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What’s going on with Sunderland’s BLC?

Cath Reid and Joanne Youngson from the Branch Liaison Committee (BLC) update us on what’s going on with the hard-working fan organisation now that Sunderland head into a new era with Kyril Louis-Dreyfus.

RR: It’s certainly been an interesting year or so, though I guess for us here at RR nothing much has changed, given much of what we do is online. For other SAFC fan groups, though, I imagine they’ve had to heavily adapt – how would you say that the BLC has coped and adapted during the pandemic?

Cath Reid: In some ways it has been really hard - normally we have regular face to face meetings with our branches network... obviously covid stopped this, so we’ve had to adapt and go online, which is great and allows our travelling UK branches and overseas branches to join in, but with not being able to hold any events has impacted on our fund raising.

We’ve also been unable to hold our matchday mental health hub - for me this has had the most impact, as supporters could no longer come in on matchday and talk to a trained counsellor.

We have adapted the way we still provide support by working with Washington Mind on a daily basis. We’re also continuing to provide once-a-month matchday virtual support. Supporters can contact Washington Mind, and they will receive a call back agreeing a time for a counsellor to contact them.

RR: The BLC, during normal times, host events and fan gatherings in person. What things have gone on recently? I imagine Zoom has been a useful tool…

Joanne Youngson: We have used our social media platforms to keep morale and community spirit going throughout lockdown. The first lockdown started with a world wide pink slice competition - we even did door step drops of ingredients to those unable to get to the shops. We had pink slices posted from as far away as Tasmania, and it really got fans of all ages joining in.

We also did a fun ‘guess the former player from their baby pic’ competition, where we had over 30 former players joining in and giving us some smashing pictures. We also did a ‘check in on your mate’ campaign, encouraging fans to check in on people they may only see on matchdays.

CR: Yes, zoom has been very useful, it’s allowed us to keep in contact - although, not as much as we would like. We’d also normally host the supporter player of the year award - votes are taken from our branches, ending with a fundraising night at the stadium. It’s a great fundraiser for our charities, one of which is the Foundation of Light, and this year our second charity is the North East Air Ambulance.

Sadly we can’t hold the player of the year again this year, we’re looking to still hold the player of the year but it will be virtual.. During 2019/20 season our local branches raised in excess of £28,000 for their own local nominated charities, but again, because of covid these charities missed out on donations they so desperately needed.

RR: What would you say has been the biggest achievement of the group in the last year or so?

CR: For me it’s that we’ve still been able to support our fans. Obviously our mental health hub and being able to still offer support is a huge achievement, and a testament to the BLC in that we’ve worked to keep the support available.

We’ve also assisted supporters in registering their matchday bubbles - this came about as we very quickly recognised we have a large section of our fan base, who for one reason or another are digitally excluded. It was busy but also worthwhile - we got a small taste of the issues and how busy the ticket office are, receiving over 1000 calls in 8 days. Honestly, I’ll never call the ticket office again - they have my full admiration!

JY: I agree about the bubble support, everyone was just clinging on to the hope we’d get back in to the stadium, and for those struggling to get online, it was pure panic. Our biggest achievement has been in adapting to how we deliver the support for the metal health hub - we were facing a time when the need for the support went through the roof, and our hands were tied in how we could deliver it.

RR: Has it been difficult trying to hold the Mental Health Hub together then without being able to see people face to face?

CR: It has been really hard. In the eight games we held the hub, we had many visitors coming in to speak to a counsellor. It’s amazing to think that if you need referring to a support service via your GP, you can wait 8 weeks or more, yet you can come to a football game and call in to see a counsellor to talk through your stresses and concerns, with the opportunity for referral for further support there if needed.

The service is totally confidential, in fact the only information we ask before seeing a counsellor is the first part of your postcode. During lockdown we’ve received requests from supporters needing help, and luckily we have been able to point them in direction of the help they need. We’ve also identified a change in people’s behaviours on social media and dropped them a private message to check in - for us, it’s important that we keep this line of communication and support open for anyone who needs it.

I’ll leave it to Joanne to tell you of one of our proudest moments...

JY: The scariest thing was keeping the funds coming in to pay our counsellors. Before lockdown we held talk ins and similar events where literally every penny went into funding it, but this came to an abrupt end.

In the very beginning we had shared our vision with the then owner Stewart Donald, and although he offered more than once to support it financially, we wanted it to be fans supporting fans, so were steadfast in that we would raise out own funds.

This, like the world around us, changed in lockdown and during an update with Stewart on how things were going for the hub - and the sad new of another suicide amongst our fanbase - he insisted on offering financial support.

Everyone has their own opinion of Stewart Donald but his support for local charities can’t be ignored, and we fully appreciate the support he gave us when we were well and truly stuck. This has taken the pressure off us in being able to fund the councillors, and has allowed us to concentrate on building on the support we can offer.

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

RR: Enough about the past, though… what plans do you have for the Mental Health Hub in the future?

CR: how long have you got! We’re really concerned of the number of younger people taking their own lives, so once we’re back providing face to face support, we’re looking to bring in a youth counsellor in. We’re going to take our hub on the road and visit branches, we’ll link in with branch meetings and maybe look to link local branches up where we can. You never know - you might see us at an away ground.

JY: We are just itching to get back out there. It’s all about changing the conversation about mental health, and there is only so much you can do on Facebook and Twitter. Through lockdown we have been linking in with lots of organisations that support people or raise awareness of a range of things that would contribute to someone’s mental health. We have lots of plans to bring them on board to highlight different issues.

It’s horrific to acknowledge, but people are taking their own lives every day feeling like they have no way out, or no where else to turn, and we’ve got to try and do something about it. Sunderland have a special fanbase; it’s a massively passionate community like no other, so we feel we can use this to encourage change in the way we talk about our mental health.

RR: A little dickie bird tells me that other clubs have been in touch to ask about it in order to potentially set something similar up for their fans… what can you tell us about that?

CR: That little dickie bird was right! Prior to lockdown we received a call from Huddersfield who heard of what we’ve achieved. They loved the idea and are looking to introduce support within their supporter groups.

It was really good as we’d had contact from several Premier League clubs, as well as a Championship side and a club in Scotland - who’d have thought a third division fan base would start something so important off?

When we were able to hold our hub, we also received visits from visiting SLO, as well as dedicated football officers, to see our hub and how it all works.

While at Seaburn beach walking the dog, I received a call from Wycombe Wanderers who had heard about our matchday hub - I explained the whole background, why we thought it was important, and that we wanted it to be fans supporting fans, rather than the club supporting fans. I told them about our fundraising in the past, our sponsors Stewart Donald and Bridle Car Leasing, and how their generosity has ensured the matchday hub is financed for the next three years.

We also received contact via Chris Waters from Tottenham Hotspur, resulting in a zoom meeting with their supporter liaison officer, safeguarding officer and foundation, and we’re really pleased that they are also looking to implement a mental health hub. We’ve also offered to go to these clubs and meet face-to-face once we can, and offer further support.

JY: Its nice to think other clubs would like to do the same for their fans.

Before lockdown, we would use Twitter to contact the travelling supporters and invite them along should they need support. We had quite a few visiting fans pop in to see us, including the Blackpool police!

RR: The hub aside, what other plans do the BLC have for the near future?

CR: We’re looking at all aspects which impact on a person’s mental health, for example gambling, alcohol and so on. We’ve supported the East Durham Veterans since they began and are now looking to work in partnership with them.

To see and hear how many of our veterans are living is absolutely soul-destroying - we recently heard of one veteran who had been given accommodation which had no heating or electricity, with the exception of a mattress... they had absolutely nothing in the flat. We quickly pulled together and supplied bedding and towels. Although it is the East Durham Veterans, Andrew and his team will support any veteran regardless of where they live in the North East, and because our branches are based across the North East and we all have veterans, we thought it was more important that we link in with Andrew and his team.

We’re looking to continue our support to help those who are digitally excluded - we’ll update everyone as we soon as we can.

RR: The International Fan Weekend in 2019 was a huge success – are there plans to perhaps do something again in the coming years?

CR: Wasn’t it fantastic? As soon as last year’s event was over we began our plans for this season, adding in a few extra things, then bang - covid hit, and a year on we still can’t hold anything face to face. But, there’s always a but, we didn’t want to let it drop altogether, so we will still have something this year - International Fans Day 2021 will be virtual, and plans are being finalised with the club now.

JY: It was an amazing weekend - that morning, as everyone gathered in the stadium foyer, the buzz was electric. People had travelled from all over the world and were so excited to be at the Stadium of Light. I’m sure this will just get bigger and better each year.

RR: Recently the BLC (and other groups) were able to meet with the club’s new Leadership team, and with the new owner. How was that?

JY: As a fans group we are really happy that they have committed to meeting regularly and valuing the voice of the fans. I personally like the value they place on embracing the identity and history of the club and the city - I think anyone who saw that video they produced about rebuilding Sunderland together would agree they’re on the right track.

CR: We did! Kyril Louis Dreyfus started the meeting off by thanking everyone and then sharing his intentions from an ownership aspect, his background as a football fan, his family background and the family business and ethos. The club then gave a presentation, with input from Steve Davison and Kristjaan Speakman, and all supporter groups present were then given an opportunity to put questions to the club.

Personally, I came away a lot more positive about the future. It was great to hear their thoughts and plans from the under 16s through to the first team, plans for the academy and the ladies team. They have committed to 4 supporter collective meetings a year, where representatives from the Branch Liaison Council, Supporter Liaison Group, Red & White Army and Senior Supporters will attend. They definitely don’t let things slip - in the meeting it was mentioned about setting up sub-groups to look at different aspects, and two weeks later we’ve already held our first sub-group meeting.

Sunderland v Lincoln City - Sky Bet League One - Stadium of Light Photo by Richard Sellers/PA Images via Getty Images

RR: Do you envisage a bright future with these people acting as our club’s custodians?

CR: Most definitely, I’ve been involved with the BLC for several years and have never felt so positive. He certainly has a vision, and brought in the right people to achieve that vision - and, of course, a plan to get back to the Pemier League.

To hear and see their long term plan was fantastic - if people haven’t already read the minutes from the meeting, they should really get a cuppa and read them.

JY: The positivity around the club and amongst us fans is wonderful to see after recent tough times. I do envisage a bright future - we have so much to offer as a city, a club and community if in the right hands.

The early signs of this new ownership has been very positive like embracing the fans and early investments in things like the pitch at the stadium.

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