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INTERVIEW: Dave Rose from The Red & White Army on #DonaldOut, Sunderland’s future and more

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Following their open meeting in the city centre on Thursday evening, we spoke with Dave Rose - Vice Chair of the Red & White Army - about how they operate, their proudest achievements, their involvement with issuing the Joint Statement and the concept of fan ownership. 

Sunderland v Oxford United - Sky Bet League One
The Roker End Flag display
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

RS: How did you get involved in RAWA?

DR: My day job is that I work for the Football Supporters Association, which until recently was the Football Supporters Federation - we merged – and that’s the national supporters’ organisation for fans in England and Wales, operating on a national level for fans of all clubs throughout the game. It’s a democratically structured organisation with 350 supporters’ groups like Red & White Army all affiliated to them and then thousands and thousands of individual members as well.

We affiliate to Football Supporters Europe, which is the European umbrella version of the FSA, so we get involved with and meet the Premier League, the EFL, the FA, the Sports Ground Safety Authority, and all the different stakeholders in the game. We have round tables with them, so that we always have a fans’ voice in the room.

So, because of my day job, over the years I’ve always thought Sunderland needed an all encompassing democratic independent group. There are various good liaison groups such as the Branch Liaison Committee, but that’s linked to all the different supporter Branches, but there was never one all encompassing group.

I’ve always felt we needed it, but because of my job I see the ups and downs as a volunteer that you have running a group like that – it can be a bit of a thankless task – so I have resisted it for a long time, and then a couple of year ago, almost three now, it was just the right time. We got a number of different people together from fanzines, etc, to say “right, let’s do it, let’s set one up” and we’ve done it, and now we’ve got 11,000 members and going strong.

RS: How do people become members of RAWA? I’m not even sure if I’m a member – I’m on your mailing list, is it as simple as that?

DR: Yes, you’re a member then. It’s as simple as that. It’s really a barrier-free thing – you’ve got to be a Sunderland fan; you just confirm your details and it’s free to join. We didn’t want to put any subscriptions in there or anything like that. People pay enough to watch football, so we wanted to make it free and completely accessible.

RS: How are people elected to be representatives of the group? I can see that you’re Vice Chair, and you have a Chair, Treasurer, Secretary.

DR: We have an AGM each year, which is the primary body for setting policy and for electing the representatives. Anyone can stand. In the leadup to each AGM we put out a message to all members to say, “if you want to put yourself forward, here’s a form to fill in”.

FBL-ENG-PR-SUNDERLAND-DI CANIO Photo credit should read GRAHAM STUART/AFP via Getty Images

RS: So, does everyone who stands get a pitch at the AGM?

DR: If it was contested, we would have hustings, so everyone would put their reasons forward as to why they should be voted for, but because it’s only two years old we haven’t had that situation yet.

RS: It will be interesting when it gets to that stage where things are contested.

DR: I hope it does. It’s a funny one because although we’ve got 11,000 members it’s no easy task putting your head above the parapet. But that’s why it has to be democratic because we do get people saying “you’re a self-appointed voice of the fans” and all that but we’re not – if we wanted to be self-appointed we would have set it up and just ran a group that isn’t democratically structured and not go through all of the different constitutional things we’ve had to go through. So, we very much would hope that people will put themselves forward.

Sheffield United v Sunderland AFC - Carabao Cup Third Round Photo by George Wood/Getty Images

RS: How does RAWA embrace people who don’t live in the region? I know you’ve got an International Fans rep co-opted to the group. How does that person get involved?

DR: So, interestingly, he took part in the meeting last night by linking up the phone, which was quite cool actually. We’re online, we’ve got a Twitter and Facebook – we don’t use the Facebook that much anymore as Twitter seems to be where it’s at, and obviously anyone can join from wherever they are and we have members all over the world, individual members, and they all get the newsletter.

The rhythm of the group is the Structured Dialogue meetings with the club. When we started out we realised that there was a bit of vacuum and although there were groups talking to the club, there wasn’t a lot out there amongst the fans about what was going on, so we’re at pains in the build-up to those meetings to put it out there on twitter and on the message boards to say “tell us what you want us to ask”, and we’re very passionate about not just coming up with our own questions because we’re the ones who are voted in.

It’s about what are the burning issues, what do people want us to ask, and then we filter through all of the responses and put them into common theme, and that’s what sets the agenda with the club.

And then after the meeting, we drive hard to get the Minutes produced quickly and put them on the website, on twitter and on the message boards so that everyone who is interested knows what’s going on.

RS: What do you think are the most significant achievements of RAWA so far? Is it the Structured Dialogue or the other, more fan experience stuff that you’ve been doing?

DR: I think the most important thing is to have a dialogue and to hold the owners accountable for things that they said they would do, or that they’re going to do.

I think we’ve got to continue to try to get better at that, and if new owners come in I think we’ve learned a lot to see through rhetoric and actually get to the nub of what’s going on and how the club’s being ran, almost like a non-executive director role – a critical friend – because we’ve got no vested interest in the club other than it being the best it can possibly be. So that’s a strong reason, to be a strong voice in the room, and that’s the crux and that’s the main thing.

However, probably the most enjoyable and visible stuff is doing things around the matchday experience and atmosphere. I’m very, very proud to be part of a group that’s created the Roker End identity with the latticework and the flags, and the links to our history, heritage and industrial past.

Sunderland v Wycombe Wanderers - Sky Bet League One
The Roker End identity is created by a “cracking bunch of people”
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

RS: Do you think that will spread to other parts of the ground?

DR: I would love it to but there are a couple of things that we’d have to get over to make that happen. The first is financing more flags, and the second and probably the more difficult is volunteers on matchdays, because it’s canny hard work running up and down those steps putting all the flags out. It seems like nothing, but it does take time, it takes a bit of commitment and you’d need that all over the ground and it’s hard enough at the minute maintaining it in the Roker End.

It’s difficult, and I don’t do it every time myself. I want a pint before the game, I don’t want it to take over my life doing all this, but it’s cool and there are some people who do it every time and they’re a cracking bunch of people, the hardcore who do that.

RS: It’s been a roller-coaster of a month for Sunderland fans. What was the mood like at the Open Meeting last night at the Peacock?

DR: Very, very much supportive of what we’ve been doing. There were really good questions about the whys and wherefores as to what we did [with the Joint Statement and #DonaldOut campaign launched on 27/12/19]. There was an acceptance that when you run a group like RAWA you get to know stuff from fans and other sources, and we’ve had at least two parties doing full due diligence. When you’re a support group as prominent as we are, of course there is contact made, but it’s all stuff that we can really talk about. However, that build-up of knowledge, and everything that’s in the public domain – we went through a presentation last night which was just the owners in their own words, everything that they said – and when you build up all of that you sort of get a sense as to why we took part in the Joint Statement and the #DonaldOut message.

RS: I do wish I could have been there. Where there dissenting voices in the room?

DR: No, I fully expected there to be but there wasn’t. That doesn’t mean that there wasn’t anyone a little bit nervous about what we’d said, but they didn’t speak if that was the case. There were loads of questions from the floor, and that was the primary bulk of the meeting.

RS: I think it was important that you had that meeting. I do the Exiles podcast with Roker Rapport, and I hosted one last week that put out a sceptical view on the #DonaldOut campaign. Obviously, we don’t have the kind of inside knowledge that perhaps you do. I wrote an article last week regarding why I haven’t been convinced, and that’s one of the reasons I wanted to speak to you – to find out a little bit more about what your reasons were.

DR: What we covered last night was a presentation with quotes – it was 17 slides, but it could have been 117 – and it wasn’t embellished or spun – it was what they’d said about the running of the club since the come right up to now, and the contradictions and lack of long-term planning is stark.

I defy anyone to look through all of that and not wonder what the hell is going on with the club. And that’s been built up over time and it’s only when you lay it out in one place – it’s incredible and it’s all public domain stuff.

It goes right back to talking about the “Dortmund model” and then you look at who we’ve signed; it talks about the “great shape of the academy” and then you look at the results; it talks about that they said they can “afford to run the club in the Premier League and the Championship” and then they say they haven’t got any money and we need investment; “we are selling the club” then ‘we’re not selling the club” then ‘we are selling the club again”. It’s just unbelievable.

FPP did full, detailed due diligence at great cost and time. They’d already been to the club, they’d been shown around, they’d done their homework. Sources told RAWA “they are buying the club”. Why didn’t they buy it?

So if you’re on the fence, if you’re wondering why we said it, what would be your answer to that? Why do you think they didn’t buy the club?

Sunderland v Wycombe Wanderers - Sky Bet League One - Stadium of Light
RAWA wants to hold Steward Donald to his word
Photo by Richard Sellers/PA Images via Getty Images

RS: You can read my article and see what I’ve said. I’ve never been a particular fan of Donald, because of some of the inconsistency in his answers. But my main concern was that essentially - it’s “Better the Devil You Know” – you don’t know what you’re getting into when he sells the club, and we don’t get any say in who he sells it to. FPP do – they get the final say in who he sells to if you look at the changes in the Articles of Association [of holding company Madrox Partners Ltd] – they have to authorise the transfer of any shares. So, my personal concern is that we know what we want in terms of Donald Out, but beyond that what’s the vision?

DR: So, we went through a number of principles at the start of the meeting last night. Take away whoever is owning the club – Stewart Donald or anyone else – there is a set of principles that we as fans should want from an owner. I’ve not got them in front of me, but they were along the lines of having transparency, honesty, clarity, appointing an accountable management team to run the club, having the ambition that matches the stature of our club, a sustainable long-term plan. 5 points basically to which everyone would want from your owner, not just our fans but at any club really. And we went through it and asked “do they meet these criteria if that what you want from an owner?”.

Of course, there is the whole “Better the Devil You Know” argument, but that day after Boxing Day in the ground where people were voting with the feet, it was drab, it was awful, it was terrible. The atmosphere in the ground was a mixture of apathy and anger, which has been par-for-the-course for too long now. In the pubs after the game on Boxing Day when you’re supposed to be celebrating, everybody was just cheesed off and angry. And on social media, the pressure and the push for “something has to happen here” was so big, and because we have all of this built up knowledge that everyone has got, but we keenly watch and have it all laid out and we have thought that something is up for a long time. You have to then measure the mood of the fanbase and say, “right, now’s the time to strike”, so that’s what we did. And yes, we’ve went on a winning run since, so you could argue that the statement has had a good effect!

We went on a winning run and it’s brought out people who were less passionate about change being needed, so you do think to yourself “do you regret what you’ve done?” - but absolutely not, if we could rewind and do it all again I’d do it every time because we’ve got to start standing up for ourselves as a fanbase. We’ve got recognise what we are.

One of the things we talked about at the meeting was the bar-chart animation doing the rounds of points accrued in the top flight in English football since time began and Sunderland are still tenth. You look at other clubs like Liverpool, Everton, Aston Villa, Newcastle, Man United – none of those clubs’ fans would have sat quietly at the demise of their club – not a chance. And we need to start sticking up for ourselves.

RS: My follow up to my first article on Donald was a speculative look at how the socio model of member-ownership of football clubs around Europe works, and how some clubs have moved to that model in recent years – particularly Hajduk Split through their fan group, which sounds very similar to Red & White Army in terms of where it started as the voice of fans. Have RAWA ever discussed or looked at any way of the fans taking even a minority a share in the club?

DR: Yep. The next step as a group would be to convert to a full Supporters Trust and register with the FCA [Financial Conduct Authority].

Obviously, members would have to agree to do that. It was actually raised at the very first AGM and voted down because people were happy to see how things went as an independent supporters’ association. But we do a lot of what you would need to do for a trust in terms of being democratically structured within our constitution and having various policies.

You need to run annual accounts and submit them to the FCA. So, we’re not far away from being that anyway. But what you also have to do then is switch on paid subscription to be a member of the trust and there’s no way we’d want to do away with free membership, so what we’d end up needing to do would to almost run two dual organisations - a Trust branch and an overall membership branch – and that was how we approached it.

It was voted down quite passionately because of the tiered membership; it was about being equal and about being accessible and open, and I completely understand and agree with that on a personal level.

However, if we did have any aspirations for some sort of version of fan ownership – even if it’s a small percentage – then you’d have to have that sort of vehicle in place.

RS: That’s really interesting, Dave. Thanks for speaking to me today.

No problem, cheers.