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Improving the matchday experience at Sunderland’s Stadium of Light is about more than just music

The footy on the pitch has been great at Sunderland this season - we all know that - but the overall matchday experience at the SoL is, to be blunt, lacking. What can the club do to improve its offering?

Photo taken by Ross Johnston - https://twitter.com/RJXMEDIA

It’s always good to start a home game on the front foot, to set the tone right from the first whistle and make sure that the opposition know they are in for a difficult afternoon ahead.

Sunderland didn’t do this against Charlton and as the game wore on, there was a cold shiver of a feeling that it just wasn’t going to be our day.

It made me reconsider how I had felt during the build-up to the game. Walking up the steps to my seat high in the West Stand I got a feeling of ‘same old, same old’.

Chatting to friends about the line-up, watching the teams warm up - there was nothing wrong with that, but there was something missing. The pre-match atmosphere was flat, and this didn’t hit me until the medley-style play-list of old ‘run out’ songs began 15 minutes or so from kick off.

Now this play-list has deep meaning to us all, for one reason or another. Depending on our age, we’ve all seen the team run out to at least one or more of those tunes.

Yet it had no visible impact on 31,000 people as they, pies, burgers and coffees in hand, prepared to settle in for the afternoon ahead.

Don’t get me wrong, the mood was good, why wouldn’t it be after our best start to the season in many a year? But the place wasn’t buzzing.

Sunderland v Bolton Wanderers - Sky Bet League One Photo by Alex Dodd - CameraSport via Getty Images

Now I don’t dislike the play-list of old run out music, in fact I’m very fond of it. Z-Cars makes me emotional as I think of my dad’s tales from Roker Park in the 1960s – while Republica’s Ready To Go is for me, the ultimate Stadium of Light pre-match record.

These songs, including a U2’s Elevation and Beginning of the Twist by The Futureheads, are undisputed anthems. And they are a million times better and significantly more relevant than Charlie Methven’s choice of nightclub favourites. Intended as they were to get the crowd fired up, it always seemed to be a cheap revamp which quickly became something of a joke.

In contrast, bringing back the old tunes was a lovely touch, it shows loyalty to the club’s history, and is inclusive of all generations. But those tunes don’t focus you on the game ahead. They make you reminisce about times past, they take you back to previous eras during which that particular piece of music was played originally. The only exception being Dance of the Knights, which has remained a constant since the SoL opened, and therefore remains current in that respect.

But every time the play-list medley changed from one song to the next, I found myself looking over to the tunnel to see if they players were on their way out. It was like run out music overkill, and by the time Dance of the Knights finally kicked in, the build-up had been dragged out so long it felt like an anti-climax.

Much has been spoken, written and debated about the matchday experience at the SoL in recent years, but for me, the answer is much bigger than a dose of nostalgia or Methven’s stint in the DJ booth.

Sunderland v Cheltenham Town - Sky Bet League One Photo by Will Matthews/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

During the first two seasons at the SoL (yes I accept it was a new, novel and exciting place at that time), it was always a treat to take your seat up to two hours before kick off. Broadcaster John Foster was in his pomp as stadium announcer, and the whole afternoon, or indeed evening, seemed like a well-drilled matchday programme of events, with the match being the main attraction.

Foster would be visible with a microphone and would speak to the crowd every couple of songs, which the club always stressed were an eclectic mix designed to cover most people’s preferences.

He would sometimes speak to fans to seek their opinions, enjoy some lively banter with Samson and Delilah as the two mascots worked hard to make the day of all young supporters, and would even engage with the away fans.

Indeed, a good afternoon to the Sunderland fans would always be followed up with “and a good afternoon to the Tranmere Rovers / Sheffield United (or whoever) fans”, which would always be met with a chorus of good-natured boos. There would be an occasional countdown to kick-off – “ten minutes to go”, announcements including club news and fan birthdays.

Even the team would be greeted as they emerged for their pre-match warm up, with ‘The Boys are Back in Town’ yielding a warm reception from the stands.

Sunderland v Lincoln City - Sky Bet League One Play-off Semi Final 2nd Leg Photo by Robbie Jay Barratt - AMA/Getty Images

But there was more substance in the form of entertainment. There would sometimes be a brass band, a performance from musicians such as the folk act, After Eden, a visit to the stadium from someone who had done a worthy fundraising act, or a celebrity, who would be interviewed by Foster as part of the build-up.

This would all build up to a crescendo. By the time Dance of the Knights kicked in at ten to three, the place would be bouncing.

In the days before the stadium hosted concerts, even Republica themselves made a one-off matchday cameo, to promote the SAFC 24/7 junior fan club.

At half time, there was genuine anticipation ahead of the lottery draw, as fans waited patiently to see which former player would appear to make the draw. Back then, they would be accompanied onto the field to a well-presented table close to the centre circle.

Now they barely make the touchline, something which disappointed me when Grant Leadbitter made his brief farewell appearance with his family recently. The local lad and fans’ favourite should have strolled out to the centre circle to receive the ovation he deserved.

We still get the occasional junior match at the interval, as we did back then, but another half time ritual has long been abandoned. In the days before Soccer AM made the nation fall in love with the crossbar challenge, we had fans trying to score into an open goal – first from close range – but going further and further back until successful shots from range had the crowd cheering and jeering in equal measure.

It’s well documented that after a successful first few years at the SoL, the feel-good factor faded. Yet John Foster did a very professional job as a compare, even after the club scaled back its matchday offering, until his departure in 2014.

Others, including the likeable Frankie Francis, have done a good job since then, but it’s time the club had a think about the overall matchday experience – not just the music choices on a PA system which, after such great service over the years, is showing its age.

This isn’t a criticism of KLD and the new ownership team, they have done a great job focusing on more pressing matters. I’m sure they will have all this in hand, but hopefully they can take some inspiration from the past, without simply recreating it, to find something new and inspirational for football fans in the 2020s.

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