‘Doing a Sunderland’ has now entered the football vernacular. Recent seasons have seen us perfect the term with a brand of football verging on the comedic, while Netflix made us go viral. In my 52 years of following The Lads, I think we’ve been relegated 10 times. It’s hard to keep up with the going down sometimes.
My Dad first took me to Roker Park in 1969: apparently as a punishment for being naughty. We drew 0-0 with Chelsea, didn’t get a shot on target, continued in that vein thereafter and were relegated at the end of the season. It was, as I was told at the time, Alan Brown’s fault. Or having white shorts. Or something. With one glorious exception, that’s been the story of my life as a Sunderland supporter.
Of course, I get the ‘yeah, but that happens to most clubs’ line from fans of other clubs. But I have a failsafe response: tell me what other club with gates like ours has played so few games in European competition. We’re unique.
And it’s our uniqueness that really interests me. For, after all, when the football fails, you must have something else more meaningful holding it all up. For it you don’t, just what is the point? And it’s the point I want to talk about.
Our work aims to help clubs (any level, men’s or women’s) to grow sustainably: the prosper regardless of what happens on the pitch. Since Ana and I started the business in 2005, we’ve worked across Europe and Asia, from Tallinn to Tilburg and from Llanelli to Yerevan.
Most people know us for our fan experience work, but that’s only one part of the bigger picture. By far and away the most important ingredient is the purpose of the club we’re working with. What are they for? What difference do they make? Why would the local community suffer if they weren’t there? What do they give (back)?
Because, if we know one thing, it is that a club founded on football aspirations alone can only grow if it’s really good at football.
In Moldova, Europe’s poorest country, times were hard before Covid made them almost unbearable. It’s hard enough looking after your own family without worrying for your pets. Animal welfare in many parts of the former Soviet Union is too often an afterthought. Dogs that would light up a home are left to wander. Or worse.
But, just like Zenit St Petersburg, whose players walked onto the field for a recent match each holding dogs from a local shelter to be re-homed, the clubs we’re working with in Moldova are taking positive animal welfare messages into the community. And the community is repaying that work by taking more of an interest in the clubs. Because of this (and many other focused community activities) attendances at these clubs doubled during the pandemic.
Bohemian FC goes a step further. It has re-purposed itself from a football club to a community support hub. Of course, the footie still matters, but what’s more important is that the club defends and supports those who live in that part of north Dublin. This is Phibsborough, where multiple languages are spoken and where people’s opportunities are limited. So, the club – which was taken into supporter ownership in 1890 – is now first and foremost a vehicle for making lives better. It goes way beyond what you’d expect from a club’s community trust.
When the people of Ireland got a chance to change the law to give women the right to choose, Bohs campaigned for a ‘yes’ vote. In this country, we’ve just seen the right to protest quietly criminalised, while distracted by Boris and his colleagues’ Christmas Parties. I don’t see any high-profile football clubs pointing this out.
Over consecutive years Bohs’ third kit has first supported refugee charities (with ‘Refugees are Welcome’ on the shirt) and more recently, it has borne the name of local indie band Fontaines DC, who are helping the club to raise awareness of homelessness and the damage it does to people.
Everything the club does is driven by the needs of its community and that unique purpose, thanks to the power of social media, has meant that people who identify with its cause are more than happy to chip in and buy merch, membership, etc., even if they live in Canada and have no realistic prospect of attending a Bohs game.
I’m an owner at Lewes FC: another club with a higher purpose. In their case it is equality and inclusion. They became the first club in the world to pay its men’s and women’s teams the same. Given that the women’s team is in the second tier of English women’s football and the men’s team is in the seventh, you could argue that the girls should get more, but the point is made.
Just like Bohs, they have followers around the world, each of whom pays £30 to be a member. They have an app so that you can watch games, keep up with their community work and feel part of the club, regardless of where you’re based.
My pal is a director at Bury AFC, the so-called Phoenix Club emerging into the light from the debris left by Steve Dale at Gigg Lane. They too have the higher purpose of making lives better. To grow the club and to support their community, they have updated the old club’s motto and created a set of values to guide the work they do (which extended to being used to recruit former Sunderland player Andy Welsh as manager).
But what’s most interesting is the fact that, in contrast to almost any non-league club I know, they have amassed over 100 enthusiastic volunteers. If all your club is trying to do is win on the pitch, then there’s little that a volunteer can meaningfully contribute beyond ‘getting the game on’. But if you, like Bury AFC, have a higher purpose, then everyone can make a difference.
The higher purpose at top tier Danish side FC Nordsjælland is their “Right to Dream” academy in Ghana. It doesn’t fit the template for African football academies (i.e., look for the stars and leave the ones who don’t make it to fend for themselves). It promises two options to its youngsters: a professional club contract or a professional qualification to begin an alternative career. It’s not for nothing that FCN became the first entire club to embrace Juan Mata’s Common Goal charity where players donate 1% of their annual income to charities. Just north of Copenhagen, the entire staff chips in.
Sunderland AFC has, for many years, been quite literally a Beacon of Light for the local community: a leader in innovative ways to reach out to those most in need and use the power of the club and its devoted followers.
I remember a Foundation of Light family learning project whose participation from fathers working away from the North East reached record levels, simply because if they completed the course, they would be recognised on the pitch before a game at the Stadium of Light. Our Foundation is what makes me most proud to be a Sunderland fan.
But what I’d like to propose is that the football club becomes – psychologically - part of the Foundation, not the other way around. I want us to work with our supporters, communities, businesses, schools and even people who’ve left the area to nail down what our club means, develop that higher purpose and the values to filter every single decision we make.
We need to be asking fans regularly, not just for feedback on our matchday experiences, but also on what the club means to us so that we can be 100% clear on who we are and how we can make a difference. To that end, Lesley Callaghan and I created a survey back in 2011 that asked this question of Sunderland supporters. The most common response was ‘family’.
In my experience, fans usually have an intrinsic understanding of their clubs’ values, whereas most owners don’t have the first clue. We have had more CEOs than 1-1 draws in recent times (and there’ve been a lot of the latter), but if you have a clear vision of what the point of the club is, the CEO becomes the latest ‘steward’ of the Light, reinforcing values, finding new ways to make lives better, putting our club on the map for more than just misfiring football.
On Saturday 11 December, as is often the case, I was getting ready to travel to a game and undertake a fan experience assessment report. That meant I only caught about an hour of the Community Soup Kitchen Twitterthon (the part where we were all waiting for Nick Barnes to press the right button!).
But everything in those 60 minutes reinforced how much more than a club Sunderland really is: people like Andrea and the Community Soup Kitchen, people like Joanne and the matchday mental health support she and her co-volunteers provide. People like Luke O’Nien: the most natural and obvious ambassador for our club I have seen since Niall Quinn rode into town.
We don’t need to do a Bohs, a Bury AFC, a Lewes or even an FCN. We hold the answer in our hands. We just need to be brave enough to decide to make our club famous worldwide for something more than the football.
Let’s show the world what ‘Doing a Sunderland’ really means.