Supporters branches are, for some people, the one thing that helps to link them to supporting the club and easing what can be quite difficult and frustrating, particularly if you don’t live near the North East.
There are some very good supporters branches in the North East of course, and the people that run these branches are the unsung heroes amongst the Sunderland fanbase - from arranging buses to sorting out tickets, branch chairmen and secretaries do a fine job and perhaps aren’t commended enough for the work that they do within the Sunderland-supporting community.
With that in mind I plan to use this new series as a way of connecting with the branches and, in turn, shedding a spotlight on who they are and what they do.
The fact is that there are probably people all over the world that are unaware that branches do indeed exist near them. There are mackem exiles everywhere who would probably love to be a part of a branch, watching games with their fellow supporters even despite being thousands of miles from the Stadium of Light on a matchday.
For this first interview of the series I spoke to Chris Green, who runs the newly-formed Sydney Supporters branch, to gain some insight on how we copes with supporting Sunderland from down under and to find out more about the group he looks after.
RR: How did you become a Sunderland supporter? I can’t imagine that Sunderland get a great deal of coverage in Australia...
Chris: My best mate and I both worked as chefs and we use to get home from work after midnight, so coming home and watching Premier League became quite the tradition. Most matches are shown at around the 2am depending on the time of the year. My mate’s dad was a Geordie, so he followed Newcastle, so we generally watched the enemy play.
It was the 07-08 season, first derby since promotion, and he was telling me about the history of what is one of the biggest derby’s in football and the hatred between two towns that goes beyond football. This had me interested straight away. I had been watching Premier League as a neutral, but things started to fit that this is my team. A few coincidences, the Rugby League teams we both follow are local rivals and his team is black, white and blue and my team is red and white. Also, the lads were sponsored at that time by Boylesports, and I met my wife at Boyles Hotel.
Sometimes it’s where you’re born and brought up, but I guess when you’re born on the other side of the world, the team picks you, and Sunderland had me from there on in. I was hooked!
RR: How did you come to start the Sydney Supporters Branch, and how long has the branch been going?
Chris: I planned a family holiday to go to the UK for the first time in 2015 having watching for years on TV, it was very exciting to finally get the chance to see a couple of games live. The morning of the flight there was an article on the SAFC website about the UAE Supporter Group, and it just so happened to be that I was going to be stopping over in Dubai on our way to England and the Derby was going to be on while I was there (which we won, Six-in-a-row). I was welcomed by Stuart who runs the group and their members. I was impressed by the atmosphere from twenty odd people watching in a bar, atmosphere that watching alone at midnight in your lounge room couldn’t re-create.
Due to their help I was able to meet with Chris the Supporter Liaison Officer when I was in Sunderland and I made a commitment that I would start a Sydney branch.
The group is now approaching our third Birthday and it has gone from strength to strength, no matter of the results on the pitch.
RR: How many members do you have, and do you ever meet to watch games together?
Chris: We have grown rather quickly in the three years - we don’t have a membership programme in place, rather just a place via Facebook to discuss and disagree on all things SAFC.
Due to being on the other side of the world the kick off times aren’t ideal, usually midnight or 2am. When we were in the Premier League we could watch almost all the matches and I organised a meet up at least once a month, now we can all watch through the website but unless it’s a televised match in the UK we can’t watch a match at a pub. When we do get together for a match we usually get about 15 people.
Considering the time of the matches I think it’s a really good effort from our members, and I’m happy with the direction of the group is going.
We also have regular Christmas Party and End of season get togethers, which are held during the day, and it gives our members a chance to bring their families along and show their partners that they aren’t crazy and that there are people who exist who watch the matches with them at the crazy hours of the morning.
We also do a Christmas raffle and raise money for the Sydney Children’s Hospital - SAFC and some of our members have been great by donating prizes.
RR: Obviously as a new branch its exciting for you and your fellow Mackems out in Sydney. With the club becoming far more inclusive, how important is it to you to feel a part of what is going on?
Chris: Yeah really good question - there’s been a big change this season, a change in the right direction. I think in recent seasons it’s been a case of bandaging up on the run, relying on new managers and hoping a new signing can change all our fortune around. I think it’s pretty obvious that none of it has worked and bit by bit put us in a bigger financial hole. Sometimes you need to take one step back to take two steps forward, and unfortunately for us it was two steps backwards because we couldn’t address the issue on the run.
The ‘new’ Sunderland is a breath of fresh air. New owner, manager, squad and even new seats seals that we have made them repairs to a flailing club and can now proceed to go forward and thankfully the results have shown that, so far.
I think the communication from the owners has also helped - I regularly see tweets that give us fans direct insight to thoughts and plans of the owners.
RR: Do you get across to England often to watch the Lads play?
Chris: I’ve now been twice, but with no luck. My first trip was two matches, the first was a 6-2 drubbing from Everton the other was a loss at home to Southampton. My second trip was three matches, the last three matches in the Premier League. Swansea, Arsenal and Chelsea and yes, all losses. So maybe it’s best I just stay away!
But regardless of the results, through starting this group I have met some fantastic people in Sunderland. The club were very welcoming to me and my family. The first time I was there my family and I were treated by the club to a Stadium and Academy tour. Memories of my kids having a kick on the indoor pitch are memories I’ll have forever.
God, I want to go back now!
RR: What game do you regard higher than all the others when it comes to your favourite Sunderland match, and why?
Chris: I think the most memorable matches come from big goals. If I can name three.
David Vaughan at St James Park, best goal ever scored in Newcastle, the game that had every Sunderland fan wanting to put their suit on and do a knee slide.
Jermain Defoe at Stadium of Light, we all know it, probably his best goal, best goal in a Tyne-Wear derby, and has to be top three ever scored at the Stadium of Light. Pure magic.
Fabio Borini at Wembley. It was always going to be a tough mission, but to be up at half time at Wembley had Sunderland fans around the world thinking it could be the clubs first major silverware since ‘73. A truly great goal at a great stadium.
RR: What are your hopes for the future with Sunderland - do you think we’ll go up?
Chris: The only way is up! Honestly, we have shown that we are too big of a club to be in League 1. As I said earlier going down and regrouping as a club has been a blessing in disguise, we just need to take this momentum and make it count for something. The squad is looking good and it is so refreshing to see great results on the pitch and reading positive articles. It must be a buzz to be in Sunderland at the moment, a real sense of positivity. Which the fans and city can really benefit from.
RR: Speaking of the future, what are your hopes for the Sydney Supporters branch?
Chris: We are coming along nicely - my aim originally was to have 100 likes on our Facebook page (yes, lame I know) but subsequently we have hit that 100 each year and are about to reach 300 just before our third Birthday.
My aim was for a page to discuss and to get together with other fans to watch matches. What it has turned out to be is a really great group of people. I have attended members weddings and birthdays, members have holidayed here and have requested to meet up while they are here, and I hopefully have given Mackems a place where they can meet up with other Mackems to cure their homesickness and celebrate the Lads winning.
RR: How can Sunderland fans in Sydney get involved with your branch?
Chris: We have a Facebook page, so first of all give the page a like, and there are contact details there if they would like to get in contact with me. We have a Family Picnic day coming up at the start of October with two special guests coming to Sydney this October.
Malcolm Bramley, Secretary of Sunderland Senior Supporters Group and George Davies, Chairman of Sunderland Supporters Wingate Branch. Both have visited us before but this time we are lucky enough to have both out at the same time.
I hope as many people as possible can join us for a great family day out by the Harbour. Hopefully we get a good turnout and people can come to it and new fans can see what our group is all about.