FinalizeRR: So, can you just tell us what your involvement with the BLC (Branch Liaison Committee) is?
Cath: I am secretary of the Branch Liaison Council, as well as a member of the BLC social committee.
Joanne: I’m a member of the Boldon Branch as well as a member of the BLC social committee.
RR: There are probably people reading this who don’t actually know what the BLC is - can you just explain what the group stand for, and do?
Cath: So, the BLC is the Branch Liaison Council, we consist of representatives from supporter branches based across the UK and abroad. It was originally set up by Sir Bob Murray, his vision for supporter representatives to meet with club officials as well as forging friendships with visiting supporters.
We have now grown from less than 20 branches three years ago, to almost 40 now. As a branch we purchase match tickets for our branch members and organise coach travel. By purchasing tickets together, we’re all able to sit together, have some banter and generally good craic.
However, the BLC isn’t just about tickets and coach travel, we are very active in fundraising. Each year the BLC raise funds for our nominated charities - one being the Foundation of Light, the second is voted on from nominations received from BLC supporter branches. Last year combined branches donated over £15,000 to various charities! One of our main fundraisers is from Player of the Year where this year all funds are divided between the Foundation of Light and The Air Ambulance. We’re also very supportive of mental health issues and are very proud to be the first club in the country to fund a matchday mental health drop in centre.
We meet on five occasions throughout the year with representatives from the club, raising concerns relating from cost and quality of beer, to concerns about missiles being thrown from the upper tier and the planned introduction of netting for some matches. Minutes of the meetings are circulated to branches for distribution to their branch members.
RR: One thing that won’t have gone unnoticed is that the BLC have arranged an International Fan Weekend in February, coinciding with the home game against Ipswich. Can you just explain to us how the event came about, what the BLC have planned for the supporters who are coming over, and why you feel so strongly about spotlighting Sunderland’s international supporters?
Joanne: It all started as an idea from Philadelphia-based Sunderland fan John Ellington last summer. He emailed Chris Waters and the BLC asking if we could set up an event for fans from all over the world to mingle with the more local fans… and the ball started rolling!
After chatting to John we loved the idea of bringing all supporters together for one game, so we started putting a few ideas in place and then met with Chris Waters at the club. Immediately everyone involved with the club were supportive and we initially approached members of our worldwide branches to gather interest. We identified the Ipswich game as an ideal match as we have another home game days after, so people traveling a long way could see two games. We had numerous meetings with the supporter liaison team and steadily interest grew as did the itinerary, from a one-day event to a jam-packed three-day itinerary.
Everyone we approached to help make the weekend special did so without a second thought. Former players to welcome fans, Nick Barnes and Kevin Ball offering to do a talk in, tours of the stadium as well as the Foundation of Light but to name a few. We are excited that all of the hard work everyone has put into this event is actually going to happen - our social committee has been working overtime to make sure it works well for everyone.
We tried to include things us local fans do regularly that people living away miss out on. We are blown away with how popular the even has become; after originally thinking we may attract 20-30 people we now have 130 registered to attend! We are hoping it’s going to happen every season and become bigger and better as it develops.
RR: On the Friday night at the Fan Museum, the Roker Rapport Podcast lads will be interviewing supporters in attendance about their love for the club. Just how excited are you to meet everyone on the night? Is there anyone you think will have some interesting stories to tell?
Joanne: Very excited! To start the ball rolling for the weekend on the Friday, Michael Ganley and the team at the fan’s museum agreed to host a fans’ party where people, who have mainly only spoken on social media, can actually meet in person and become acquainted.
We also have a WhatsApp group with members ranging from Sunderland, Taiwan and Philadelphia on it - it pings 24 hours a day with the time differences. We’ve been messaging and organising for 6 months now and haven’t met yet. There are some fascinating stories about how people discovered their love for Sunderland.
RR: Recently you and others at the BLC launched a matchday mental health hub in the club’s fanzone, which is open to supporters on matchdays. Can you tell us about how you came to set it up, and the reasons why it was done?
Joanne: The BLC has lost a number of their members to suicide, so the aim of the project was not only to provide a safe space to talk on match days, but to also equip some of our members, club staff, Foundation staff and SAFC policing units with skills to help and signpost anyone who may be suffering.
The idea came after the Washington/Shields and Cleadon branch held a talk in raising money for a local men’s mental health charity. Sadly, on the night of the fundraiser, the BLC committee received a message to say that one of their branch members had taken their own life. Attending the event that evening was a member of staff from Washington Mind, who mentioned that the organisation ran a free suicide prevention awareness course for community groups and the BLC agreed to deliver a session to their members. Our aim was to have various members across branches trained to be aware of how to support and signpost a fan who may need support. Our branches transport thousands of fans both home and away each season and we spend quite a lot of time together, it’s like an extended family.
Fast forward to pre-season in Portugal where several branches were present, and over a few drinks, the members discussed the training and decided as supporter branches they wanted to do something more practical to support their fellow fans who may be suffering from mental health issues as well as equip branch organisers with the skills to identify branch members and fans who may be struggling.
A fundamental aspect of the BLC is their passion to help their fellow fans, and for this reason it was really important to them that the project was funded by the group, so the BLC could give back to those who had supported supporter branches.
The Hub was launched in November 2019 and has been available on eight match days so far - including on Boxing Day. It has received a large amount of praise from a range of organisations and the BLC is currently talking to a number of football clubs and community policing teams across the country to tell their story and support the roll out of other hubs.
RR: If people want to attend the mental health hub, where do they head and what do they have to do? When is it open?
Joanne: The hub is in the Foundation of Light each Saturday home game from 11:45 till 14:45. As well as one or two volunteers from the BLC there are 2 qualified counsellors there to give direct support if needed.
People do not necessarily need to see a counsellor, some just come in for a chat and a coffee. There is also various leaflets and signposting opportunities to other organisations. We want it to be somewhere where people feel comfortable, there is no stigma attached. It’s literally fans supporting fans. It’s on the ground floor and we have a banner standing outside the rooms so people don’t even have to go to reception to ask.
RR: How has the mental health hub been received not only by our fans, but by those outside of the Sunderland bubble?
Joanne: We’ve started reaching out on social media to the clubs of travelling fans each match day and its been great to see fans from Blackpool and Wycombe pop in to have a look. As mentioned before, clubs including Chelsea, Swansea and Huddersfield has contacted us asking how we started as they would like to set up the same, but we have stressed it’s the fans that have made this possible at Sunderland.
Rather than travel around each club we have an idea of a fans’ mental health conference to be held at the SOL with National and local MIND and regional policing teams. We are busy working on this but have full support of the club, which is half the battle. To continue ‘fans supporting fans’ Its important to us that the money that the hub needs to run is raised by the fans and we are set to start fundraising to fund next season’s hub soon.
RR: What else do the BLC have coming up, and how can people get involved with the group?
Cath: We have a couple of fundraisers coming up, the first being early March, we just need to confirm dates and then will publish details - it’s sure to be a cracking night, though!
We have some insane members who are also going to do the coast to coast too, but thankfully Joanne and I have the easy job of being nominated as back up drivers. Towards the end of April, we will be holding our Player of the Year awards, the award is chosen from all BLC branches, I contact each branch and ask for the total number of votes for each player. Last year we actually managed to keep it a secret from everyone apart from myself and the trophy company! It made guessing who had won all the more interesting.
Regarding the group’s meetings, we have to restrict number of people attending meetings to two per branch. However, if anyone is wanting to attend they should initially contact their own branch. If you are an official supporters branch and would like to join the BLC, please email firstname.lastname@example.org and we will get back to you. Annual membership is £10.00.