The Red & White Army has, this lunchtime, launched as a Community Benefit Society, more commonly known as a Supporters’ Trust, after a process involving the Football Supporters Association and the government regulator the Financial Conduct Authority over the last six months or so.
Supporters can now go onto the new online membership platform and chose their level of investment in the Trust, with annual membership options ranging from £5 to £20 available. All members are given equal voting rights within the democratic structures, and the funds will be held in common and used to support the organisation’s activities including the revamped website that has gone live today, as well as the work to improve fan engagement, undertake community action projects, and continue to develop the fan-led elements of the matchday experience.
The Trust was an idea born of the potential risk to the very future of the club this time last year, as Madrox looked to sell the club and coronavirus cancelled football, plunging the game into financial crisis. At that point, we as fans had no legal means in place to raise money to even begin to provide a safety net should Donald have cut off his support of the club at any point during the interregnum of 2020.
Although the urgency to act quickly dissipated with the arrival of Kyril Louis-Dreyfus and his billions earlier this year, the ultimate need for fans to organise remains and, indeed, we now have the space - without a looming existential threat to deal with - for the new organisation to find its feet and concentrate on all the fun bits - more flags and murals, more support for diversity at the club, more focus on the Ladies team, more community activities and fund-raising campaigns, and so on.
Until now, Sunderland has been almost unique amongst England’s best-supported clubs in not having been shadowed by a formally constituted Supporters’ Trust, so at a very basic level this development is normalising the relationship and giving us as members of RAWA the same rights and capacities as other sets of fans around the country.
It also means we can participate even more fully in the organised fan movement that has a voice at the top-table as discussions about the future of the game continue, particularly the UK Government’s promised fan-led review of football governance. If we oppose ideas like a European Super League or Project Big Picture, then this is the route for football fans to gain access and influence in those debates.
But, for me, the overall purpose of the new trust is to give the fan group a legal identity and permanence it has not had to this point, as well as some financial resources to continue to expand its activities, a constitution that members can see and refer to, and a digital platform for gathering fan voices in a more formal way.
It will remain an organisation that can act quickly but with more authority than currently if things do go wrong at the club again, and it gives us as a fanbase the capacity to raise money - including access to loans and other financial support - should the opportunity ever arise to take even a small shareholding in Sunderland AFC. If more fans were ever to be invited onto the club board as non-executive directors, even without a shareholding RAWA would now be the natural mechanism through which this nomination would be made.
So it’s an insurance policy, as well as a vehicle for the collection and communication of the fan voice to the hierarchy of the club. If RAWA members don’t like the leadership or the direction the group is taking, they’ll be able to stand against vote them out on an annual basis.
I think about what wouldn’t have been possible without RAWA over the last few years, even beyond the matchday flag displays that many fans will immediately think of in connection to the group. It is doubtful that the #DonaldOut campaign would have been so powerful if it was just fanzines and podcasts making the case. With no democratic fan group, we may not have had the meetings that brought to light the dismissive attitude of the previous regime towards some supporters and no open meeting where Donald and Methven’s promises were held up to the light, there would have been no survey of fan concerns last summer and no “informal” meeting with Donald, which lead to him resigning as chairman.
Ultimately, like any democratic organisation, the Red & White Army Trust will be what its members make of it. Nobody is required to join, or vote, or stand for elections. It’s a choice that we make as to whether to get involved or not. Some will see it as irrelevant to their lives as Sunderland fans, and that’s completely fine. But those who might carp from the side-lines and dismiss it as “a bunch of self-appointed people” have the same right and ability to get involved, and put themselves forward for the executive committee, as the volunteers who currently occupy those positions.
Thanks to the dogged work of those who currently lead RAWA we now have a Trust, but it will only ever be what we, together, make of it. I believe that the more of us who join, and the more of us who get involved, the stronger we as a fanbase will be. Unity is strength.