Back at Roker Park in 1987 I became part of something. Thing is I didn’t realise how much of an effect this would have on my life over 3 decades later. Fast forward to 2019 and I’m reflecting on the strange journey myself and Sunderland AFC have taken together over that time... and I’m smiling. My eyes all misted with emotion and memories.
Strangely this impromptu emotional trip down memory lane has been triggered by what many may likely see as an act of negativity; An act of defiance and open rebellion against the man that runs our dear club.
The decision to call for Stewart Donald’s “head” as it were, was a decision not taken lightly for a great many of us. It’s a decision that many have found difficult to make, such is our passion for our club and the people involved in it at every level. This isn’t a knee-jerk response no matter what some media figures, some pundits, reporters and presenters may want the outside world to believe, those currently w*nking themselves into a coma at what they perceive in their unbelievably feeble little minds as an example of Sunderland fans’ petulance and difficult nature. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
This has been coming a long time, argued and debated for a great deal of time in groups of fans at the stadium, in the pub, in the family home, in the workplace, at fan outlets and the such to the point some of us would wake up thinking about it before anything else.
The amount of hand-wringing and soul searching is rarely seen so openly, so you can forgive those who don’t understand why it would appear everything has happened so fast. In truth a lot of us came to terms with the terrible reality of the situation a while back. But what to do when trust has been broken, when promises haven’t been kept, when our voices are not heard by the only people who can actually do anything about this mess? What to do indeed...
You see, there’s something that comes with joining the family that is Sunderland Association Football Club. When you’re accepted into the fold you’re often welcomed with open arms.
It’s very rare indeed for anyone arriving not to get an instant hit of, for want of a better word, love. Pure love in fact.
It’s a teaser usually for what you can expect (especially an incoming player) if you rise to the challenge and truly earn the fans’ adulation. We worship our heroes in the North East, and that can be said, however begrudgingly, even of those up the road on the Tyne and our distant cousins twice removed down on Teesside.
For reasons far too complicated to explain fully in a single article, Sunderland fans are a different breed, a different class entirely to a lot of larger, well known and.. well.. lucky fanbases.
I may be heavily biased saying this, but it’s beyond the comprehension of many outside the region. It’s not that we’re a group of people expecting a great deal from our players, our managers, coaches, staff and of course owners beyond that every single one of those people understand what is expected of them.
I imagine if you ask each individual fan what exactly that is they’ll give you their own response, but if it’s that far removed from my own I’d be mildly surprised - that all we ask is for you to give us everything. Not your money, not your kind wishes, not your platitudes, not merely a bit effort....
We want your soul.
Dramatic as that may sound to some it’s true for me. I personally want you to feel everything we feel to the point that swell of emotion about all things SAFC is the only thing you can feel anymore.
We want you to love our city, our region, and all of us who reside within and without like you’d love your closest family member. We want you willing to put everything you are on the line for us.
I suppose this might sound a bit obsessive, a bit ‘Sleeping with the Enemy’ and ‘Fatal Attraction’ but that’ll be because it is a bit, just without the sociopathic tendencies of the protagonists in those two classics of 20th Century cinema (they put the strangest things on at Christmas). I mean we’re not going to break into your homes and rearrange your food cupboards. We probably won’t boil your bunny should you ignore us, but I obviously can’t speak for everyone.
As I was saying... This may sound dramatic to those who don’t feel the pull towards home, or the need for shelter under the collective roar and unity of your fellow supporters; all chanting, all singing at the temple of their fathers and forefathers.
It’s beyond those who cannot feel such a pull. Sunderland isn’t just a football club, it is a representation and reflection of literally millions of people stretching back 140 years. It’s an idealised extension of our very identity.
In a world where many of us have forgotten the names of our God and lost our faith in what some may see as an absent deity, we have turned en masse towards our only true faith. A faith that transcends all belief systems, all theologies, all political ideologies and pervades all walks of life from the roughest streets of the city to the fairest and most exclusive.
Many other clubs supporters feel this tribal need to gather and feel part of something wonderful, something uplifting and inspiring in a world that is truly very dark indeed. It’s deeply ingrained within our psychological makeup; the need to be part of something, to feel accepted, loved, cherished, wanted, listened to.
Buying into this club, or indeed buying this club outright, is taking on a responsibility for the upkeep of our church.
Regarding the situation with Stewart at the moment; Setting precedents in leadership of the club through direct fan engagement is establishing yourself as a nigh on messiah. A preacher to the masses. Our Father in all things football related.
Absence may be convenient when the club is going through a period of darkness and insecurity to certain figures as individuals, but not so to the hundreds of thousands of followers of the club’s fortunes. A perceived and now widely accepted ignorance to the thousands of voices raised in protest at the situation we find ourselves in, and the seeming nonchalance of the owner with regard to hearing his adopted flock has led directly to this.
We accepted Stewart and his friends with open arms, and we did this willingly. Thousands of us wanted to believe every word he said.
Riding the wave of relief that had spread across Wearside as we awoke to the joyous news that we’d finally gotten rid of one absentee owner, we saw Stewart and his apparent willingness to subject himself to the sheer volume of questions our fans had for him as something special indeed.
As I’ve mentioned before it was an uplifting time for me personally, as it was for so many of us as fans. A brave new world that opened the door to some wonderful moments following all the negativity and misery of previous years.
It allowed young and old to have the chance to be seen and heard by their club, simply because if your car had broken down, or a parent was gravely ill you could pop on social media and before you knew it, sometimes without warning, this man was there to wish your child a happy birthday... to help arrange transport for you and your mates... to even personally come and visit the elderly and frail to let them know that they were appreciated. That their loyalty and dedication had been noticed and was appreciated by all those at the club.
Halcyon days, and far removed from the current darkness of our plight. Now unlike some I like to think that a lot of this was an example of an emotional bond Stewart had genuinely formed with a newly adoring fanbase. I want to believe that no man couldn’t not be touched by such interactions, not feel how much it meant to those he interacted with. The cynic in me noted that often people in the media were present at such meetings, and that such a hands on tactic, the “hearts and minds” campaign we’re familiar with from certain political figures over the years may well be in play there.
But there was logic to it. Some of it was genuinely lovely to see. It was a sign he was paying attention. Unfortunately as many have learned recently, while this was going on, the club wasn’t being managed in the way initially promised.
We’ve been discussing it at length recently so I don’t need to remind you, but things behind the scenes that needed to be addressed immediately now seem to have fallen by the wayside as he himself rode that aforementioned wave of adulation and love that we as fans would give anyone seen to care so deeply about our club as he did for that period of time.
Somewhat ironically, Stewart has since, through his apparent mismanagement and all that has passed since those first six months or so, managed to do something few owners have ever achieved no matter how hard they’ve tried. He’s managed to unite a great many of us, just not with a club developed hashtag, not some bullshit PR move, but with a fan developed movement, even our own little hashtag.
His ignorance of recent events and his seeming inability or downright refusal to take full responsibility for both his actions and his inaction (the latter is arguably the most important of the two) has resulted in one of the most powerful social media campaigns this fanbase has launched together. Am I at all surprised at how quickly people have come forward to do whatever necessary to save our club? No.
This is a fanbase that in the space of a week, despite itself being made up of those used to deprivation and desperation in living circumstances, despite being in one of the poorest regions of the country, came together to raise an incredible amount of money for those that need it most... Without the club’s official assistance. People gave up all kinds from hard earned family holidays to Christmas gifts, some put themselves at risk financially to support those who needed them.
In short Stewart, this is not a group of people to be f*cked with. This is not a group of people who can be ignored. This is not a group of people who will accept deceit. This is not a group of people who will accept neglect of their “church” or their people.
This is a group of people who will do everything in their power to make their club reflect who they are as a people. You really didn’t read this particular room, mate. Time to make your move, as we won’t stop until we feel the club is safe from anyone who may do it further damage. We just drew a big f**king line in the sand.
In the words of an associate of yours:
The piss-taking party is over.