A few months before Stewart Donald and his cohorts appeared on a bower scene Sunderland fans were in a very different head-space.
I’m sure none of us have forgotten the malaise hanging over Wearside like a fog. Years of neglect had seen us descend into apathy, and from there some sank even lower to in-fighting and boycotting. Given absolutely no assurances beyond the all-too-familiar placating, and the textbook spin from the regime that held the club in a strangling fist, Sunderland fans had few avenues down which to channel their ire. We were drowning, sinking and there was no hand to pull us back to safety.
Local chuches should have been running support groups for us;
”There Is a Light At The End - Coping with Sunderland AFC.
Meets Wednesdays and Sundays.”
That changed with the introduction of the new owners. This isn’t a piece about how awesome our current owners are, but it does focus on one particularly awesome highlight (and I dare say oversight, on our part) of their arrival and the overhaul they’ve overseen: communication.
I want to talk about supporters in the boardroom.
This was an idea tossed around during the tumultuous end of Ellis Short’s reign and one which gathered some small amount of traction - sadly not enough for it to take root, but one has to wonder if that had more to do with the attitude of those the idea was presented to at the time than it did the validity of the suggestion.
Traditionally, Supporters Trusts are forged in the vacuum of uncertainty and impending fiscal doom, but this isn’t always the case. Many trusts can rightly claim they saved their clubs in times of peril as administration reared on the horizon.
Here are just a couple of examples, of which there are many: Club 1872, the Supporters Trust for Rangers F.C. facilitates fans in purchasing and holding shares in the club they love. Swansea City F.C. have the Swans Trust which has the same aim. Both are undoubtedly a credit to their football club and the fans that follow it, as most trusts are.
With many of these groups what began as an invention born of necessity snowballed (often with great difficulty and sacrifice) into an organisation that fans can depend on to facilitate a higher level of engagement than any Sunderland AFC fan has ever had. There needn’t be dire financial straits in order to create such an organisation, but it could be argued that the less, shall we say affluent, a club is, the greater the chance supporters have of achieving this goal.
So if they can achieve this, why can’t we?
It’s so easy to complain about the way destiny is unfolding if you don’t have a hand in forging your own. It’s so common for supporters to believe that buying a season card and a fresh shirt every season is the furthest extent of any true form of control they might have in “their” club, but I put it to you that our reach could be so much farther if we seize the opportunity to open frank and honest discussions with the shareholders - something they’ve proven they are willing to have.
In the current climate we have, to one extent or another, the engagement that we desperately sought before the club changed hands. Stewart Donald and his cadre quickly recognised the disparity between fan and club and moved swiftly to remedy it, and for that I’m grateful. A finer example of the term ‘polar opposites’ you could not find outside of a Geography lesson; the contrast in engagement and transparency between the two parties could not be more stark.
But as we wait with baited breath for some new information regarding the ongoing discussions between current shareholders and potential investors I’m wondering if we’re missing an opportunity that might never come around again.
Every fan feels that the club is part of them and they are part of the club. This goes hand in hand with the passion of your everyday football fan when it comes to the club they love. But how much does Sunderland AFC truly belong to us? To what degree are we actively involved with the maintenance and governance of the institution we care so deeply for?
As much as it flies in the face of everything we’re raised to believe, we as fans are little more than consumers of a product. There’s precious little romance in the realities of club football off the pitch. This is perhaps best exemplified by the literal term “supporter” - that’s what we do: we support the club. We support it by buying merchandise, match tickets, refreshments, streaming subscriptions, season cards, and by actively promoting our chosen club through social media and word of mouth, always propagating the idea that Sunderland AFC is worth sinking money into - and it is, of course.
Without any of this there would be no home for football for the people of Sunderland or any other club. That’s the way the world turns.
But what if you were given the chance to have more? What if your opinion and your money could be made more tangible and justified? What if we became more than simple consumers, and instead became functional in the operation of Sunderland AFC? That’s what the idea of supporters on the board means to me. Being able to buy shares and truly say you’ve contributed. No matter how much good you’ve done as a fan over the years, no matter the support you’ve shown, you’re still just a consumer. We can be more than that.
In an ideal world we won’t be kicking around in League One forever. There is a reason Sunderland is an attractive prospect to investors, and we all know those reasons so I needn’t bother listing the benefits for a businessman or ten. But what could potentially be seen by an outside observer as a hindrance to our overall success could in fact be a rare chance to engage with the club in a manner many of us have never considered possible.
In the Premier League under the financial steam of a billionaire, what cause had the club to even entertain the prospect of welcoming a supporters group to the board with minimal cash investment?
Back then it would have been easy to misinterpret such a project as a simple placation; a scrap thrown from the table to keep the dogs happy. Now though, with a governing body that has maintained that supporter engagement is *vital* in bringing the club into the fold of the modern football world, isn’t the idea of something akin to a supporters trust within the realms of that progressive outlook?
There are half a dozen ways at least in which such a group could function for the betterment of all involved, but the obvious appeal is in the notion that a democratically structured body could be at least partly responsible for the future of Sunderland AFC. What price can be placed on holding the future of something you love in your own hands?
It’s noteworthy that at their AGM in 2018 the Sunderland supporters group Red and White Army, the idea of championing the idea on behalf of fans was voted down by a large majority. Why? I wasn’t there personally, and so I couldn’t tell you.
I think that’s half the point. For all the good work done by RAWA and for all they mean well, that vote isn’t terribly pertinent because of the minuscule pool of voters when compared to the vast numbers of Sunderland fans. For every fan that attends a Sunderland match there is at least one more than watches from afar.
Were all of the possibilities presented to those voters? How many fans are even aware of the concept, what it entails and what it can provide?
It stands to reason then that a conservative estimate of our regular fan-base would be somewhere around 60-70k, and I truly do believe I’m being very conservative there. What do they want? That’s the real question.
Of course, the difficulty arises in convincing the owners that this is a good idea. After all, they’ve spent vast amounts of their own money to secure their shares in a promising business interest, and so why would they happily hand over even a small degree of control to “us”? They simply don’t have to.
But this isn’t a conversation about what we can be given, it’s a conversation about what we can make for ourselves. Attaining anything of true value is only achieved by fighting for it.
If a supporters group were to sit down with Martin Bain and Ellis Short two years ago they would have been entering a hostile environment, there is no denying that. If the same group sat down with Stewart Donald and Charlie Methven, I like to think they could be assured that the owners would seriously consider the effectiveness and viability of such a move without instantly dismissing it.
In the end all we can do is have the discussion, but for how long will we have that opportunity? What guarantees are there going forward that the conversation could even take place a year from now?
If your memory stretches back farther than one year I’m sure you’ll agree that there are none. When ownership changes hands anything can happen, and we won’t necessarily have the freedom of expression and confidence in the willingness to listen that Stewart Donald and co. have so recently given us.
Will it work? I don’t know. A lot of planning and organisation would need to go in to such an epic endeavour, and no doubt there would be obstacles in all aspects that would need to be surmounted.
Again though, that isn’t the point when we have the opportunity to try to better our lot and immerse ourselves in the world of Sunderland AFC in a way previously unknown to any Lads fan that has come before us.
We can try to do what hasn’t been done; we can try to create something. That’s all any of us can hope to do but in the end, win or lose, it’s worth a try.
In my opinion this is something we need to strongly consider before the landscape changes and the opportunity is lost forever. What do you think?