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Times they are a-Changin’ at Sunderland AFC

Parky’s gone and an ownership change is on the horizon - hopefully, we can come together in the best interests of the club, the city and the region and build a brighter future together.

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

Come writers and critics, who prophesize with your pen, and keep your eyes wide, the chance won’t come again. And don’t speak too soon, for the wheel’s still in spin, and there’s no tellin’ who that it’s namin’. For the loser now, will be later to win. For the times they are a-changin’

Bob Dylan, The Times They Are A-Changing

In a time of crisis and uncertainty, people rightly fear the worst and crave clarity.

A couple of weeks ago, over the course of a few days and after what felt like some never ending hellish nightmare of a year, three pieces of good news emerged, about matters over which we had little or no power to influence, that brightened many people’s moods.

Donald Trump was roundly defeated by Joe Biden in the US elections, Sunderland were in the process of being taken over by a multibillionaire, and a number of vaccines for covid-19 were discovered.

Three causes many felt could be lost had ultimately prevailed. The fog of eight months of lockdown hell appeared to be lifting, yet the paths ahead were not entirely clear. In the weeks since, the realities and complexities of nailing-down each of these developments has caused further worry and frustration - the dripping taps just out of reach of the thirsty dogs.

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

Whilst it's prudent to be cautious and not to let optimism get the better of us on all three fronts - 2020 may still have a few twists left in it yet - but now it seems we are days away from hope being replaced with certainty on these three fronts at least.

The incompetence of the British government and the tragic impact of the second wave of coronavirus overshadows planning for a mass vaccination programme, Lame Duck Trump is still breaking every convention (and who knows what else) in his desperate refusal to concede defeat, and there’s widespread discomfort, and significant outright hostility, amongst many fans at the potential involvement of the Madrox Partners in any future ownership structure at the Stadium of Light.

But now that limited vaccine roll outs could start within a matter weeks, President-elect Biden has started his transition to a new administration in the White House, and at Sunderland we have Phil Parkinson’s sacking and the Louis-Dreyfus takeover being passed to the EFL for approval, it appears times really are a-changin’.

The combined impact of covid-19 on our physical health, the economy and our ability to see the people we love and do the things we love to do - including going to football - is utterly devastating in and of itself to many people’s mental well-being. We long to get back to normal - be that competent government, a football club befitting the fanbase, or simply our ordinary working, social and family lives. And in that longing we are and have been vulnerable to both to manipulation and to making the perfect the enemy of the good.

For tens of thousands of Sunderland fans, the now decade-long crisis of leadership at Sunderland AFC and the latest takeover saga, which has rumbled on in the background since before the pandemic, have been terribly stressful. We at Sunderland have not been through half of what fans of Wigan and Charlton have experienced during lockdown, let alone the poor Macclesfield Town supporters, but it’s still been tough. Fans remain locked out of the Stadium of Light due to covid-19 and our club at its lowest ebb, languishing in League 1 having effectively been on the market for well over a year.

We have been united in wanting investment and a change in direction both on and off the pitch, it appears that our wishes - the end of Stewart Donald’s time in charge - may have come true.

Yet there are those who, quite irresponsibly, either create or facilitate the distribution of disinformation about elections, about covid, and indeed about the ownership of football clubs, which has a direct impact on the people who consume it and the wider discourse about those subjects.

Their interest is not to help to solve a problem, or to help others, or to inform others. Ruthless people will exploit a situation and use fear, anxiety and promises of simple solutions to push whatever it is they might be selling, whether that's “natural vaccine alternatives”, energy drinks or YouTube adverts.

They sow doubt, they sow distrust, and they sow division.

We at Roker Report have received letter after letter from Sunderland fans, especially those who’ve been following the club for very many years, utterly despondent at the state that our football club is in today. I get the sense that many fans have been on the brink of falling out of love with the club under Donald and the team under Parkinson.

Even with Parky gone and the news of the takeover progressing to its final stages, there’s a sense of cautiousness and suspicion about the motives of Stewart Donald and Charlie Methven in retaining a stake in the club and, as in society more generally, tensions, bickering and sniping have entered our online communities as a result.

As much as I try, I am not immune from getting involved in silly online arguments about our football club. Indeed, it’s into this hotbed of anxious uncertainty that the grifters, the peddlers of disinformation and the bullsh*t merchants have stepped. Many have been taken in by well-packaged conspiracy theories based on little more than rumour and speculation.

Those of us who have the privilege of writing and talking about the club on platforms that command thousands of readers, viewers and listeners have a responsibility to seek and report what is the truth to the best of our knowledge, and to question the information we inevitably receive. It is this function of the media, to ensure that people have the information they need and want so that they can understand what’s going on in the world around them.

This rightly involves interpreting facts and for their implications to be debated, but it is not good for our collective mental health to spend our time debunking lies and falsehoods, and doesn't improve our ability to be effective in communicating our needs and concerns to the people who will be running Sunderland AFC from now on.

There are things that can be done by those in positions of power now and in the near future to help us to break down the misinformation and reduce public scepticism and stress, whether it’s in the realm of politics, public health or football - not over promising, taking swift but effective action, real transparency, active consultation and clear communication of plans. As fans, and as citizens, we should continue to question and probe and demand clear and accurate information from those who possess it.

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

The club, under new ownership, must hold a Structure Dialogue meeting with the fan groups including Red & White Army and the Branch Liaison Committee as soon as is practical, both to outline their vision for the club and to answer concerns about the likely continuing presence of Donald and Methven amongst the shareholders.

These meetings need to continue and, as the new Supporters’ Trust comes into being in the next few weeks, supporters need to be active in holding those entrusted with custodianship of Sunderland AFC to account through our new democratic structures. In this way, we can finally come together in the best interests of the club, the city and the region and hopefully build a brighter future together.

I hope against hope that all three of the carrots currently dangling in front of us - a covid vaccine for everyone on the planet, an honourable man firmly in place in the White House, and new, wealthy and ambitions ownership for Sunderland AFC - will indeed come to pass very soon. All the pieces are there.

If and when they do, I hope we remember to hold accountable not those ultimately responsible for causing and handling the crises we’re living through, and recognise those who worked to make things better, but also be careful not to forget those who tried their utmost to manipulate and con us along the way for their own wealth or self-aggrandisement.

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