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Sunderland & The Media: a relationship underpinned by mockery and indifference

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Work with us. Work with the fans. Don’t just stick the knife in because its fashionable. Don’t just ignore our suffering because there’s a bigger story elsewhere.

Birmingham v Sunderland Photo by Rui Vieira - PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images

Firstly, let me say this: what I write is not a thinly veiled dig at local or national journalism, nor is it a critique of any individuals relating to the field and whilst I do not profess to be a voice for all fans, this is how many feel. However, I will add in the unlikely event that a journalist finds themselves reading this and compelled to do more - our door is always open. I dare say that applies beyond Roker Report too.

As the weeks have trundled on and our inevitable acquaintances with those of a black and white persuasion have been pushed to their breaking points, I can’t help but feel a modicum of unease as I watch local (and in some cases national) journalism somewhat hark for a club to be owned by one of the worlds, shall we say, ‘less than favourable’ regimes.

Make no mistake in that my unease would be felt had this been involving any club but more so that its something happening so close to home. The documentation of what transpires north of the Tyne has been almost unanimously void of critique or questioning as the wait for the inevitable rumbles on. A media conglomerate so keen to criticise the morality of Mike Ashley on a regular basis now seem found wanting on the subject of an even more morally reprehensible characters’ arrival. It seems the old moral compass has lost its magnetism for the time being.

Oxford United v Newcastle United - FA Cup Fourth Round: Replay
If the ire Mike Ashley received was relatively and proportionately applied to the atrocities committed by the new regime... well...
Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images

What does this have to do with Sunderland then? Well, the takeover itself doesn’t have anything to do with us. As far as I’m concerned it’s another club bought by another unscrupulous owner - they won’t be the first nor shall they be the last.

What this does raise is a commonly documented question: why do Sunderland receive such little interest in the local and national press? As a club that has been through so much in a short space of time, why have Sunderland slipped through the cracks and why is this important anyway?

When one sits to think about the reasons as to how and why this has happened, it’s hard to fully comprehend how a club such as ours has declined with what feels like nothing so much as a whimper. Our decline hasn’t been through a lack of trying but, even as a top division club, media interest in Sunderland was minimal unless - of course - the story ensuing was one of widespread ridicule and condemnation.

Media reporting of situations such as the Adam Johnson saga were rightly critical and welcomed by many both inside and outside of Sunderland, but even then the manner in which events transpired only led the media down an already well-trodden path - mockery, ridicule and damnation. What we would have liked to have transpired in this instance especially would have been a forensic analysis of how such events came to pass. As Sunderland fans, we were placed in an unenviable position both by Johnson and the club itself - in the end, any decisions were taken well out of supporters’ hands whether we liked it or not.

I do agree, especially in hindsight, that a lot of the criticism between Johnson’s arrest and trial was fair for the most part of the ordeal although little consideration was offered to the fans who were caught between a rock and a hard place. At the time Johnson protested his innocence and (such is the law of the land) it was his right to remain innocent until proven guilty - who are the fans to decide a man’s guilt before a jury? Looking back with all the knowledge we have now it’s safe to say Johnson shouldn’t have played during that time, but that was a decision made by the club and unfortunately, it was the fans who bore the brunt of that decision.

Sunderland v Manchester City - Premier League
A decision by the board should’ve been made; Adam Johnson should’ve been nowhere near the club in the 2015/16 season. Through the widely accepted lens of revisionism, the fans were seen as his enablers.
Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

In the end, after the very public whirlwind of the final days of Johnson’s trial, an opportunity was laid forth to journalists to ask questions. Sunderland by this point were tumultuous at best and the management of the club was certainly questionable; I understand, in the aftermath of such appalling revelations, asking these questions immediately after may not have been in the best of tastes but there was no reason why - in the coming weeks and months - the investigation into how events sequenced in the manner they did could not have been conducted, even on a rudimentary basis. If they were, we certainly never saw the fruits of this labour.

In the vacuum created by the perceived lack of analysis or questioning it left the matter to be swept aside, a mere blip on the radar for which the Sunderland fans could endure the ridicule and torment from fans across the country, whilst also dealing with their own moral conflictions on the matter.

This isn’t to say questions weren’t asked - for all I know many may have been - but what we never received was a fair backing: someone willing to speak truth to power. The whole scenario left a host of questions to be asked and answered, what we received was a media blackout, publications eager to drop the story once it lost its back page headlines and ability to sell papers. In a nutshell - Johnson was guilty and the fans were held morally responsible for the actions of others.

The same scenario had preceded this too, with the appointment of Paolo Di Canio again receiving widespread criticism and indignation thanks to the Italian’s political beliefs, despite his own claims of not being politically active. Again, it fell on the local and national press to stick the knife in and give it a twist for good measure. As fans we were reminded of our obligation to hold ourselves and the club to a higher moral standard, demanding better and more fluent communication from those above ourselves.

Again, a fair point made. What irked back then, as does now, is how the wider media seemed to place the onus entirely on the Sunderland fans to address the issue - these, the very same fans without the access or the training to hold the decision-makers to account, to put forth their concerns and objections or to even open some kind of discourse.

Of course, certain areas of the club and its related institutions held themselves true to their own moral barometer; David Miliband duly left before the Durham Miners Association requested a permanently loaned banner to be returned. These acts, as you can imagine, weren’t widely reported or held to the spotlight for others to see, instead slipping away into the distance and once again leaving Sunderland fans in an emotional tug of war between their morals and their loyalty. It felt like there was an empty space where at least some of those well versed in the ongoings at football clubs could have been - at the very least - asking the questions.

Sunderland v Portsmouth - Sky Bet League One
The Durham Miners Association brass band has a long-standing affiliation with SAFC. Their decision to disassociate themselves from Di Canio was completely morally sound, but you don’t often hear it mentioned.
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Naturally, there may be barriers to this: clubs becoming ‘closed shops’ as you will, with only very specifically worded statements sporadically released to those below. To bolster the control of their narrative, they may well ban certain outlets from attendance or enact other draconian measures in its place. Alas that cannot be helped. For that, I would not hold the hard-working journalists to account.

This in itself is not a criticism in fans being asked to look within themselves and ask tough questions if their loyalty to one specific club takes precedence over their own moral stance. During the two examples proposed above, I take no issue with the criticism we received; in fact, it should have been more welcomed than what it was - a lot of fans kicked back at the criticism and doubled-down on whatever their opinion was.

What irks me is how, not too long ago, Sunderland fans were tasked with being a moral authority by other fans and the media. Now, when the target is different, so is the reaction - some could argue - the correct reaction. A reaction not to demand these fans to be judge, jury and executioner, but to accept that despite their moral conflictions many will stay loyal to their own.

It lends itself very much to a strong feeling - especially amongst Sunderland fans - of favouritism. This, of course, is an issue. It is also an inevitability that sometimes sources will have a tendency to be kinder to some subjects than others and I do understand that some occasional bias is a price worth paying in order to have local journalists and outlets who are emotionally connected to both the clubs and the region they report on. That said, when reporting on matters of morality, as a standard, one must paint their colours to the mast and when doing so must therein remain consistent to such an approach. Whilst Sunderland fans have been challenged to do so before, is it fair for us to now ask for other fans to be challenged similarly?

What it is fair to do, however, is to ask those fans of their moral conflictions regarding these uncomfortable subjects. Whilst it’s a fan’s job to hold their club to a set standard, it also isn’t theirs to challenge power and wealth in the public forum - that’s the press’ job. We’ve seen examples very recently of how fan pressure can alter a club’s stance: see Liverpool with the furloughing of their non-playing staff as an example, the media played a significant and supporting role in this.

Due to astute media reporting, asking questions over the morality of such an act informed the Scouse faithful to speak up against their club’s action. Add in the bad press and negative PR and the decision was reversed in a matter of days - that, to me, is how media and fans should operate in the footballing sphere. This isn’t something only unique to Newcastle, Liverpool or anyone else, this is something that should be happening across football as a whole. To relate this to the case at hand - is it unfair to ask the media to ask the pertinent questions and moral implications brought about by a club’s new owners? To inform the fans and allow them - armed with the facts - to judge where their moral afflictions may lie?

FBL-WC-2018-RUS-KSA
A lot of potential questions have gone unasked; a lot of potential answers have gone unheard.
Photo credit should read ALEXEY DRUZHININ/AFP via Getty Images

What about Sunderland then, could this happen on Wearside? I think the simple answer to this is a resounding ‘yes’, although as we seem destined for a third season in footballs’ third-tier, any spike in press attention would seem very much akin to closing the stable door once the horse has bolted.

It doesn’t require a great deal of memory to remember how when fans were screaming to be heard, while the club unceremoniously plummeted into further and further disarray. The ink for the column inches seemingly ran dry.

I remember, as we cried out for attention to our unfurling disaster, the best the media could do was sit down with Jack Rodwell to ask how he was feeling about it all. I remember after the disaster of Grayson how all the papers wanted to write about was Darron Gibson crashing his car. When the extortionate wages weren’t matching the performances or even being sustainable at Championship level, where were the journalists and the writers then? They may have been around, but seldom were they heard. The closest we’ve ever gotten to any real level of scrutiny has been the fanzines and podcasts - people for whom the burden shouldn’t be falling to. Not when they’re doing it alone.

We did have a brief reprieve from this with the first season of Sunderland ’Til I Die, but whilst it showed the club for the mess it truly was, as with anything these days it’s serious message and concerns were swiftly cast aside as meme culture took hold and turned the show from a stark warning to fans of other clubs into a running joke.

Even when we hoped the second season would highlight the concerns surrounding the current ownership and management of the club, yet again the show was swallowed up into meme culture, this time more so than the last. So where were the local and national media in all of this? They certainly, for the most part, didn’t seem to be out there fighting the good fight, reminding fans that this could soon be their club, that years upon years of continued mismanagement have very real and very deep consequences. Instead, amongst the detriment to the city and its people, the silence was deafening and widespread, all the while the internet continued to mock whilst the job losses and cost-cutting continued on.

Not long after, worse fates than ours were bestowed upon Bolton and Bury.

All in all, I do understand that jobs in media aren’t the easiest and at their best filled can be with constraints, especially in an age where printed media is dying. It’s not exactly a thriving industry. Nor am I suggesting that it is all journalists who sit idly by as our demise seems set to continue - conversely there are some terrific reporters past and present, especially locally and their hard work and dedication doesn’t go unnoticed. For that, I thank them.

What I will say is this though: work with us. Work with the fans. We all understand that as reporters your employers will chase the higher readership, the more grabbing headlines and the more ’popular’ clubs. Don’t just hop on board to stick the boot into Sunderland when its en vogue either. Listen to the fans and what we’re saying. Listen to the podcasts to get a feel for what the opinion is. Look at the club, look into it - it’s staff, it’s owners and its players. If they don’t want to ask the tough questions, then that’s their prerogative, but at least engage with us as you do with other clubs. We aren’t asking you to prioritise a club in the third tier of English football above all others, just to shine the light on us more a little more often.

This is a fiercely loyal fanbase which just wants some parity; we want to be treated as equals amongst other clubs, whose concerns regarding their club are as relevant as anyone else’s. Fans continually need the help of the press and media because they help us to bridge a gap between ourselves and our owners. If they help us, we help them - we engage more, we read more, we watch more. Rather than sit by and watch as the drama unfolds, help us to fight our corner and help the fans become a force for good, as we have been countless times before. We know it’s easier said than done too, we wouldn’t pretend otherwise, but we also ask that you don’t pick us up and drop us as soon as you get bored or it isn’t as exciting as what’s going on elsewhere.

...and that goes for the whole North East too. It’s a region brimming with well supported and passionate clubs. Fans who live and breathe the game from the lower reaches to the top of the tree. There are clubs across the region who need that exposure or that helping hand, whether it’s promoting a #DonaldOut campaign, supporting their calls for sporting justice to prevail or simple to encourage people to attend in order to stay afloat. All we want is some parity, the same helping hand and bleary-eyed sentiment that others receive on a regular basis. It is only these outlets who can choose how strongly and when our voices are heard, no matter how loudly we scream or bang on the door ourselves.

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