With the conquest of the mighty Bristol Rovers, Sunderland AFC have dished out the promise of a raucous time in our nation’s illustrious capital. The 31st of March will see the red and white horde descend upon Wembley for the second time in five years, and it’s fair to say we’re all buzzing at the prospect. But there’s just one barrier yet to cross before we can mount the Second Siege of Covent Garden: who actually gets to go?
Priority purchase of away ticket allocations has always been a bit of a grey area for Sunderland fans, and it’s a conversation that has never been as pertinent as in the past two seasons. With the varying size of stadia in the Championship and League One, away allocations have naturally been severely reduced by comparison to the Premier League, forcing the club’s hand when it comes to priority ticketing.
With as few as 700 tickets available for one particular away game this season it’s been hard on a whole bunch of the Sunderland faithful and, quite rightly, stringent measures have been enacted to ensure some of the most... shall we say, dependable fans get the chance to follow the lads wherever they may go - but now with 40,000 tickets available for our fans at the Checkatrade Trophy final, the club have had an entirely new issue on their hands.
First priority went to Season card holders. The number of season ticket holders at the Stadium of Light stands well into the twenty-thousands - an impressive feat for League One football. We have, then, a decent amount of tickets available for those of us that don’t fall into that category.
So what’s the problem? Well, there are plenty.
Even ignoring the logistical nightmare that has arisen as a result of the short turnaround between the transition to Ticketmaster and the sale of the cup final tickets, and allegedly seen elderly fans turned away from the ticket office and told to go to the local library to presumably unlearn seven decades of non-dependence on digital technology in order to activate a Ticketmaster account, we’re left with something of a detritus.
So let’s work through the phases. Phase one sees season ticket holders take priority ticketing beginning Friday gone and lasting through to today, when phase two comes into play tomorrow.
Here’s where it starts to get a little complicated: initially it was thought that in order to qualify for phase two one must have purchased tickets within the last two seasons AND purchase a ticket for the upcoming Walsall game, which feels like an imposition to me personally. As it transpires this is erroneous; Stewart Donald stepped onto the Twittersphere to clarify that this was not the case:
You DO NOT have to buy a Walsall tickets @SunderlandAFC fans if u have a recent two year purchase history to qualify for phase 2. The press release is not clear enough apologies. A clarifying release from the club will be issued shortly.— stewart donald (@stewartdonald3) March 7, 2019
Whether you believe that it was an honest mistake or you’re like me and you think it’s more likely that forcing fans to purchase a Walsall ticket was indeed the plan, but the public backlash caused the owners to do a complete U-turn, is entirely up to you. If it was an honest mistake it can be added to the logistical nightmare section above, and if it wasn’t then it’s a pretty naughty thing to try to get away with. Since it’s been “cleared up” now I suppose the latter is a moot point.
Another issue arises in the recurring theme of fans with a history of attending qualifying games, but where they’ve opted for convenience to purchase tickets for themselves and whomever they attend the matches with through one account, effectively making their companions fans of equal entitlement to them, they can now only access one ticket because the account being utilised has the entirety of their purchase history on it.
As I understand it, if you’ve been happily taking the missus with you to the games for however many years but you’ve always purchased the tickets on your account, she’s now not entitled to enter phase two. Does that seem fair?
None of this even touches on the deeper problem that exists in our respective concepts of “club loyalty” and how that and entitlement is defined by ourselves and the club.
So what is loyalty? It seems brutally simplistic to suggest that it can be measured by something as economically sensible as purchasing a season ticket; while season ticket holders for the most part commit themselves to attending most if not all home games, and this is a good thing - you’re the backbone of the club, aren’t you?
You’re one of the main revenue streams for Sunderland AFC, without which the club couldn’t feasibly operate, and while loyalty certainly exists in abundance within the 27,000 season ticket holders we have this season, it isn’t an end to the conversation.
For example: what of the season ticket holders that boycotted the Stadium of Light towards the end of last season? Most if not all would consider themselves loyal supporters, forced into an action that they reluctantly chose as their only means to exhibit their discontent with the operation of the club, and flooded back when things were a little less tough. Others would swear blind that those supporters aren’t worthy of the title.
To a far lesser extent, there exists among that faithful core of fans the kind of bacterium one would expect to find in a petri dish.
Can we then attribute loyalty to a person merely because they purchase a season ticket, when you can hear the same old knuckledraggers dishing out slurs? Of course not. And what of those that boo the team in spite of any effort they’ve put into the game? What about those that attend the game just to see us lose? You know the kind - they’re a row down from you and quite far off to the right, and they seem to take a perverse pleasure in our misfortunes if only so they can say they knew a certain player was useless. Are they loyal?
Of course blessedly there are far fewer of these cretins than there are decent Sunderland fans, but it serves to highlight my point that purchasing a season ticket doesn’t necessarily make you a loyal fan.
On the flip side of that coin you have social issues that run deep. With regards to the more sombre realities of life: for many they’re unavoidable and they impact the efforts of these fans to support their club in the same way as someone that, say, lives a mile from the SoL.
A fine example of this is one of our contributors, who was kind enough to draw up a summary of exactly why this whole shebang bites him square in the arse:
Having grown up in Sunderland, I’ve lived in Cardiff for the last 20 years.
I’m a carer for my partner and our son, who are both disabled.
Going to matches is one of the few times I can get away for the day and enjoy myself, but I’m limited to away games that are covered by public transport and within reach of Cardiff for a day trip, as I can’t get overnight cover for my responsibilities at home. Home games are impossible as it’s just too far and too costly, but I go to every match I feasibly can.
This season I’ve been to Gillingham, Wimbledon, Walsall (twice), Plymouth, Portsmouth, Charlton and Bristol Rovers. With the system in place for the Wembley allocation, none of this counts towards my chances of getting a ticket for the final.
While I understand and agree that season ticket holders take first priority, it’s a bitter pill to swallow that local fans who may only have attended two games in two years and members of the international scheme take priority for tickets over myself.
Most of the backlash at the ticket allocation system stems down to what people feel they deserve. For the club it sadly seems to be about making as much money as possible, but for the fans it’s about feeling that they get what they deserve.
As supporters of Sunderland AFC it’s crucial that every one of us is due consideration from the club in return for that support. It isn’t enough to say “Oh well, can’t please everyone.” and skip on down Wembley Way while people that would step over their grandmother to get one are forced to the sidelines for any number of the reasons listed above.
Sunderland AFC are a big club and Britain is bigger than a few miles wide. Our fans come from every corner of the country and every walk of life, and if the club wants to make them feel as if what matters is their unwavering support in all forms rather than how much disposable income they have, is it too much to ask that they do something to show us?
As things stand if you’ve got a chance of getting a ticket to the final, I hope with all my heart that we win and you have a bloody good time while we do it.
I want every Sunderland fan to come away on the 31st of March feeling like the last few years didn’t happen, and finally take respite from what has been a torrid tumble from the heights of Premier League anonymity.
What remains clear to many of us is that whatever plans the regime had to introduce a scheme for UK-based exiles need to be resurrected and unveiled at the next given opportunity because a clear divide in rights and privileges exists for a large group of dedicated and loyal Sunderland fans.