunderland supporters at Selhurst Park - an estimated 13,500 travelling fans outnumbering the locals by two to one - convinced me that there was probably enough potential members around to try and start a branch in the Manchester area.
It was hard going at the start and, initially, we only attempted to run a coach to Sunderland once a month. Of course, there was no social media 21 years ago and very few people used email. But - over time - we built up our database of SAFC fans in the area and the rest as they say is history.
We organised branch meetings on a regular basis and had loads of great SAFC-related speakers including ex-players, journalists, club officials etc, so that was a good way of publicising the branch and spreading the word.
Our biggest branch event was at the start of the Roy Keane era when around 200 people crowded into the main function suite at Stockport County FC to see and meet club chairman Niall Quinn, although I have to admit that more than a couple of Man City fans were present too!
What was really heartening was the number of speakers who travelled long distances to talk to branch members about our beloved club, though - with the best will in the world - not all of them could be classed as Wearside legends. Hands up if you remember Peter Davenport, Brett Angell, Mick Buckley or Peter Barnes, the last mentioned having made just one appearance for the Lads!
One speaker from the club during the exciting Peter Reid era (who shall remain nameless) enthralled the assembled fans by predicting that, within a few years, Sunderland AFC would be “bigger than Manchester United.”
RR: How many members do you have, and were you surprised by the amount of Mackems in the area?
After two consecutive relegations, it’s fair to say that the branch has taken a bit of a battering. However we still have money in the bank and the arrival of Stewart Donald and Jack Ross - plus the good start to the season - has revived interest substantially. Our coach numbers are already up; more members now have season cards and optimism generally is on the rise.
I’m told by Glen Hutchinson and Martin Syer who do most of the branch work these days that we currently have 130 paid-up members, most of whom are ‘5-50 members’. These fans pay £5 per month by direct debit and, in return, receive reduced rate fares to the Stadium of Light and also have the chance to win £10, £20 or £50 each month.
It’s a great scheme, creating a lot of interest and benefits for members and is a vital revenue source for the branch. Any branch who would like full details of how it all works can contact us via the links at the end of this Q&A.
As I say, we currently have 130 members, but our regular travel and ticket bulletins are circulated to nearly 300 people by email - though during our 21 years in existence, we’ve probably made contact with at least 1,000 SAFC fans in the region. Some of course have moved back to the North East or to other parts of the country or abroad. Some of course have passed away.
The branch also has over 1,750 followers on Twitter - including Coronation Street star Melanie Hill (Kathy from the kebab shop) and local Labour MP and Shadow Economic Secretary Jonathan Reynolds - so we must be doing something right!
I’m not really surprised by the number of Mackem Mancs around. But not all our members are Mackems - lots of Geordies also support Sunderland and we have or have had members from Gateshead, Newcastle, Felling, Blyth and Alnwick. A lot of our members were born in and around Manchester but are of Wearside heritage and some have no connection with the North East, except a passion for SAFC.
RR: It’s never been more exciting to be a Sunderland supporter. With the club becoming far more inclusive, how important is it to you to feel a part of what is going on?
Stewart Donald and his team have definitely brought a breath of fresh of air to the club and it’s a very welcome change after the much less transparent approach of the previous regime.
I have to applaud the cut-price season card deal in the close season but whether this will be the most exciting season ever for Sunderland supporters is a long-shot at this stage. After all, we’re in the third tier of English football - but I hope you’re right!
I’m not sure all fans living long distances from Sunderland feel they’re being fully informed about what’s going on at the club. Obviously media coverage outside the NE is very scant, given the League we’re in and a lot of elderly supporters I’ve spoken to have expressed disappointment that the club haven’t done as much as they might have done to introduce the new players to fans.
The newcomers haven’t been profiled in the club programme. Nor has information been sent by email to fans on SAFC’s database. I appreciate that some of this stuff will be available online if people know where to look - but not every supporter is an Internet whizz and that should be understood and appreciated.
RR: How did you become a Sunderland supporter, and then end up in Manchester?
I always think that who you support is an accident of birth and it certainly was for me. My parents moved to County Durham from Scotland when I was five; my dad started going to Roker Park and when I was a bit older he started taking me too. That was in 1958 and I’ve been a fan ever since, though not always a regular at games as I used to work on Saturdays.
How I ended up in Manchester is the usual reason - I moved south for a job. I’m a journalist and from 1970 to ‘73 was Deputy Sports Editor of the Sunderland Echo, spending most of my time writing headlines, editing copy, designing pages... and writing about Newcastle United!
It was a marvellous time to be working on Wearside and I had the privilege of writing the well-known ‘THEY’VE DONE IT!’ headline for the Cup Final day Football Echo. As the headline was written the day before Wembley, two other headlines were prepared. One said: ‘HARD LUCK LADS!’ and the third covered the possibility of extra time.
A few months after the Cup Final, I took a call from legendary North East football reporter Doug Weatherall who told me there was a job going on the sports desk at the Daily Mail in Manchester if I was interested. And that was that.
RR: Do you get to/run buses to many of the games?
The branch plans to run a coach to every Saturday and Sunday League game at the Stadium of Light this season with three pick-up points in Greater Manchester and two in Yorkshire as mentioned previously. Cup ties and midweek trips to Sunderland are subject to demand.
As for away trips, the branch will run coaches to all matches in the North and Midlands - again subject to demand and ticket availability. For away games in the South, members normally travel by train.
RR: What are your hopes for the Manchester Supporters branch in the future?
It would be good to be around in another 21 years - and also see a few more members supporting the branch coach trips to the Stadium of Light. Of course, we understand that some fans prefer to go to the North East for the weekend to visit relatives etc but we’ve had 62 fans on a double-decker coach before so we can do it again!
If you are a lapsed member, why not give us another try? Our fares to Sunderland are very competitive and we currently have the best coaches we’ve ever had - sometimes being allocated a luxury corporate coach with live Skysports at no extra cost.
We’d also love to see Stewart Donald and Charlie Methven in Manchester, so come on down! Or should that be: ‘Come on up!’
RR: How can Sunderland fans in Manchester get involved with your branch?
New members are always welcome, so if you’d like more details about the Greater Manchester Branch, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, call or text us on 07814543175, and follow us on Twitter: @GtrMcSAFCSA.