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The lost generation of Sunderland supporters - what can we do to engage the youth of today?

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This is a time for instant gratification, of finding anything you want by the flick of a thumb. Juan Sartori & Kyril Louis-Dreyfus - what are you willing to do to safeguard a disappearing generation of Sunderland supporters?

Sunderland v Chelsea - Premier League Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images

Clive Walker. There you go.

Balding, skinny and never going to gain a lucrative contract for image rights. Not one of my all-time heroes and wouldn’t get into my all-time XI. Certainly not a club legend, but certainly responsible for inspiring some great moments in his two years at Sunderland.

He was the first Sunderland player I ever saw score at Roker Park.

The wonder of that goal was only matched by the excitement of a sensational come back against a strong Manchester United team.

At around 5pm on a windy November day in 1984, my dad and I were walking back towards town, hand in hand, where I was pretending - in that moment - that I was Clive Walker, and kicking several imaginary footballs along the way.

Oh, the glory that I imagined would come Sunderland’s way in the years to come. Oh, the sweet naivety.

I was nine. This was my first match at Roker Park. The first real football match with my Dad. It was momentous. Growing up, I didn’t always remember the incidents of that match like the two sending-offs, the Chris Turner howler, or even the penalties, truth be known.

However, I do remember the way that going to the match with my old man made me feel.

Sunderland Photo by Staff/NCJ Archive/Mirrorpix/Getty Images

It was powerful. Intoxicating. Those overwhelming feelings mixed perfectly in a cocktail of youthful innocence and the early green shoots of growing up. Now, at approximately the same age as my old man when he took me to watch us beat United, the innocent naivety of my childhood has been slowly replaced by a malignant boil of negativity.

The cynical exhaustion of perpetual disappointment and our exasperating downward spiral - as well as the dull mediocrity of Sunderland play in recent years - has pushed many fans to the netherworld of supporter apathy.

For long-suffering supporters like us, football can morph into something unpleasant, and bitter to the taste. It’s where a supporter’s bristling excitement is transformed into comatose boredom, and a contemptuous attitude to the disconnect and hypocrisy of football leadership.

Gratefully, I had a secret weapon that often reminded me, at all the right times, that football is more than that. More than an adult-only fight against all the wrongs that the modern game throws in our faces.

My son and his bouncy happiness reminded me that football is not about the conclusion of a lifetime of sporting frustration. Football support is a way of joyfully re-calibrating our identities as we grow - and not just from childhood to adulthood, but all the way through until our pipes and slippers can no longer catch the bus to the Stadium of Light, or drive gleefully to away games.

Sunderland v Ipswich Town - Sky Bet League One Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Since I began taking my son to the SOL it has - for him - meant a re-shaping of the world.

His cheerful attitude towards matches in years gone by reinvigorated something of the boy within me. The boy, for who football was a joy. The boy who played for hours in the street, the boy who would wait outside Roker Park for autographs, no matter the weather or the time it took to get them. The boy who got stitches in the head when he was sliced by a flurry of crazily tossed coins away at Rotherham when our casuals drunkenly kicked off.

As bizarre as it seems, I even loved that!

But as Covid-19 has interrupted the flow of football, as Parkinson’s footballing philosophy can only be described as bone-chillingly pre-historic and achingly unattractive, and while some uncertainty still remains over long-lasting impact of potential takeovers, I’ve noticed that for my boy, his interest has waned. His older sister too, who used to enjoy the matches as much as her brother.

He’s 11 now and his recent football education comes from an unceasingly-frustrated dad, a grandpa who lives in a long gone, rose-tinted era of legends that my son has never heard of, and of course FIFA 21. He goes to a school in Durham where there are as many Barcelona and Chelsea shirts as there are Sunderland or Newcastle amongst his peers.

He loves Sunderland of course, because his dad loves Sunderland. But unlike previous generations, I’m not certain that love for his dad guarantees his ongoing commitment to the club.

Charlton Athletic v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One Play-off - Final - Wembley Stadium Photo by Tim Goode/PA Images via Getty Images

Even before the frustration of lockdowns and anxiety over crowd-mixing began, the atmosphere at the games had been bitter and angry. For a young kid, it has been intimidating and a little unenjoyable. The Stadium of Light has been an unhappy and dark place. But, up until perhaps last year, my kids were still young enough to simply enjoy the size and noise of the event.

I have friends with older kids in their teens who can’t motivate their teenagers away from the myriad of activities they have on offer in today’s competitive marketplace of media and social entertainment. Likewise, they’re old enough to support teams of their own free will and choose which shirt of whatever random club they would prefer to show allegiance to, if any at all.

After conducting years of research, The New Economics Foundation reported that 1976 was the happiest year in Britain since the second world war. Part of the reason for this contented generation is that they had something approaching full employment in Britain until the early 70s, which meant there was relatively little need for people to uproot and look for work elsewhere. This in turn led to communities remaining intact. Most people knew their neighbours, and kids played out in the streets until all hours as everyone was looking out for them.

When I was my son’s age in 1986 the full extent of my social life was playing in the street outside, and the Roker End with my Dad. That was it.

Soccer - FA Carling Premiership - Sunderland v Everton Photo by Peter Robinson/EMPICS via Getty Images

It wasn’t until 1988 when I received anything near a games console, and I would hardly describe waiting 7 minutes for game to load on my ZX Spectrum via a crackling cassette tape as really being a console. More like a slow brick with stick men graphics.

Sunderland, as a club, as a marketing entity, really had to do zero to get me there. We had nothing else. I had playing in the street and football. Roker Park WAS the only show in town.

While recent surveys have indicated that 97% of season ticket holders across the country believe they would bring their kids to the games, only 13% of season ticket holders across the board are children. Part of this reason is undoubtedly cost, and as a father of three young kids I know what it is to feel the pinch.

In the last two years, some eye-catching research came from one of England’s biggest clubs: in 1968, the average age of supporters on the Stretford End at Old Trafford was 17; by 2010, it was over 40. Similarly, the average age of Newcastle supporters at St James’ Park in 2002 was 35; by 2012, that had risen to 45. These are the same loyal Geordies, simply a decade older.

So where do the teenagers go?

There is a widely held suspicion within the game that kids are welcome in their school years not because they are worth cultivating as the next generation of supporters, but because they deliver family groups – Mum and Dad, with their higher spending patterns.

A spokesperson for a leading football supporters’ organisation described to a national newspaper:

Anecdotally, we’re hearing that even teenagers who do have season tickets are feeling disillusioned, because they pay all that money and turn up, and unless you’re at the best clubs, the football is poor, no-one reaches out to them as customers and, like all consumers, they eventually go elsewhere if they are not satisfied.

Charlton Athletic v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One Play-off Final Photo by Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images

Honestly, in the last few years, how many young fans have we potentially lost? What have we offered them that is a more fulfilling and more uplifting experience than any of the million and one alternatives they have on offer now? My daughter’s interest has all but gone, my son’s interest is waning.

I know of hard-core supporters who’ve been going for years, who are switching their streams off at half time because the football we currently play is so appallingly dull. It is slow, it’s regressive, it’s downright boring. The longer we languish in this pit of drivel, this hell of basic footballing subsistence, the more we are losing young people from the embrace of the Stadium of Light, from the Sunderland family. The need for new ownership, new direction and a new culture from top to bottom has never been more crucial.

Young people nowadays can access a multitude of wildly entertaining worlds without leaving their own bedroom, as well as being more upwardly mobile than any other previous generation.

We’ve got to offer them more than this bland ball of heavy grey banality that we have on offer now. The systematic mishandling of the club does not just affect the events on the pitch. It affects the connection of hearts and minds to a sporting and communal institution.

It has been nothing short of an abysmal failure and dereliction of duty.

Some young people will always find their way home to the SOL, but this is a different generation to the one I grew up in. This is a time for instant gratification, of finding anything you want by the flick of a thumb. Some kids can get through their whole adolescence without need of a conversation, never mind the need to gather socially for a unified cause.

My lad loves Sunderland as does my eldest girl, but it’s no longer a primary concern for them. How long can I keep them interested, and if things don’t change, how long do I want to? I love watching them engage in the activities they genuinely love, which are wide and varied. More often than not, the least fun and enjoyment they have is at the football! This needs to change and not just for my kids, but for an entire generation.

I fear it’s only a matter of time that they continue to choose more satisfying and less depressing ways to enjoy their Saturday afternoons. In some ways, who can blame them?

Mr Sartori & Mr Louis-Dreyfus - the ball is in your court. What can you offer?