It was wonderful to hear the choruses of “Lee Johnson’s red and white army” ringing out around the Stadium of Light on Tuesday night, something we’ve probably not heard sung so loudly since we played at Crewe... which seems like an age away.
That connection that was so clear under the lights in Cheshire in October seems to be back now, and despite the perpetual winter gloaming, it has lightened the mood amongst Sunderland supporters at just the right time.
I was recently told the story of a chance encounter between a friend of mine and a current Sunderland player out and about in town. They got chatting about how things are going at the club, the importance of fans, and the how support they give the team and the manager in boosting their overall performance. The roar of the crowd is what they live for, this is what’s truly important to them, this is all they really want as a footballer.
Yes, they are very well remunerated professional athletes, but there comes a point where money doesn’t motivate performance - a 10% pay rise won’t always provoke a 10% improvement, but a buzzing stadium united behind the cause absolutely can. We have all seen our side ‘rise to the occasion. We have all felt that connection between a crowd in full swing and a team pushing on the pitch. It is why we go to the match.
The converse is surely true as well. Vitriol sent the way of the players or coaching staff is not going to do anything to help them to get better and drive them to succeed. A supporter is one who supports the cause - not uncritically and this is a game of opinions - but that’s our role at the club - voicing our support.
That is how we participate actively in the life of the club and the game itself. And so when we raise our voices in person and online, I think it’s important that we keep this in mind as this season tramps relentlessly forward.
I’ve also seen a few people, including in our letters section, saying that because of some of the behaviour of people online and offline, Sunderland can no longer claim to have a fantastic fanbase who are worth their weight in gold. I think this pretty wide of the mark. We see and hear the most vocal people, those motivated to shout the loudest and be the most objectionable.
However, I completely understand this feeling, and as I have outlined on the Roker Rapport Podcast my experience at the Rotherham game is probably going to mean that my son and I avoid our once-loved awaydays for the foreseeable future. It’s simply not fun being in amongst a baying, coked-up mob.
I have never been one for booing individual or collective performances; I do respect that we are paying “customers” who have a right to voice our disapproval - I’ve just never really seen the point of booing. It’s entirely understandable and entirely unproductive.
But the vast majority of fans are focused squarely on helping the club to be as good as it can be in any way they can. They love the club, they love the players, they desperately want Lee Johnson to succeed this year and for the Chairman to achieve his goals. You don’t hear them not whinging, their lack of a meltdown at a disappointing result is silent, they’ll not litter their social media feeds with #JohnsonIn because that’s not how the outrage machine operates. When we win, they make the most of the opportunity to celebrate.
Online, there’s a well-established rule that negative comments get more exposure and reaction than positive. I have personal experience of this. My tweets don’t often get many likes and tweets, so when I pithily tweeted in the wake of Ross Stewart’s debut goal for Sunderland that had equaled Danny Graham’s tally of league goals for the club, the pinging on my phone was noticeable.
I got the short term buzz of exposure that social media tools are designed to provide, but on reflection, I realised that it was the dig at Danny Graham - a figure of derision amongst a certain section of the fanbase - that had gained traction rather than the celebration of Ross Stewart’s achievement. That didn’t feel so good. It felt a bit grubby.
Ross Stewart is now equal with Danny Graham in league goals for Sunderland #safc— Rich Speight ⚪️ ⚪️ (@mackemrich) March 17, 2021
Writing this brings to mind a comment that Ian Wright made on his Wrighty’s House podcast recently when recalling the difference Arsene Wenger made when he first arrived at Arsenal. They were one-nil down at half time and Wrighty was expecting a bollocking - that’s how every other manager he’d ever played under had approached the dressing room during the break in similar circumstances.
But Wenger calmly and patently went around each player giving them encouragement and telling them how much he trusted their ability to go and win the match. That moment has stayed with one of the game’s absolute legends to this day, it reshaped his understanding of how footballers should be motivated. They went on to win 4-1, and Wenger went on to transform the way that football is played in England and how coaches approach the game.
His sophisticated, empathetic, and person-focused approach to coaching and holistic view of how to run a football club inspires many - and it’s the antithesis of the ‘rocket up the backside’ school of management some seem to think would improve the performance of the current Sunderland side.
Let me head off some of the responses that I know will come my way as a result of writing about this topic - that I’m telling fellow fans what to think, that I’m glossing over the problems at the club, that the players have to perform if they want the fans to cheer, and that I’m a happy clapper.
You can think what you like, but I’d ask you to think about the well-established fact that words and actions have consequences. You can acknowledge that not everything is perfect without resorting to personal abuse or rabble-rousing rhetoric. The atmosphere and buzz in and around the Stadium before the game is what often sets the tone for performances. And yes, I am never happier than when clapping and cheering on a winning Sunderland side.
You’ll get no apologies from me about writing honestly about what I think, and you are absolutely free to respectfully disagree. But Sunderland AFC is undoubtedly in a better place now than it was a year ago, and I’ll drink to that.