Dear Roker Report,
There is so much wrong with Tom Middleton’s debut article for Roker Report that I don’t know where to start. Perhaps I ought to start at the beginning, which for me was 17th September 1960, a 2-1 defeat to Huddersfield Town in the old second division at Roker Park. I was a very young lad, taken by my father to something about which I had very little knowledge or understanding. In the intervening 60 years however, I have come to understand that Sunderland AFC is a badly run club, it always has been, and that the incompetence and sheer stupidity rests at the top of the club – in the boardroom. The relative lack of success is absolutely nothing to do with the fans and never will be.
Let me use another club to illustrate the cause of the enormous gap which now exists between the top clubs and Sunderland but which did not exist when I started as a fan. In the late 1950’s Liverpool was a club in an even worse position than Sunderland, almost out on its feet, with a decaying stadium and an apathetic fan base. At that time young man from Scotland was manager of Workington and was looking for a bigger challenge, a club with great potential. There was a vacancy at Sunderland and he applied, but was turned down by the board because he was too “working class” coming from a very poor mining village in Scotland and they appointed the much more suitable (to them) Alan Brown instead. Everyone knows what happened next – Bill Shankly went to Huddersfield and then soon after to Liverpool, where his team beat Sunderland to promotion by two years. The rest is (a pretty depressing) history and Liverpool are currently the best team in England by far, captained by a Sunderland lad, whilst we are seventh in the third division. I often think about what Shankly could have achieved with Sunderland’s potential.
The Liverpool empire was further established by another Sunderland man, Bob Paisley, who would have loved to manage his home town team but was never given the opportunity. Brian Clough was desperate to manage Sunderland but was turned down twice by the board because he was a difficult person to work with: that didn’t stop him winning two European cups with Forest. The list goes on for the next 50 years, with idiotic decisions at board level on a regular basis. Who could forget Bob Murray deciding to expand the stadium when we were at the top of the Premier League, rather than strengthening the team? Or appointing Howard Wilkinson when he had only asked him for advice on the next appointment!
So Tom, I couldn’t disagree more with your article. It is a cliché, but true nevertheless, that if you give the fans a team to watch they will support you loudly and in numbers. Nowhere is that more true than at Sunderland. When Shankly’s Liverpool were winning the league in 1964, Sunderland were in the second division but they were getting 60,000 crowds and Liverpool were not. Those crowds at Roker park were famed throughout the country for their noise and passion. People of my generation still revere that team. Why? Because it was made up of heroes – players like Charlie Hurley, Jimmy Monty, George Herd and Len Ashurst who gave us something to shout about. That is all that we need but we have regularly been let down for over 60 years. In recent times this has been worse than ever – Ellis Short, Margaret Byrne, Didier N’Dong, Jack Rodwell…………Need I go on?
The wonder is that anybody turns up at all!
Writer’s Note [Tom Middleton]: I don’t think that any one of us could argue for one second that all of our problems lie with the minority of fans that I referenced in my article, nor would I argue with you that the majority of fans that attend games are incredibly supportive and some of the most passionate and dedicated that I encounter.
However, the main point of my piece was that, behind this lies a sizeable minority of fans that engage in the behaviour I outlined in the article. In fact, I’d go as far to say that they actually use the passionate majority to pretty much hide in plain sight.
We all know they exist, and we have all witnessed the behaviour that I spoke about. Can we really con ourselves into thinking that giving abuse on social media or confronting people outside the ground doesn’t have a negative impact on them? Can we really convince ourselves that they don’t have an effect on how the players and club staff perform on a daily basis? I don’t think we can.
And, for all the valid points you make about historical errors at the club, if we are going to re-establish ourselves in the top flight as a more stable club where players want to come, and thrive, can we afford to leave any stone unturned? Can we really afford to ignore this negative element that exists in the fanbase and not confront it head on?
After all, as you and I agree, the majority of us are passionate, provide positive support and are some of the friendliest people you could wish to meet. So why do we tolerate this toxic faction that we know do us more harm than good? Why do we not call it out and try to stop it festering away?
[Re: Email from ‘disgusted’ Benjamin Eckford published in Roker Report]
I too am disgusted - disgusted that Roker Report saw fit to publish the aforementioned email.
The supporters of our club have a variety of political views. Why, on earth did you decide to publish one such view and stir up political debate (and promote division) among the supporters? This political comment also referred to our Prime Minister as “xenophobic”, without substantiating the accusation. Was it wise to publish the email? In my view, this was a bad editorial decision. [NOTE: it was also possibly contrary to SBNATION’s rules & regulations].
I don’t believe there is a lot to be gained by mixing politics with sport, but you have now opened the door. I would therefore comment as follows about the Prime Minister’s visit: Should we not be proud that a serving Prime Minister (regardless of political persuasion) wants to visit our city? Further, the people of Sunderland voted for the UK to leave the EU, and the Prime Minister aknowledged this with the cabinet meeting at the Glass Centre.
Finally, in the ‘Ed’s Note’, to the original email, you say “...the club is a huge part of the local community”. I would agree, but can you please explain what was meant by “...many would do well to remember that”.
Yours, also in disgust,
Ed’s Note [the most disgusted man in the room, Damian]: First of all Kenn, Roker Report will publish any fan letter that is relevant to Sunderland AFC provided it falls within the boundaries of SBN’s rules of conduct, which the aforementioned article does as it lacks anything that’s offensive to race, sex or religion. Alexander de Pfeffel Johnson - a figure of some contention - was present at the Stadium of Light, rendering the topic relevant and current. The fact that Benjamin doesn’t like tories is irrelevant to the editorial process.
But since the door has been opened and you have found offence, please allow me to reluctantly walk through it with you. On a personal note, no, I’m not proud that a populist, right wing, racist aristocrat has any association with the club or the region, or indeed the nation I once held love for. You are correct that many in Sunderland voted to stumble off a cliff together at the behest of an elite few, and this also distresses me, because it is indicative of a nation in the grips of a regressive tribalism that no one should be proud of, and precious few understand. The mental gymnastics required to ignore the draconian rule of the tories over the past decade is an Olympian feat of which I am in constant awe, as is the pathetic level of ease with which the mob will hungrily consume propaganda in lieu of silly little things like facts, or the reality of the extreme human cost in the eternal pursuit of more money for a group of people that would step over most of their supporters if they found them dying in the street.
Another editor took the last response so I can’t speak to his meaning. Maybe he was speaking directly to you? Maybe he was speaking to Benjamin.