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Sunderland need a Supporters Trust - but it must be a powerful and proactive one

We must be united and prepared as a set of supporters to be ready for the time when we can influence things, even if at the moment we cannot do so as we would like.

Gillingham v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One Photo by Naomi Baker/Getty Images

As Sunderland fans, we all come in different flavours.

Some of us can remember with great clarity the victory over Leeds United in ‘73. Some have their formative years in the 1980s, the ropey tenure of Lawrie McMenemy etched permanently on their brain. Others, like my 92 year old Grandad, can still remember a packed Fawcett Street as Sunderland bought home the FA Cup in 1937.

Conversely, there are also those who cannot remember a time when Kevin Phillips was banging them in left, right and centre.

The ones who I feel really sorry for are those who know nothing else but failure; the aspiring goalkeepers of primary school age who can only recreate Ricketts by Camp, Steele and Ruiter in the playground. Though it doesn’t mean they love this club any less. Because, for most of us - and please don’t laugh - we’re bonded to Sunderland in spite of the football.

However our experiences are all different. We all hopped on the bus at different points, whether that’s a 0-0 draw with Charlton at Roker in 1995 or a 4-1 victory against Sheffield United in 1965. Different players, teams and managers will strike a chord with each of us in different ways, put into context against those who have come before and after in our lives. Maybe you love the club because Bob Stokoe scrawled his signature on your programme as he hopped in his car post match one Saturday; or maybe it was because you bumped into Stan Varga on holiday in Fuerteventura as a kid, and he happily had his photo taken with you.

Sunderland v Stoke City - Premier League Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images

Even though we each have a unique history when it comes to supporting the club, we are all invested in its future in exactly the same way; and what comes now is important not just for us as supporters, but for the generations of fans to come.

The situation at Wigan recently has become a cautionary tale for both the EFL, wider football authorities and fans who are desperate for their club to be in the hand of more responsible - and rich - owners.

Question is, are we at Sunderland a cautionary tale to other clubs? It is undoubtedly the case. Don’t allow your club to spiral the plughole as Sunderland did for too long, because before you know it, it will be too late and you’ll find yourself stuck at the bottom of the drain with no means of getting out. We are like the Simpsons episode where Timmy O’Toole was thought to be stuck at the bottom of the well, but unlike Timmy, we are real.

We cannot allow ourselves to be stand by and be run in the manner it currently is. Nor can we accept it being sold to someone who sees the football side of the business as merely incidental to their own financial gain, or dodgy dealings - whoever that person or group might be. Part of the reason for the issues which occurred during Ellis Short’s time at the club, perhaps, was fan inertia; he never really told us when he’d pulled the plug on the team and there was a misguided assumption any spending would continue to be bankrolled without question. It wasn’t, and this must not be allowed to happen again.

Sunderland v Wolverhampton Wanderers - Sky Bet Championship - Stadium of Light Photo by Owen Humphreys/PA Images via Getty Images

It seems right now, that supporters are split into two camps: the arsed, and the can’t be arsed. There will always be people who fit into the former; those who want to lead the charge for change, to hold owners to account, to raise awareness of the club’s problems through any way they can. Personally, I want to be one of these people. Does that mean that supporters who fit into the latter category are at fault, to blame in some way? No, of course not. The last few years have been incredibly difficult in general as a supporter of this club. It would be fair to say that many have had their fill of the absolute nonsense served up first on the pitch and secondly off it of late. This is a football club which has made people think they would rather walk up Penshaw monument at 3pm on a Saturday than go to a match.

So what am I saying? That some sort of united fan movement would remove Madrox and get the owners in we all crave? It would be naive to think as such, but as fans we can wield more influence as a single entity than if we are just some disparate set of individuals furiously typing away at our keyboards.

Maybe you’re thinking “I’ve been reading this for two minutes now and still I see no answers.”

Okay, well here’s one.

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

We must be united and prepared as a set of supporters to be ready for the time when we can influence things, even if at the moment we cannot do so as we would like. To have a running start at this will enable the best possible chance to get positive change. We may even be needed when this club is heading to the wall and someone has to step in when its entire existence is under threat.

Let’s take Portsmouth as an example. Now, we’ve had our fair share of needle with our island nation friends over the last couple of seasons - if only they would stop kicking our right back and setting off flares in the away end, it might all calm down. What they are though, is a good case study of how supporters have effected real, proper change. Really though they are a brilliant story about how a set of supporters have saved the life of their football club.

In 2013, the Pompey Supporters Trust reached a settlement with their previous owner Balram Chainrai, to pay £3m for Fratton Park, allowing the fan-led takeover to go through. This was after the club had been in administration twice in as many years, and gone from the Premier League to the bottom end of League Two in little more than three. Now this was only possible thanks to the donations of 2,300 fans and a small number of supporters described as ‘high net worth individuals’ who kept the club afloat in the period before takeover.

In 2014 the club was declared debt free, thanks to the careful management of the trust, and in 2016, it was sold to Michael Eisner, the former CEO of Disney. The Trust still exists today to, in their words “be the voice for all Pompey fans, working to enhance the social, cultural and economic value of the Club to its communities”.

So what the Pompey Supporters Trust has done is save the club first, and now they exist to ensure - at least in part - the owners’ good governance of their club.

Soccer - npower Championship - Portsmouth v Queens Park Rangers - Fratton Park Photo by Chris Ison/PA Images via Getty Images

At Sunderland, we need something like this, but in reverse. Firstly to encourage responsible running of the club (I know that there is another huge issue here but right now is not the moment for me to get into it) and then, if required, to be a safety net.

The Red and White Army, who are seemingly on the verge of becoming a Trust, offer the best chance to date of this becoming a reality; but we don’t just need a Trust, we need a powerful one, and I hope they are prepared for this. To be effective it must have individuals who possess the experience, skills and knowledge to be able to hold the club to account, to build relationships, and crucially to ensure that if the situation requires, we as fans are able to step up and save the club. I do not doubt there are many Sunderland fans out there with invaluable skills that they could lend to any Trust which is formed; whether that is financial, legal, public relations, media, marketing or anything which could enable the trust to thrive.

This will not happen without the proper processes in place, and it is up to each of us individually to engage with it, and not stick our head in the sands crying “but what’s the point?!” That is, frankly, loser talk. Doing nothing hasn’t caused us to be in this position, but it certainly has not helped.

People will, with justification, say fans cannot convince Madrox to sell therefore there is little reason to get so exercised for no ultimate benefit. This is true; however I only agree with the first half of that statement. It is also true that Madrox are not going to sell for the profit they crave. It’s just not going to happen. So then what? We rattle around in League One forever? Well, our previous owner who was a billionaire didn’t want to bankroll us anymore, so why would someone with considerably less financial clout be happy to do the same? So who can confidently predict that administration is out of the question? I certainly can’t.

In that circumstance, therefore, we need to be ready. Otherwise we all might be walking up Penshaw Monument at 3 o’clock on a Saturday afternoon.

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