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Labour Leader Keir Starmer Visits Walsall Football Club

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Supporting Sunderland: A ‘Labour’ of love

Whatever the cut of your political cloth, as Sunderland fans it’s heartening to know that the road to recovery in football is dependent on fewer variables, and is influenced more easily by its core supporters than in the much more uncertain and unpredictable field of politics. 

Photo by Darren Staples/Getty Images

Ordinarily, the suggestion that a political party is in any way, shape or form comparable to a football club would be treated with the scorn it deserves.

Far better to stick to the commandment delivered by Dan le Sac v Scroobius Pip, presumably named after an Eredivisie relegation clash from yesteryear, on their debut track: ‘Thou shalt choose a political party based on their policies, as opposed to just going with who your family has always supported. They are not a football team.’

Yet policies aside, this last week’s convergence of local election fallout and play-off prognosis has certainly blurred the lines between the fortunes and future of both the Labour Party and SAFC.

Talk of ‘needing to reconnect’ and ‘arresting years of decline’ could apply equally to both.

Even commentary about the inevitability of a disappointing performance due to the play-off position already being secured/vaccine bounce kicking in only emphasised the similarity between the two.

Delve deeper and the yearning for the glory days of the turn of the millennium, the steady decline since the early 2010s punctuated by the prospect of a revival under popular (at least with core supporters) new leadership in the latter half of 2015, before going horribly wrong from late 2019, and the similarities begin to look uncanny.

Add into the mix the division of supporters into pragmatists and idealists and the mirror-image is complete. Maybe the comparison is Laboured (sorry) and it was the prospect of going through all the pain again that triggered a PTSD-induced thousand-yard stare, giving me a blinkered, singular perspective on everything...

I’m talking about the football by the way, in case that wasn’t clear.

Sunderland v Northampton Town - Sky Bet League One Photo by Mark Fletcher/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

So far so depressingly familiar but in football, as in politics, there’s little mileage in navel-gazing, self-indulgent bemoaning of our current predicament.

The same is true of a volatile fanbase prone to hyperbolic reactions in response to the slightest hint of progress and setback. I’m happily ignorant of the psychology of the modern footballer (and I’m no psephologist when it comes to the motivations of the electorate for that matter) but I doubt I’d be particularly motivated by the adulation that is so easily gained and arbitrarily withdrawn.

Players used to talk about how they’d been encouraged to sign because ‘the fans know their football up there and it’s a chance to become a genuine legend.’

I don’t hear that so often these days.

Most will get a Warholian 15 minutes or so of fame before a wayward clearance marks them out as ‘the worst player to ever wear the shirt’: a criticism without any constructive effect given it’s so regularly and meaninglessly dished out.

Sunderland v Northampton Town - Sky Bet League One Photo by Pete Norton/Getty Images

Yet this works both ways. A fanbase without a clear sense of direction for the club and that feels, with some justification, taken for granted is more of a symptom of the club’s malaise than its cause.

Rudderless short-termism in the club’s management is reflected in the attitude of the fanbase. We all need a plausible, positive vision of the future, rooted in a bought-in set of shared values and identity, to mobilise support, plant deeper roots in the community and give the club an impetus that proves immune to the inevitable bumps in the road ahead. Only time will tell whether the new ownership achieves this but we’ll only know if we give it time.

It’s only when the club has earned the patience of fans, through demonstrating a viable strategy beyond just results on the pitch, that it can be genuinely bold.

Fear of failure, and the associated opprobrium it can bring when the fanbase remain disconnected, breeds conservatism (with a small ‘c’) and timidity.

Pandering to short-term anger from fans buys the management more time but ultimately hampers any larger project under contemplation. With reserves of fan trust and patience behind it, the club can more comfortably roll with the punches and be more creative.

A young owner and manager are bound to make mistakes along the way.

It’s good for their development that they do, as long as there aren’t too many and that they’re not always the same ones. We should possibly be more worried when they go out of their way to avoid making any.

So whatever the cut of your political cloth, as Sunderland fans it’s heartening to know that the road to recovery in football is dependent on fewer variables, and is influenced more easily by its core supporters, than in the much more uncertain and unpredictable field of politics.

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