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Looking in the mirror

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In his debut piece for Roker Report, Tom Middleton gives his views on what it means to be a Sunderland supporter, and how the fanbase can help the club to progress into a more prosperous future.

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

It would be fair to say that Sunderland’s fall into the third tier of the pyramid has brought with it a contrasting set of emotions. On the one hand it has been a refreshing breath of fresh air, visiting clubs that are still precisely that - clubs. Not the corporate entities that we had become accustomed to after a decade spent rolling in the business world of the Premier League.

On the other hand, it has been a rude awakening that, as the months in the division have ticked by, has forced me to reassess my perceptions of the club, who we are and what we stand for. It has forced me to ask questions about why, despite every component of the club changing during my quarter of a century of loving it and supporting it, we continue to encounter the same problems. The same, repetitive, soul destroying heartbreak.

Taking my twenty-five years as a fan in isolation we have had four owners, twenty managers, a new ground, a new training facility, and spent more millions than I care to count on every type of player imaginable. Yet in that same period our achievements amount to four promotions, an FA Cup semi-final, a League Cup final and two seventh place finishes in the top flight.

With all that money spent on players bought under various recruitment strategies, investment in state-of-the-art facilities, various highly successful businessmen owning the club, and a large, passionate fan base, I find myself repeatedly asking one question: How is it that things have gone so astray that our last success is rapidly approaching it’s 50th anniversary?

Blaming it on Stewart Donald, or Simon Grayson, or Mick McCarthy, or Bob Murray, or Martin Bain, or any number of scapegoated individual players, does not sit well with me as someone aspiring to be a rational being. Simply too many individuals have changed, in every conceivable position, that reason demands, rather than suggests, that the search is for the constant, not the transient.

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

Assessing the constant

The harsh, inescapable truth is that we, the fans, are the constant. We are the only ones to have been present through all the failures. All the change. And if we are serious about our club becoming successful, then at some point we’ve got to ask ourselves: are we really blameless in where the club currently finds itself?

Yes, we turn up in impressive numbers home and away, spending hard-earned money (like fans of every club) in the process. Yes, we are “passionate” and football-obsessed.

But after visiting places like Lincoln, Shrewsbury, Rochdale, Portsmouth and Oxford during our League One experience, I’ve come away thinking that, man for man, those fans are every bit as loud – if not louder – than us when we are playing at home. They too are passionate. They too spend their money to support their team.

In reality, individually we are no better, no more deserving of ‘success’ than them. Yes, we have more fans than other clubs at this level, but there is really no part of life where ‘support’ is merely a numbers game. Football fan bases like to style themselves as ‘armies’. If we were an army, what kind of army would we be? Lots of us, yes, but constantly mutinying against our officers and fighting amongst ourselves. Euphoric in victory, but hysterical in defeat.


Support is a state of mind

Real support, in my view, is a state of mind - an attitude of pouring everything into trying to help the team win. It’s taking it upon yourself to create a fortress, a sense of us versus them, regardless of how the game goes.

It’s about doing everything we can do to help the club based on today and the team that goes out onto the pitch, creating a supportive, encouraging atmosphere that we would all like to work in. Not just on match day but in everything that we do. From our posts on social media to how we speak on radio phone-ins.

As I encounter more fans of these so-called ‘small clubs’, the vocal support they provide and the football knowledge they possess, I’m beginning to wonder if too many Sunderland fans have forgotten what it actually is to be a supporter. What it means. What it truly entails.

After years in the Premier League, just maybe we have come to believe our own hype. Perhaps we have become just a little arrogant, convinced that we deserve better, all the while telling ourselves that we were going above and beyond simply by turning up, when fans of other clubs have had to do far more than merely turn up just to keep their club afloat.

Would it really be unfair to compare us to the absent father who thinks that just paying the child support and turning up to see their child on the odd event here and there, makes him a fantastic, supportive parent and loudly boasts as much?

Tranmere Rovers v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One Photo by Lewis Storey/Getty Images

A noisy minority

In fact, being honest, in many cases our support has sunk far lower than that analogy.

As at most clubs, there is a chunk of the fan base that merely sits at games in near silence waiting for something to happen. Only contributing vocally to the groans at a wayward pass or shouts of exasperation at some sub-par piece of play. That isn’t ideal, but it is normal.

Scratching beyond the surface of this low-level unsupportive behaviour, though, there is a sizeable minority of the fan base that participates in far worse; abusive social media posts; rants on radio phone-ins; booing the team off (sometimes at half time); verbally assaulting players and staff outside stadiums; and co-ordinated attacks on various owners. All of these actions, for sections of our fan base, are dished out, with no obvious use of irony, in the name of ‘support’.

Yet in what other walk of life would you describe any of this behaviour as support? Truth be told, in any other line of work being an employee of Sunderland AFC would be described as a poisonous working environment. Glass door would merely read: avoid.

What’s more (and in common with the worst workplaces) this problem of unsupportive behaviour is compounded by the fact that the rest of us turn a blind eye to it. This despite the fact that we know – just from making a simple comparison with our own workplace - that it is unacceptable and counter-productive.

The behaviour has been prevalent in the fan base at large for so long that it is met with a shrug of indifference and a grumble of “ah there’s always been idiots, just ignore them, man.” Which was all fine and well when the idiots could be drowned out by the Roker Roar on a Saturday afternoon.

But in the era of the internet, the idiots have social media as a platform on which they are the loudest voice, enabling the toxicity to permeate far further than before. And history has taught us that when a good-natured, well-intended, but passive, majority is not willing to face down an active, abusive minority, things rarely end well.

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

Finding a way forward

Let’s be quite clear. This is not about getting Stewart Donald to change his mind. Nor about lionising Phil Parkinson. Nor about simply ignoring mistakes made by other component parts of the club.

It is about recognising that at every club, every year, there are human beings – whether they be directors, coaches or players - who the fans need to perform at their best if the club is to succeed. And that our role in helping them achieve that is primarily in providing a supportive environment for them to perform in. It is not just about being pleasant people for the sake of it. It is simply in our own interests that Sunderland fans provide a constructive, supportive environment to perform in.

In order to do this, I believe that two things need to happen. Given that the need for challenge or criticism is inevitable, we need to change the way and the tone in which criticism is delivered to the club, to ensure that it is done in a constructive and supportive way. The solution to this, I believe, can be found in the way that our schools are governed.

When becoming a governor, you receive training that tells you it is important to challenge and to deliver criticism, where needed, in a constructive way. You are told that it is your role to be a ‘critical friend’, rather than merely a critic.

By creating an elected Fan Advisory Group, the next Board can innovate how our club is governed and provide a model for other clubs to follow. Perhaps more importantly, they would develop a constructive forum in which elected fans could provide criticism in a way that challenges them to improve or do things differently.

Simultaneously, I would like to see that Group create a supporter’s charter. This would outline what it means to be a Sunderland fan, the behaviours that are expected and provide the majority with a means to ‘call out’ the negative behaviour of a minority that has gone on for too long.

By outlining what we want to be as a fan base and how we can actually support our club, we can slowly but surely eradicate the negative behaviour with which we are uncomfortably becoming associated with. And in so doing, transform the one constant that has been a part of all the failure.

After all, they say the definition of insanity is doing the same things over and over, all the while expecting different results. Time for us to ditch the collective ego, stop making the lives of those who work for the club difficult, or unbearable, and change the record.

I know that the outcome of this article will be that those who are actually the problem will jump and up and down, crying like kids and refusing to address the core issue. I hope, though, that as we prepare for yet more new owners, probably a new manager to follow and yet another set of players, that calmer heads will decide that it’s time to focus on being the best we can be.