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OPINION: Football fans & the happiness paradox - What is it that makes Sunderland fans happy?

Former owner Ellis Short forgot the little things that can bring satisfaction for fans in his pursuit for success. Would simply winning more games have been enough for all Sunderland fans to be content and happy?

Manchester City v Sunderland - Premier League Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

What makes us, as football fans, happy?

I’m struggling to decide if that is a very simple question or an extremely complicated question; I would imagine if a thousand football fans were asked that question there would be a huge range of answers.

The paradox of hedonism, or the pleasure paradox, warns us of the difficulties in the pursuit of pleasure. As Viktor Frankl described in Man’s Search for Meaning: “Pleasure is, and must remain, a side effect or by-product and is destroyed and spoiled to the degree to which it is made a goal in itself”.

Sunderland v Arsenal - Premier League Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images

I can look back since my first game at home to Manchester United in September 1990 and comfortably say that purely in terms of financial investment, none come close to Ellis Short in his pursuit of success. Yet, the more he tried to buy success, popularity and pleasure, the further he distanced himself from his ultimate goal.

Ellis Short forgot the little things that can bring satisfaction for fans and chased any avenue that was placed ahead of him, by anyone who spoke a good game, to provide a platform for success.

Would simply winning more games and mid-table finishes have been enough for all Sunderland fans to be content and happy?

That may have been true for some, but I may be on my own with the thought that I felt more pride in the club in the relegation of 1990 and 1997 than I did during certain seasons when we managed to survive during Ellis Short’s reign - and were ultimately more successful in doing so.

It may have more to do with age and possibly rose-tinted glasses, but I felt there was more soul about the club than during the previous regime, and there seemed a pride, even in the face of failure, that was lacking in recent years.

Peter Reid and Adrian Heath
Where did it all go wrong?
Photo by Ben Radford/Getty Images

I doubt that it would be far off the mark to suggest that most Sunderland fans are the happiest they have been as fans of the club for many years – even though the club are spending only the second season in the club’s history in the third tier of English football.

What makes this statement even more remarkable is how recently this comes on the back of a ten-year uninterrupted stretch in the Premier League.

This has a lot to do with the anticipation of not losing every week, but also is a result of the new ownership and the feeling generated around the club by the communication and initiatives employed to involve fans and turn us back into a community who takes pride in our club. I hope we don’t find out, but I’d suspect their current approach would allow them some goodwill on our part if results didn’t go as planned.

Do we care what level the club are playing at to enjoy following your team? I think most would agree it’s been tough to think of the occasions where you can say hand on heart you enjoyed following Sunderland in recent years even though they have mostly been in the world’s biggest league according to Sky Sports.

Getty Images

I was too young to remember much about the previous time the club played at this level in 1987/88, but I do remember that most who followed the club up and down the country that year stated years later that it was their favourite season following Sunderland.

Is being in the Premier League everything for a fan of any club? If, I use our friends up the road as an example as it’s: a) relevant, but more importantly b) a lot of fun because we have a team finishing exactly half way up the Premier League under a manager with an impressive CV, all achieved whilst keeping the club financially stable.

But the fans don’t seem (from the outside at least) happy with that situation.

Would Newcastle fans still be protesting if they had been relegated last season, held on to Rafa Benitez, then won their first five games of the season in the Championship? It is Newcastle we’re talking about so probably yes they would but would winning games dilute the appetite for protest?

Newcastle United v West Ham United - Premier League Photo by Mark Runnacles/Getty Images

I remember during Peter Reid’s leadership when the club finished 7th in the Premier League twice in a row hearing the odd frustration at the game or in the pub afterwards that we needed to kick-on. There were calls for Reid to spend the money especially around Christmas time when we were really flying high only to fall away in the second half of the season.

Although we clearly weren’t protesting at inanimate objects, as Newcastle fans are currently doing, there is maybe an argument we had similar frustrations at that time.

We as fans strive for the club to progress up the leagues and be as successful as possible and so we should, but it’s also about how the club achieve those goals and, also how it takes care of its biggest asset which are the fans, along the way.

Leicester City v Everton - Premier League
I think Jack Ross would suite this hat...
Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

It’s a scary proposition if Sunderland became a Manchester City or did as Leicester City managed and have one of those seasons, but that is the aim and the journey should be part of the fun, the ups and the downs. This can only be enjoyed best with a club who has an identity, where the community matters and Sunderland always feel’s right when we’re in it together and we feel involved.

If this is the case, and we’re not getting thumped every week, then the pleasure in following the lads will be an inevitable by-product. Success can be achieved without losing focus on what’s important about a club. Ellis Short lost focus on some of the more important aspects whilst purely chasing success on the field until he ultimately gave up.

It’s early days with the new ownership, but the signs that they want to achieve a feeling of community around the club that will soften the blow of some of the bumps in the road because we’re in it together.

The obvious common denominator in all this is simply winning football matches, this will always be at the most important element in fan satisfaction - but it isn’t everything.