After landing in Croatia in the summer of 2012 I did my usual thing when visiting a new city, taking in the scenery whilst talking the international language of football with our driver and Airbnb host, Nico.
Nothing breaks the ice in these situations like a chat about the local club, and it didn’t take long to discover from looking out of the window at the murals daubed on almost every motorway bridge, and hearing the passion in Nico’s voice, that HNK Hadjuk – or Hudjuk Split – dominated this area in a way that was both familiar to a Sunderland fan and decidedly different, especially in its iconography and use of pyro.
The mark of the Torcida Split ultras, who can claim to be the oldest football supporters’ group in Europe, was ubiquitous.
The Roman-era buildings in the ancient Adriatic port were festooned with club badges and white and blue masked figures, the market stalls sported myriad knock-off Hajduk shirts, hats and scarfs aimed at tourists.
I limited myself to a rather uncomfortable pair of flip-flops that I wore with pride alongside my Sunderland shirts for almost the full duration of our holiday, much to the bemusement of the locals and my wife.
What I wasn’t aware of was, at that precise time, Hadjuk were in the midst of a transition from being a corrupt, financially unstable club run from on high by a local big-wig to what is known as a socio, a member-owned non-profit association run democratically for and by fans for the benefit of the community.
In 2011, led by the Torcida, a supporters group named Our Hajduk took control of the club, finally getting past the debt left by the old regime a year with the help of a loan from the city authorities.
In June 2017, following Sunderland’s relegation from the Premier League and anticipating Ellis Short’s departure from the club, Damian Brown penned an excellent overview of the potential of fan ownership for a club of our size and stature, and at that point in time he concluded that the scale and complexity of the task and the money involved in English football made the concept something of a pipe dream for a club still owned by a billionaire and expecting to bounce back to the top flight at the first attempt.
The examples of fan ownership in British football are almost all in the lower leagues. Even the most successful English example, AFC Wimbledon, are now at a historic high point as a League One club.
When I recently enquired about the potential suitability of the fan-owned model for Sunderland’s future with the Financial Times journalist Murad Ahmed - who has written about both Sunderland and socio club Athletic Bilbao - he wasn’t at all convinced that it could work for us:
Thanks for reading Rich. Think Athletic is unusual model in a particular part of the world, and they've spent decades on it. For anyone else, football has moved on. Sunderland is a big club that needs something simpler: patient owner and sound management. Not easy to find— Murad Ahmed (@muradahmed) January 10, 2020
The historical similarities between Sunderland and Bilbao that are reasonably well known and hard to ignore.
The Basque country, like the north east of England, is a post-industrial area that developed as a centre of shipbuilding and coal mining in the 19th century. It was miners, sailors and shipbuilders from Sunderland, Southampton and Portsmouth who helped to found lay the foundations for the club in the early 1890s, which was officially established as a socio back in 1901. Football dominates everyday life in the city and the club, along with the magnificent Guggenheim art gallery, is the beating heart of the identity and cultural life of the area.
Whilst their ownership model is well established in Spain, with two of the world’s richest and most successful clubs, Barcelona and Real Madrid, both operating as socios, one thing has always set Athletic Club apart – it’s policy of only recruiting players from the Basque areas of Spain and France.
The club is symbolic of Basque exceptionalism and autonomy and is considered a key part of the endurance and survival of their language and culture in the face of a Spanish state that was fascist for almost 40 years. This self-imposed limitation forces Athletic Club to scour the region for young players, nurturing and developing the talent of almost every Basque girl and boy with an interest in the game.
The results on the pitch may not be spectacular, but they have never been relegated from La Liga and have recently produced world class talents such as Aymeric Laporte and Kepa Arrizabalaga, sold reluctantly at a massive profit that has been reinvested into the club. I highly recommend Murad Ahmed’s ‘long read’ about the cultural, footballing and financial benefits that this policy has brought in its wake. Needless to say, the 53,000 capacity San Mamés stadium is now top of my bucket list stadiums to visit when I’m next in Spain.
No two clubs are the same, but surely the reasonably analogous examples of Hudjuk and Athletic Club - big, nationally important and historically successful clubs, and in the case of Split, one that has moved to fan-ownership relatively recently and successfully, provide some inspiration.
These are not non-league phoenix or protest clubs with no ambitions to win trophies, a fact that should give us pause for thought; if it can be done at a club that plays European football regularly, is it so outlandish to suggest that we could emulate “Our Hajduk” and make a similar transition in the months and years ahead?
Much has been made of the Joint Statement made by fan groups and fanzines over Christmas, Donald’s capitulation in the face of a Twitterstorm, the club’s limp and accusatory response, and the ongoing debate within the fan base about the rights, wrongs and consequences of this series of events. It has certainly made a splash - even the national broadsheet press has started to take an interest in us again.
Last week I wrote my first article for Roker Report to complement an edition of the Roker Rapport Exiles podcast in which a dissenting line from that expressed in the Joint Statement was put forward by myself and my fellow contributors. In precis, the lack of an overall strategy with ambitious but achievable objectives, and well-thought-out alternative vision of the future, is at the heart of my concerns about the wisdom of the approach taken so far. What has been missing is a vision or a plan.
Red & White Army have done a wonderful job of communicating the views of the fan base to the ownership and bringing colour and distinctiveness to the Stadium of Light, but their purpose and remit is not at present to own the club.
I have no direct involvement in RAWA, living as I do quite far away in Snowdonia, so it could be that these kinds of discussions have already been had, exploratory work has been carried out and a considered judgement has been made that this is simply not feasible.
But I ask this question to my fellow Sunderland fans, particularly those who are closely engaged in what is happening behind the scenes at the club; is this present off-field crisis and on-field revival the opportune moment to look seriously at taking the first steps towards establishing Socio Sunderland AFC?
The general consensus seems to be that our first preference for who we would like to take over from Donald would be a benevolent local owner, a lifelong Sunderland fan with deep pockets and a Mackem accent. Without wishing to echo the patronising and disgraceful comments of Charlie Methven about the business acumen of the people of our region in the slightest – there are many successful entrepreneurs and start-ups in our area - does anyone in the region actually have the resources to own and run Sunderland AFC?
The evidence suggests not, as a mere 0.2 per cent of those earning over £100,000 in the UK live in the North East of England. We are faced instead with the prospect of another rich individual or group from outside with essentially capitalist principles at their core taking control of our club, with the fans kept firmly in their place as vocal, passionate but essentially powerless ‘stakeholders’ who have to take what they’re given.
Much is made in the modern globalised business of football of fans as consumers, but unless you take the revolutionary step that disgruntled Bangor City or Manchester United fans have and start your own club, consumers of football do not have the power that they have in other markets. In terms of supporters, it is not truly competitive. Loyalty to a brand of toothpaste or a music subscription service is not generally passed down from grandparent to parent to child.
Yes, the marketing reach of global football brands, driven by the wonderful footballers these brands recruit to their playing staff from around the world, pulls in shirt sales and broadcasting rights. But I still believe most kids will ultimately support their family or local club – that’s certainly how I am raising my 10-year-old football mad Welsh son (who, I will admit, has PSG, Barcelona and Liverpool shirts, as well as a range of Sunderland kits and a passion for protest club CPD Bangor 1876, of which I am a member).
Major impediments stand in our way; the law, access to finance and the club’s current status as a subsidiary of a private limited company, Madrox Partners Ltd, whose shares cannot be transferred without the permission of Donald’s creditors, the FPP Sunderland. In Croatia, it was the existence of an elected supervisory club board that gave Our Hajduk the opportunity to take control.
Nevertheless, as we are currently outside of the sponsorship and TV revenue-rich top-flight, Sunderland’s day-to-day revenues outside of loans and parachute payments come largely from the fan base in terms of ticket sales, shirt and other merchandise sales, and streaming services.
I am a trade unionist, not a businessperson or an accountant, but to the layman this would suggest that a cooperative model that reinvested profits in the club and the community would be at least as sustainable as a private limited company controlled by Stewart Donald.
It is impossible to separate the socio model from the world of politics – these clubs are democratic institutions owned by tens of thousands of equal vote-holding members. In my chats with fellow Exiles, the most consistent concern beyond the financial question has been about decision making, leadership and the potential divisiveness of elections to positions on the board, in what is already a pretty divided political landscape in the UK.
Answers to these concerns are unknowable until further down the track. At this point it is enough to ask whether we have the social solidarity and unity of purpose that would have to underpin any effort to replicate these models on Wearside? Dictatorship is certainly more straightforward than the messiness of democratic rule, but rarely does it maintain the loyalty of the masses in open societies. Here the lessons from Bilbao and Split are pertinent.
In 2014, the sense of injustice felt by Hajduk fans at their exclusion from an away game against bitter rivals Dynamo Zagreb, which the Hajduk players then boycotted and ultimately forfeited, prompted a massive protest against the endemic corruption in the Croatian game. This served, according to a paper by Josip Glaurdić:
As one of the foundations of a social movement of Hajduk supporters for a clean and fair club, league, football federation and politics in general.
Membership of the essentially apolitical “Our Hajduk” burgeoned from 15,000 to over 43,000. Social and political change is afoot in Croatia, and they recently bucked the trend of European politics by electing a social democratic government.
As Glaurdic states, by building a social movement around the club, “Our Hadjuk”;
Became not only the essential stakeholder in the club and Croatian football in general, but also the flag bearer for the movement of football supporters across Europe who are trying to turn football into a prime site of social and political contention. Whether by opposing the commercialisation of the sport and the detachment of clubs from their original communities, or by mobilising for or against various kinds of political forces and events, these supporters… have given present-day football culture a ‘revolutionary spirit’.
There is, in my view, something rotten at the core of the way football in England and much of Europe is ran. Monied men and corporations from around the world, many with good intentions and some with bad, run our game and do it, in the majority of cases, for either profit or for fun.
In some cases, such as Andy Holt at Accrington who I interviewed last year, a rich local businessman will take ownership of a small club in a small town as an altruistic gesture, part of their “social responsibility” to their communities.
In the Championship, proud and famous clubs perform frankly bizarre sponsorship moves and sell their stadiums to remain financially viable as they all push for the promised land of the Premier League.
We don’t want that to happen here. We need radical thinking, born of our own traditions and the examples set by others. It is to the cooperative tradition, which has deep roots in the working-class communities that are the backbone of our support, to which we should now turn.