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We’re at our lowest ebb but Sunderland fans are more united than ever

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The Red & White Army’s survey results are out and, with over 4,250 responses, they show a consensus growing among our supporters. Roker Report editor Rich Speight takes a look.

Sunderland v Middlesbrough - Premier League Photo by Robbie Jay Barratt - AMA/Getty Images

On Tuesday, Red & White Army released the results of their recent survey of Sunderland fans, and it has been widely interpreted as having shown the “whinging Mackem” stereotype to be a scurrilous lie.

Before I go into more detail about the answers given by fans, we must acknowledge the inherent limitations of the survey results. It was carried out at short notice, with the questions compiled by the RAWA Committee rather than by professional opinion pollsters, and the sample, although large, was self-selecting.

Psephologists have long acknowledged that the way in which a question is written and the choices available will always have an impact on an individual’s answers. RAWA recognise and are transparent that a small percentage of responses came from the same IP addresses, but also correctly assume that many of these will be two people responding from the same household.

Those motivated to find and complete a survey on any matter will naturally be those with the strongest views, meaning those who take a more blasé view of an issue, or those who don’t feel qualified to answer, will be less likely to participate. The digitally excluded and those who don’t use social media will have had less opportunity to take part than others. The lack of football and the current pandemic doesn’t allow us to survey fans outside the ground on a matchday or even on High Street.

Therefore, the results should be taken seriously, but not as gospel or as a complete picture of the state of the club. That being said, if you can participate and choose not to, you don’t get a voice and others will speak for you.

Let’s look first at the single most important message to emerge from the survey: Madrox has the support of only 4% of respondents while a whopping 82% are unhappy with their performance. Even with all the caveats I’ve set out, this represents an overwhelming vote of no confidence in the owners from the supporters of Sunderland AFC.

Tellingly, RAWA’s own analysis of a follow-up question giving fans the opportunity to select multiple reasons for their dissatisfaction noted that:

Only 48% chose being unhappy that the owners have twice failed to get us promoted – the second lowest selected option [,which] quite possibly highlight the concerns of fans regarding the long-term sustainability of the club, rather than just short term ‘success’.

The results show that:

79% are worried about the management of the Academy and the loss of Academy products to other clubs

78% are worried about the direction of the club

76% feel the owners do not have the financial capabilities to take the club forward

That the fans’ focus is on on academy youth development (79%) and concerns about future financial sustainability (76%) and the general direction of the club (78%). In terms of the future direction of the club, a total of 90% want to see the club sold to a reputable owner for a realistic price, and 82% want RAWA to put pressure on the owners to do accordingly.

The survey also looked at season ticket renewals. Of those who responded, just over half are season ticket holders, and of those 62% said they had cancelled or postponed renewal for 2020-21.

Here again, the RAWA breakdown of the reasons why is illuminating:

The top three reasons for people to cancel or postpone renewal were;

They are unhappy with how the owners are running the club.

They did not like how the renewals/refunds were originally handled by the club.

They want to wait and see what the arrangements are for home games next season due to COVID19.

Once again, mismanagement at senior levels of the club, rather than economic concerns or unhappiness at the League One status of the club, is what is motivating many fans. Coronavirus is clearly creating much unwelcome uncertainty across the industry, but we know from other clubs around the country that many football supporters who don’t have such antagonistic relations with their respective owners are renewing in order to protect their clubs’ futures.

This survey lends indirect support to anecdotal evidence from the minority of Sunderland season ticket holders who have renewed that I’ve spoken to; that they have done so out of an unwillingness to contribute further to the cashflow problems at the club in order to protect its future, rather than out of any kind support for Donald and his directors or shareholders.

The message is clear and it is one of profound and overwhelming condemnation of Madrox.

Sunderland AFC

“Sunderland fans are fickle, and the club would be better off if only we would be more supportive and less demanding of immediate success.”

We’ve all heard variations on this line many times before. It’s the implication of much of the criticism that we receive from the club’s owners, from the national media, from our barcoded cousins up the road, and sometimes from within our own ranks.

As with all stereotypes, there’s a kernel of truth in there somewhere. Like fans of any club, naturally we are happiest when we’re winning on the pitch. We have also all been in the stands when the energy seems to be sucked out of the team by the weight of our passionate expectations. We’ve all groaned at another misplaced pass. Some of us (often justifiably, but never productively) boo the Lads off the pitch when we think they deserve it, and we’ve all heard that one fella who spends the entire match slagging off our own side no matter how we’re playing.

But, ultimately, our disgruntlement isn’t our fault. It is part of the game. Any actual or perceived negativity from the fans is almost always based on unfulfilled promises and legitimate expectations based on our footballing heritage. Social media abuse and threatening behaviour against club owners comes from a tiny but viciously vocal minority of football fans - we all see them and condemn them too - and we also follow RAWA in reiterating that they do not speak for us and never will.

Ask any ex-Sunderland player and they’ll tell you that when the club is run well off the pitch, when the brand of football played is intense and exciting, when a crop of local youngsters are breaking into the side and we’re mixing it with the other big clubs at the top of the Championship or in the Premier League, there’s no better crowd to play in front of than us lot on Wearside.

Soccer - Nationwide League Division One - Play-Off Second Leg - Sunderland v Sheffield United Photo by Michael Steele/EMPICS via Getty Images

Right now we find ourselves at our lowest ebb as a club. An eighth-place finish in the third tier is something we could never have envisaged only a few years ago. But we embraced League One in 2018, mucked in to change the seats, packed out the ground, brought colour and identity to the SOL, and roared on our new look side to two Wembley appearances.

A year ago we were promised big money investment, which never materialised. We were promised that our young talent would be secured - the opposite has happened. We were promised custodianship and transparency - we have yet to see the full agreed minutes of the last Structured Dialogue meeting held between fans and the club back in November 2019.

Yet, according to the club’s directors, it’s our negativity and unwarranted criticism of the ownership that is at fault for the situation we’re in, more so even than the Coronavirus crisis. For them, we now know, it’s our lack of support and lack of unity that lies behind their obvious inability to sell the club, despite over twelve months of trying.

The RAWA survey fatally undermines this claim. It has also proven what Kieran Maguire suggested on The Price of Football podcast this week, that, to any prospective buyer, fan disgruntlement with the current regime will likely be seen as an enabling factor in any prospective sale.

By wanting to break even on his investment in the club despite Sunderland AFC being, according to Maguire, in an unquestionably weaker position now than in 2018, Stewart Donald is showing himself to be the real reason that no sale has been agreed. He may have resigned his nominal chairmanship of the board of directors, but with his ludicrous asking price of £37.6 million - Maguire considers the club to actually be worth between £20-25 million - and his hands still very much on the purse strings at the Stadium of Light, Donald doesn’t appear to be going anywhere soon.


A time for action

RAWA’s publication of the survey results ends with a statement from the Committee saying that they will take time to look into the implications of these results, but that their focus is on the future of the fan group.

Proxy voting has now closed ahead of the Red & White Army’s EGM on Thursday, and surely, after these survey results, the expectation now be that a vote in favour the motion to convert into a Supporters Trust is highly likely.

If the motion does indeed pass, then it will be down to us as a collective to join, invest and participate actively in the running of the new organisation. We will need a combination of all our skills and experiences, and all our voices and a bit of our cash, to make a success of it.

This isn’t about fan ownership, it’s about fan power.

Our message is clear: We are united in our support our club. We want the best for its future. We are Sunderland.