After a fairly positive festive period, there was a rare air of optimism around SAFC. I’m lucky, I’m late to return to work, but I’m sure Sunderland’s recent performances helped people squeeze into their work clothes, battle through the school run and get to work in a slightly better mood than expected.
Then, day 2... a statement from the club. Exciting! A raft of new signings? A takeover? Nope. It was like early December all over again. Propaganda and blame shifting. A call for unity, at the most important of times.
I’m not going to comment on the statement in any great detail, as I have only just digested it. However, In truth, it p**sed me right off. It angered me, but the overriding emotion for me at the moment is frustration. At 39, I have been through a lot as a Sunderland fan - I was one of the 14,000 at Roker Park under Buxton, I was still going home and away in the record-breaking relegations of the early 2000’s, and more recently, I have introduced my boy to the club, which has seen consecutive relegations and a 7th Wembley final defeat.
Still, I travel home and away, ticking off new grounds on the way. The novelty soon wears off - nothing against Rochdale, but I don’t want to go there again. I want to show my boy Anfield and Old Trafford.
This frustration stems from knowing how good this club can be. How good it could be again. Of course, league position is vital, the quality of the first team is vital, but this club means so much more.
Along with the downs, I have experienced many highs - not just on the pitch, but off it too. Whilst relegation hurts and the current continuous plight of the club is painful, the owners don’t seem to want to acknowledge it.
Yesterday’s club statement was a ‘call for unity’. Well, unity generally comes when leaders lead, when culture allows organic growth, where communication is professional and coherent. When there are long term and operational strategies in place. Unity comes with pride, unity is linked to cohesion, effective teams. Unity is shared interests, shared values and shared norms. Unity comes with stability, with commitment, with support. Unity comes with trust, transparency and effective management of stakeholder relationships.
None of this is easy, but at the moment, little of it exists at SAFC.
How can owners call for unity when they have been actively looking to sell the club since early 2019? How can they ask for unity when directors are deserting the club? When the owners can’t even bring themselves to live or even work from the North East? They don’t even want to attend games. Yet, they call for unity?
The statement is propaganda, nothing more, nothing less. It’s ill-advised and it’s disingenuous. Even the timing of the statement is poor. It’s proof the owners do not understand the club, its fans and the current predicament.
The statement suggests that the recent protest is to blame for the current lack of unity. It suggests the fanzines should have told the club it was going to happen. The club seem to feel aggrieved that a bunch of passionate supporters dared to question their methods so publicly, despite the club sitting in the lowest league position in its history.
The owners do not react well to criticism, whether it’s constructive or not. Their initial transparency and communication were praised, and the owners lapped up that praise, but once the going got tough, it was clear the longer-term commitment and ability to take us forward was questionable.
The relationship has broken down, and essentially turned into a prolonged argument - a very public one. It’s an argument which the owners are beginning to realise they have lost. On this occasion, they have misunderstood and underestimated Sunderland fans. It’s sad, but the club is being paralysed by off the field games, initiated by the owners themselves. Sunderland supporting non-executive directors were brought in to partially mediate the argument, to buy some time.
The statement refers to the club’s debt free financial position, but there is very little transparency on January spending. The fans, the manager, know more than most that investment in the playing squad is vital, yet we know from previous transfer windows that this is not always forthcoming.
Methven suggested us Sunderland fans are incredibly uneducated in business terms; some are also parasites. Whilst these kinds of comments are poisonous, they are also fundamentally incorrect. They evidence the contempt; it evidences the elitist attitude towards the north. That approach is never going to work at Sunderland, or anywhere else for that matter. The current owners likely think Sunderland fans will attend regardless, because we are loyal, because football matters so much. I can guarantee that if there’s no resolution before the start of next season that season ticket sales will tumble. Of course, one final gamble is the hope the club can win promotion, then sold as a much more attractive offering, at a better price, that seems to have been the end goal all along.
As I am educated in business terms, I understand the cost-cutting, I understand the streamlining of activities so that the club is more sustainable in the long term, however, the cost-cutting has gone too deep, and coupled with the lack of leadership, standards across the entire club have dropped. Its clear the cost-cutting is to benefit the owners in the short term and make the club more attractive as an investment.
I’ve got some rhetorical questions for the owners.
- Some time ago the owners commented on the state of the academy and the results, what is their current view? Is it okay for two teams to have won two games in a year?
- Is the corporate offering good enough? Does it provide value for money?
- Do they realise how bad the refreshments are on the concourse? That it can take 30 minutes to be served?
- Do they realise how vocally and visually frustrated and demotivated customer facing staff in the ticket office, the shop and corporate areas are?
- Do they realise the staff on the concourse are poorly prepared for their job, are limited by an archaic system? Do they realise the customer service is generally of a poor standard?
- Do they realise it’s more difficult and more expensive to buy tickets?
- Do they realise how bad the retail website is?
- Do they realise that asking fans to spend more money on football pools is a) encouraging deviant consumption in an area where disposable income is the lowest in the country, and b) something a non-league team does, i.e. Blyth Town? Should a club of this size have to rely on its fans gambling precious income to maintain their stadium?
- Do they realise how bad the PA system is? It’s inaudible in most parts of the stadium.
- Do they realise that the general fan experience is really poor? That there is no hot water in most of the toilets?
- Do they realise that many season ticket holders, young and old, stopped attending games months ago and will not be renewing next season?
I don’t think they are bad people. They walked into a very difficult position and in many ways, they have steadied the ship. However, its apparent that they do not understand the fans and do not understand the area.
It’s now clear that since the play off defeat, the owners have actively looked to profit from selling the club. It’s time to admit their mistakes, invest in the team this window and sell the club in the best interests of the fans, the club and the wider community.
Yesterday’s statement is reminiscent of something Steve Dale would write at Bury in the final months. Yesterday’s statement attempts to shift blame for the lack of unity on fanzines. It’s true the fanzines do not represent all fans, and I know many have disagreed with the #DonaldOut protest.
However, the people who run the fanzines have no personal agendas. They work voluntarily out of a love and passion for the club. It provides them a voice, a platform, and they have simply had enough. They appreciate where the club is, and they realise a change in direction is needed.