This season, Sunderland’s home form has generally been impressive, and particularly during the early months, when it felt like a new era had truly begun, matchdays really were times of positivity.
Recently, however, off the field and in the seating area, things have been slightly less upbeat.
Last week, as has happened previously when Coventry & Portsmouth have brought their supporters to Wearside, the game against Morecambe was sullied by projectiles being thrown from the upper tier onto the Sunderland fans below them.
Factor in some thoroughly unpleasant chanting about food poverty, and it made for some very sour scenes amid what was generally a decent atmosphere. Whether the away end had been infiltrated by Newcastle fans incognito, we’ll never know, but it was very depressing to see.
I accept that to criticise the behaviour of visiting fans to Wearside is to set foot inside of a glass house somewhat, because as the home game against Man United in the EFL Trophy, and our trip to Rotherham showed, there will always be a percentage of fans who go beyond what is a reasonable expression of excitement, and will take it into the realm of unacceptable behaviour.
The fact is though, that all thuggish behaviour, home and away, is wrong, and ensuring that the Stadium of Light is a safe place for all fans is extremely important. When it opened in 1997, the stadium was hailed as an example of the way that stadium design was heading, and a place where the entire family could watch a game in comfort and safety. For everyone’s sake, it is important that it remains so.
Looking at things from a broader perspective, the twin issues of attendance & atmosphere has been debated for some time, with no real consensus as to what the problem is and how to solve it. While it certainly makes for some interesting debates on social media, how much substance is there?
Personally, I feel the debate around the numbers passing through the turnstiles is often turned into something bigger than it needs to be. After all, the connection to the club is both a financial and emotional one, and perhaps, after three gruelling seasons at this level and in these Covid-hit times in which we currently live, there are some fans who simply do not yet feel ready to return, maybe for fear of being let down by the spectre of a ‘false dawn’.
Nevertheless, the attendance figures do remain strong, and if the team continues to improve and burnish its promotion credentials, the numbers are likely to continue to rise.
As to the atmosphere? Another thorny issue.
At home this season, the team has played in atmospheres that were upbeat & extremely positive (Plymouth on Saturday, Wycombe, and Cheltenham), but on the flip side, the games against Charlton and Oxford, to highlight two examples, did not set the pulse racing.
It goes without saying that the SOL doesn’t possess the unique soul that made Roker Park such a revered place for home fans. For all of its quirks and somewhat ramshackle facilities, the old ground did possess a charm that translated into a raucous noise come kickoff.
By contrast, almost a quarter-century since it opened, the SOL remains a crisp & easily-accessible, but more also utilitarian & functional venue. It would be easy to suggest that the fans will turn up the volume when given reason to, if the team is playing thrilling football, but that won’t always happen, particularly as we fight to regain Championship status.
After the Morecambe game, a video showing members of their staff muttering about how strange it was to see such an imposing stadium in L1 was circulating on Twitter, and therein lies the puzzle. A stadium that once hosted the biggest teams in the land is now the crown jewel of the third tier, and the biggest stadium that many players will ever set foot in.
So, what is the solution, if indeed one exists?
Barring taking radical steps, such as installing netting between the upper & lower tiers, perhaps the answer can be found in relocating the fans, something that could certainly contribute to a safer and livelier atmosphere come kickoff.
Why not revert to the configuration that was once used, and move the away fans to their previous location in the south stand? In turn, the north stand would become the real ‘home end’ (personally, I’ve always viewed it like that anyway), and the picture could be completed by moving the flag displays to that section of the stadium as well.
Having all of the fans seated in the lower tiers would certainly make for a louder noise, and would almost certainly be a lot safer and easier to police as well. A real win-win situation.
Our stadium is a place that everyone should take immense pride in, whether we win, lose or draw. I hope that the powers that be keep it at the forefront of their mind, and won’t hesitate to make changes if they feel that it would be for the benefit of those who keep the turnstiles clicking.