To get it out of the way so THAT there can be no confusion about where I stand, Stewart Donald leaving the club - whether that is being pushed out or of his own volition - is probably for the best. I say ‘probably,’ because the true outcome of this won’t be known until we know who is going to buy it. Control of our football club will pass to someone else, and there is no guarantee they will have the best intentions for it, or any more resources or desire to fund it than the outgoing incumbent.
It has been clear for some time now that Donald was looking to sell, which in itself draws into question his long-term interest in the club’s well-being. That is no slight on Donald, either, by the way. He has done some good things here and they don’t deserve to be forgotten.
The on-pitch problems though are the easiest to fix. Some might argue that Phil Parkinson, although not exactly popular with some supporters, has shown he just might be able to affect that.
The bigger issues, though - the lack of a scouting network, the desperately under-performing youth teams, etc - are the ones that require time and money to put right. If Donald is unwilling or unable to give that to the club for now, then it is easy to understand an assertion that it is his time to leave.
However, this business has raised wider concerns for me that go beyond Donald, and that are not his issues to fix.
As supporters we call for transparency, solidarity, and accountability from the club, and we must be vigilant to ensure we uphold the standards in ourselves that we demand in others.
I understand why the fanzines and Red and White Army went after Donald and, as detailed above, I am not necessarily against the principles behind it. The methods, however, have left me feeling very uncomfortable at times.
There is always a dangerous temptation to embrace dichotomy. Social media feeds off it, and so does football in general. It seems like it has to be either as ‘us or them,’ or ‘with us or against us’. We allow ourselves to get embroiled in it, and define each other by what we disagree upon, even when we have far more in common.
We are quick to call it out when we are challenged with it, too. A prime example would be the counter-statement by the club that was, without question, divisive and aggressive. An attempt to divide and conquer? Probably, yes. It was what it was.
However, so was the original statement from the fanzines and Red and White Army, and acknowledging that shouldn’t be seen as a challenge or a declaration of opposition.
The statement and the sentiments contained within it did not speak for the fans, yet it pitched the fanzines, and by extension the fans, as far as perception was concerned at least, against the club. The reality is that, at best, it was a guess at a consensus with no real attempt made to confirm its accuracy, and as a result it isolated many supporters.
A necessary evil? Acceptable collateral damage? Simply possessing the will to do what needed to be done? You can make a case for all of them, but whatever else it was, it was divisive and there is no getting away from it. It can be honestly owned for what it is.
I don’t personally believe the creation of division was the intent and it certainly wasn’t the motivation, but division is what it created, and I can say that because I am one of those fans who felt very isolated by it. And where there is isolation, there is division. It is inevitable, and it is damaging.
We can’t control who the next owner of Sunderland will be, nor the size of his bank account. What has come out of this, though, that we CAN influence is to start respecting the duty we all have to protect against the dangers of dichotomy and division within the supporter base.
The original statement said – completely fairly – that trust had been eroded between fans and Donald. Never has it been more apparent that trust between supporters is at a delicate stage right now too, and it is surely in all of our interests to preserve it. That is not done by forcing each other to agree, but by respecting each other’s right to disagree, without calling into question their relevance.
Donald’s intentions have come into question, but we have no doubt about our own, both as individual supporters and a collective fanbase. We share them, we live them, we breathe them. We may disagree on the details, but we share a passion, and we share hope. We smile together and we suffer together.
And, most importantly, as we focus on the divide between club and fans, it’s never more important that we fail to notice the widening divide between ourselves – because we, and we alone are accountable for it.