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Beacon of Light, Sunderland, United Kingdom. Architect: FaulknerBrowns, 2019.

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The Caring Club: What‘s next for Sunderland AFC?

A year ago, our club’s future was uncertain - now it’s secure. As the city is further regenerated over the next decade, and as the economy transitions to a new model, what can Sunderland AFC do to compete?

Photo by: Richard Chivers/View Pictures/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Since I started writing for Roker Report in the wake of the Donald Out campaign early last year, I have penned thousands of words on the future of our club, on fan ownership, and on the future governance of football.

We’ve seen, in that time, the near-collapse of the financial model of the game outside the Premier League in the face of a devastating global pandemic, our club sold to a young billionaire, the hardest of Brexits, the creation of a Supporters Trust, the Super League fiasco, and now this.

With all the changes abroad in football and the wider world, and all the challenges Sunderland and the surrounding area face, one looms large in our eye-line; the centuries-old rivalry with our Novocastrian siblings has been made afresh by the capture of their totemic sporting institution by a tyrannical despot.

Parallels with the state of England in the mid-16th century have been playing around in my head these last few days; a time of tumult and social upheaval, when the port on the mouth of the River Wear offered a base, and no little sanctuary, to the forces standing up for truth and justice (as they saw it) and against the monarchical power that provided the Tyne with an unfair commercial advantage.

In 2021, we face the huge challenges posed by the foreign and domestic policy of an authoritarian government that cares little for the poor or the peripheral, despite its public posturing. We also face a social and environmental crisis the likes of which our species has never encountered, and we will need all our togetherness and ingenuity to overcome or adapt to new these realities.

We can cry foul, but it won’t change the situations in front of us - social, environmental, or sporting. We can only control what we can control, and work together to change what we can change.

This is the field upon which the battles for the future of our game and our society will be fought, or to put it in sporting terms, the pitch upon which the game will be played. The rules of that game may be changing around us, but that gives us the ability to shape our own shared future as a football club and as a community if we show the flexibility and drive that has seen us flourish in the past.

The trends of the future are there for all to see - greener, smarter, healthier, more caring and empathetic, more inclusive, more forgiving - and the necessity for radical change in sport as in the rest of society is abundantly clear. After half a decade of political wrangling, during which time the inequalities in football and in the wider world have deepened even further, there is a mood of change and possibility in the air.

And as we still struggle to shake off the pandemic that continues to take so many lives of those we love, we seem to become ever more resilient and motivated to do better – if also a little angrier – than we were before.

Back in the 1990s, we called ourselves “The Caring Club”, and I believe a picture is now emerging of what could be a return to that ethos for both Sunderland AFC and the city at the heart of which – both physically and emotionally – it sits.

Sunderland Ladies v Durham Women - Barclays FA Women’s Championship Photo by Stu Forster - The FA/The FA via Getty Images

This is all good rhetoric, but what does that mean in practice?

Let’s be crystal clear – events unfolding at St James’ Park over the last week impact materially upon our club. The fact that Newcastle United is now owned by the Public Investment Fund of the Saudi Arabian State (and therefore is under the de facto control of that country’s absolute monarchy) could spell trouble for Sunderland AFC and other sporting institutions in the region.

We do, by virtue of geography and history, compete for the attention of the media, the affections of young and incoming football fans in “neutral” suburbs and villages, the cheque books of major sponsors, and, in ordinary times, the signatures of professional footballers.

Newcastle United v Sunderland - Premier League Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

And it is absolutely the case that a large proportion of our fanbase would have had Saudi flags in the Twitter profiles and tea towels on their heads had it been our club that had caught their eye of their sports-washing operation.

But it’s wrong to say that such a deal would have been as universally welcomed on Wearside as it has been on Tyneside; a grandiose sense of our own self-importance is not something that we’re particularly famed for, and the values of those who contribute to these web pages, those who volunteer with our fan groups, and those voices raised on other fan media outlets are (with one or two notable exceptions) almost exclusively ones of humanity and a clear sense of right and wrong.

We argued and campaigned long and hard for good, well-resourced, well-intentioned people to be chosen as custodians of our club after it became clear that Stewart Donald, whilst successful in cutting the fat that had grown around the club during the Short era - was never going to be able to take us to the next level.

Credit surely must go to the Madrox group - albeit after flirting with the potentially disastrous Mark Campbell and failing to complete on the venture-capital-driven FPP takeover - for ultimately bringing the Louis-Dreyfus family, with its established history in European football, to the city rather than allowing a conman – or a state entity – to capture and use our club for their own public relations purposes.

We in this publication said last summer that we would not, could not, countenance our club being sold to human rights abusers, murderers, and planet destroyers. Some of us in our younger days – not me, but certainly other writers with Roker Report – celebrated or at least tolerated the transient presence of an overtly fascist manager in the mid-2010s.

This is to our discredit, an experience to learn from, but it is of a different order of magnitude to what has been encouraged by our government and allowed to occur at Newcastle United (and, yes, at Manchester City and PSG too) by the football authorities. The Mags most certainly have not “got their club back”. Indeed, nothing could be further from the truth.

Osaka Hosts The G20 Summit - Day Two
“Wrong’uns” as my Nana would have called them
Photo by Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

This is truly an inflection point, and we have an opportunity in the midst of this potential crisis. Sunderland AFC has long celebrated its connection to the city’s inventiveness, its industry, and its working-class communities. The fact is that this club was founded by a trade union – the Sunderland District Teachers Association – and this is not unconnected to the path forward for our club.

Kyril Louis-Dreyfus and his team have begun the transformation of Sunderland AFC off the pitch, and the footballing side is coming along very nicely indeed. Kristjaan Speakman, Lee Johnson, and Mel Reay are making fantastic progress, with all the squads currently on course to achieve their goals this season.

The data-driven analysis of player performance, the gradual implementation of a whole-club playing philosophy, and the educational model of player development are all taking root. This will, I truly believe, pay long-term dividends in terms of the progress of both senior teams back to the top tiers of English football. It will also ensure we are thoroughly entertained along the way.

Sunderland v Manchester United U21 - Papa John’s Trophy
The future is here for us to see...
Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

Newcastle will sign big names with their new investors’ backing, will undoubtedly play great football, and will more likely than not challenge for honours in a way they haven’t for well over half a century.

But Sunderland, with our intelligent and ambitious billionaire backer, should continue our path of developing and nurturing young players, and be the kind of hub of football culture - with links with every school and grassroots club in the area - that sides like Athletic Bilbao or (dare I say it) Borussia Dortmund are in their respective post-industrial regions.

We should be a beacon towards which those who share our values – players, fans, and social and commercial partners – gravitate naturally. We are a unique football club with a global reach, we need to remain that way, but reform and modernisation has to touch every aspect of the club, from top to bottom.

Mediocre cannot be an option; excellence is our route back to the Premier League, but we must do it by living our values. The club needs to show, more than ever, that it considers fans first and foremost, and that it really cares.

Those caring values are to be found inside our fan groups and the fan engagement activities that have been rekindled under Louis-Dreyfus: openness, transparency, inclusiveness, honesty. It will involve getting back to our roots, but in a modern way - safe standing for supporters who want it, locally sourced food and drink on the concourse, affordable ticket prices, and great public transport connections - must surely all be part of the future.

This work should be done using well-paid and unionised staff in all departments of the club; good people who take care of us and pride in their work, and who are given licence to innovate. The behind the scenes and public-facing staff should be properly valued, they are as important to the club’s overall success as any player or coach.

For this to be truly the case, personal, responsive, and thoughtful customer service should be part of everyone’s job at the club, not left to one man and his Twitter account.

Sunderland v Chelsea - Premier League Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images

If being at the heart of a redeveloped and reinvigorated community, with a focus firmly on growing all aspects of the club from top to bottom, is the next stage in our transformation, this should start with a statement of intent; a commitment to the long-term and to equality.

And what better way to do this than with a serious, public commitment to establish Sunderland AFC Ladies back at the pinnacle of the women’s pyramid, with a clear plan to invest the resources to professionalise and expand the talented young squad, and provide Mel and her coaches with the support they need to grow.

No doubt the money men and women up the road will be well aware of the marketing and growth potential of women’s football globally, and will look enviously at the fact that we have traditionally been the premier women’s side in the region. We need to act quickly to ensure this status is part of the platform for the overall future of the club, rather than an added extra.

The club should also build upon the wonderful success and legacy of Foundation and Beacon of Light, and the new initiatives to support fans with the digital transition, to make education, lifelong learning, mental wellbeing, and the promotion of the inclusion and human rights of everyone in our community, from refugees fleeing tyranny to older people suffering isolation, one of the club’s primary goals. Anti-racism, anti-misogyny, anti-homophobia, should be embedded into the very fabric of our club.

We need to value different sections of our fanbase equally, but to do that it will mean catering for their different needs. Older fans, for example, might be given their own section of the ground - perhaps the Premier Concourse - where the club could lay on dedicated support, a sanctuary from the blaring music, and provide links for our senior supporters to social support and digital inclusion activities. Respecting and caring for our elders is part and parcel of what it means to live in a civilised society.

But youngsters matter too. The Stadium of Light is rapidly becoming a fantastic music venue, and we should continue to ensure that the links between the cultural community in the city and the club are deepened and widened. Arts and culture can bring new groups, new audiences, new sponsors, and new media attention to Sunderland AFC. What an amazing venue it would be, for example, for a mid-summer dance music festival that draws upon the long and deep history of electronic music in the city and the region (and they might finally sort out the PA system in the process).

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

Exiles in the UK and abroad, and new fans around the world, should be able to access well-produced live streams and radio commentaries of all our squads’ games for a reasonable cost; this is particularly important for the women’s side where exposure and visibility is absolutely key to their growth as a part of our club. It will mean more digital content, more ways of drawing people into the club, and sense that a Sunderland fan can be anywhere in the world - even if the very best place to be is in the ground watching the game live.

Perhaps our ownership model might evolve too to reflect this inclusiveness – with fans around the globe given the option of literally buying into the vision of the club. This is something that is often spoken of but seldom delivered upon, yet South Shields have a pioneering “crowdsourced” investment model that could be scaled-up at Sunderland, and clubs big and small in Germany have shown that they can flourish, and build fan trust and involvement, with their 50+1 ownership rule.

It’s not beyond the realms of possibility that mechanisms to allow this to happen will form part of the Crouch Review into football governance and finance, despite the tragic undermining of the impact of any reforms caused by the Saudi investment into the Premier League.

Our Supporters Trust needs to play their part in presenting the case for more formal supporter involvement in the running of our club.

Sunderland, as the biggest club outside the top flight, should be at the right at forefront of the fight against any further power-grabs by the current and wannabe “elite” brands in England and across Europe, and in favour of reforms that benefit the health and sustainability of the game overall.

Getting the messaging and the “visuals” right will be key to pulling this all together, and this could start with a full-on rebranding of the club, even including a change in badge. Traditional yet high tech, locally grounded but globally connected, low carbon but high energy - these are the ways of the future across the economy, and the club should be looking to ride those waves.

The club and its fans should seek, at every step, to make the difference on offer clear and stark – glitz, blood and oil; or friends, family, and football.


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