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How do Sunderland fit into football’s unfinished revolution?

Protest works and football is changing in front of our eyes because of it, but it’s only through democracy that together we can shape the collective future of our club and our game.

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

Over the last year at Sunderland AFC, by working together as fans and as a community, we have won our battles - Stewart Donald no longer wields power at the Stadium of Light. Now we have our new owner Kyril Louis-Dreyfus, who so far has lived up to all of our greatest expectations for what the scion of a grand European football dynasty might bring to a big old football club that has been chronically mismanaged for decades.

But does that mean we can sit back, relax and enjoy the ride, or would doing so allow others to reshape the football around us?

People across the UK go to the polls today to exercise their hard-won democratic right to choose those who hold power over important aspects of our lives, and I will proudly accompany my 18-year-old son to the polling booth for the first time. Yet who controls the game we love and the great clubs that occupy so much of our personal and social lives, and indeed the life of all four nations, remains almost entirely outside of our control as ordinary fans.

We know that the democratic control of the apparatus of the British state - your right to vote today - was not won in a revolution, but in an incremental, multigenerational struggle against entrenched ecclesiastical, monarchical, aristocratic, plutocratic and patriarchal power.

We haven’t since the 1600s suffered the rupture of civil war or foreign occupations that would necessitate fundamentally reshaping social relations and modernising our constitution, which has flexed and adapted to absorb democratic forces whilst maintaining established groups at the apex of power. The process of democratisation is not yet complete, it is demonstrably imperfect, it ebbs as well as flows, and it faces huge challenges.

But despite this, we have achieved much through collective action, and we’ve much to lose if we don’t look after it.

Manchester United fan protest - Old Trafford Photo by Barrington Coombs/PA Images via Getty Images

But Football has experienced such a rupture - an attempted coup d’état funded by private equity capital - and we now have an opportunity to make it anew. The ESL is dead in the water, Man United fans are revolting, and as the masks of the owners of the global super brands that dominate European football have slipped. People are angry, and whilst there will be many who balk at direct action as disproportionate and counterproductive, we have witnessed the power of protest to stop bad things from happening, force those with power to change course, and move the conversation onto new territory.

Suddenly, English football supporters have more influence over the future of the national game than ever before. And protest needs to be complemented with collective and democratic organisation and long-term planning.

To protect and take back control of our national game, as it faces its biggest crisis since professionalisation in the 1890s, may require a series of more revolutionary transformations to take place, building on what we value, learning from our own history, being open to the examples of others, and innovating where necessary.

The story of our club’s loss-making, absentee-billionaire-funded, short-term survivalist strategy in the Premier League, and subsequent downfall to our current position in the third tier of both men’s and women’s football, is a classic case study in the ills of modern English football. In response to our situation, we’ve generated our own democratic institutions to channel and express our voices and provide the means by which we can secure the future for our sons and daughters.

As Ellis Short’s disastrous tenure came to an end, the Red & White Army was set up to articulate the voice of the fans to the club, and initially had good and productive relations with Donald and Methven once they took the reins at the Stadium of Light. All of us wanted their gamble on bouncing back up to the Championship in 2018/9 to succeed, and we cheered the Lads to Wembley twice and continued to do so until the turnstiles were closed last March.

But we also rightly criticised their recruitment and decision making on the footballing side of the club, as well as questioning the nature of their financial relationship with the club and how their initial purchase was financed. When performances on the pitch fell away, those criticisms were rejected and the questions answered unsatisfactorily, the game was up for Stewart and Charlie.

Charlton Athletic v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One Play-off - Final - Wembley Stadium Photo by Tim Goode/PA Images via Getty Images

The noise that Sunderland fans, together, made in demanding #DonaldOut last year had a material impact on the ownership situation on the ground, Donald’s influence over the day-to-day running of the club was outsourced as he resigned as Chair, but in the end we were pushing at an open door. We knew right from the start that Madrox would soon look to sell at least part of the club in order to advance his plans - they told us so on our podcasts.

When it turned out they were not particularly adept at running an institution of such stature as Sunderland AFC, we demanded they stand by their promises and leave when they were no longer welcome - and we ultimately achieved that outcome. Nevertheless, when coronavirus hit last spring, we feared that the club itself - up for sale and with the financial underpinnings of the game crumbling - might be at risk of going the way of Wigan, into administration and deducted points.

Madrox ultimately lived up to their word, funded the club’s incubation through the pandemic with government and Premier League support, and sold to a good and responsible new owner, albeit after alienating the overwhelming majority of supporters, insulting individual fans, and ensuring their own pockets weren't too badly impacted along the way.

At the same time we moved to create the Red & White Army Supporters Trust, with the aim of ensuring that never again would the future of existence our club be threatened. It’s now up and running, and as we begin to emerge out of our hibernation it needs to be at the forefront of our efforts to be part of the future of our club, our communities, the game, and wider society.

Portsmouth v Sunderland - Checkatrade Trophy Final Photo by James Williamson - AMA/Getty Images

When it comes to the future of football, the Supporter’s Trust movement and the Football Supporters Association (FSA) have made the running, with years of work behind ensuring that the political support for proper reform of the way football is structured, financed, owned and governed was already in place before the recent tempest hit the game. Their work secured manifesto commitments from all the English Westminster parties to the fan-led review of football governance that is currently under formation by the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

It was on this basis that Labour Leader Keir Starmer, a proper football fan, moved quickly and passionately to call for immediate government intervention and to highlight the long-standing issues of the uneven distribution of money and power in the industry.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson, more of the rugger sort, has been as “Jonny-come-lately” in his embrace to the issue of governance and fan power in football as he was to the usefulness of lockdowns and the virtues public spending. Requests for the fan-led review to be initiated immediately after the 2019 election fell on deaf ears, and then were drowned out under the weight of the pandemic and the need to fire-fight the public health emergency, the financial mess of the industry and the meltdown of the wider economy.

Only weeks ago Johnson was prepared to let now former-Man United CEO Ed Woodward walk out of Downing Street with the impression that he had the PM’s tacit support for the abominable Super League plans, and he was more than pleased to lend his support to the murderous Saudi tyrant Mohammed Bin Salman’s attempt to buy Newcastle United.

Yet as opportunist and a populist, he is at least willing to say and do almost anything to get and keep power - especially during an election campaign - and to his credit has sat down with the FSA recently and given them his personal support in their efforts to reform the entire structure of the game.

Photo by Stefan Rousseau/PA Images via Getty Images and Photo by Toby Melville - WPA Pool/Getty Images

And the Tories have had some interesting and quite radical thinkers on issues of the governance and financial sustainability of football, including Damian Collins, who along with Methven last year proposed a Football Finance Authority, which would provide finance to clubs in return for shares that could then be purchased by Supporters’ Trusts.

The Conservative MP, Tracey Crouch, who has been appointed to Chair the fan-led review of football governance, has ensured a comprehensive set of terms of references, is someone who understands football from the perspective of a fan, and possesses political influence within her party that will be needed for the recommendations and action plans to be enacted.

Last year, when I started to write about the idea of fan ownership, it seemed that most English football supporters were either unfamiliar with the concept, dismissed it as dangerously communist, or supported the principle while not believing that it could ever happen at a club with ambitions to be any bigger AFC Wimbledon. Now 50+1 is seriously on the agenda as a potential solution to the crisis the game faces, and under a Tory government at that.

But collective ownership is not a panacea, and the model adopted matters as much as the principle; whilst Germany’s majority-fan owned Bundesliga clubs resisted moves to break away, the socio-owned clubs in Spain have been railroaded by their highly-politicised Presidents into the vanguard of the Dirty Dozen of European football.

VfB Stuttgart - Bavaria Munich
housands of VfB Stuttgart fans march with their banner “non-negotiable! 50+1 remains”, they allude to the idea of abolishing the 50% rule for sponsoring a club.
Photo by Matthias Balk/picture alliance via Getty Images

There is still the risk that legislative reforms made by a government not noted for its transparency or independence from monied interests could, under the guise of progress, implement changes have regressive implications in practice or merely tinker cosmetically at the margins whilst leaving those with the real power untouched. We should expect the vested interests that rule our game to kick-back hard - and we need to be willing to restate our case time and again if real change is to be made.

Tottenham and Chelsea appear to be moving in the direction of having more fan representation at board level, but gifts given can be taken away, and such sticking plasters cannot be used to placate the need for root-and-branch reform. We know that the recommendations of many a government review of matters more serious than football remain unenacted.

We need to be mindful also that, when the election is over and the football season ends, and as the hell of the 15 months hopefully subsides here in the UK at least, that we don't revert to type. We will be back in grounds soon, and in the excitement and jubilation that comes with stepping into the stands once again, we should not forget what has happened, lose sight of who was responsible for the mess, and who has been trying to act in the best interests of all before this emerged rather than looking after themselves and their friends. It’s up to us to keep feet of those in power to the flames, and, collectively, we have the means to do so.

Sunderland v Portsmouth - Sky Bet League One Play-Off: First Leg
Sunderland fans put out flags inside the Stadium of Light ahead of kick off during the Sky Bet League One Play-Off First Leg match between Sunderland and Portsmouth at Stadium of Light on May 11, 2019 in Sunderland, United Kingdom.
Photo by Sunderland AFC/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

It is vitally important that Sunderland fans, through our brand new Red & White Army Supporters Trust, Branches and the other representative groups, and supported by fan media, continue to build a friendly, cooperative and productive relationship with Kyril Louis-Dreyfus.

A strong Supporters Trust can be a true and loyal partner to our young owner, and one way of ensuring a flourishing long-term relationship will be to start exploring together how we might secure a financial stake in the club and directly elect members of the board - becoming co-investors, and not just emotionally, in our shared future.

If you’re not already a member of the Trust, please join us. The bigger we are the more voice we have, and as with politics, our fan democracy will not simply involve us voting every so often, but actively participating, cooperating and leading where whenever we can.

This is not a call for another revolution at Sunderland AFC, more of a call for traditional, radical English evolution. KLD, his footballing values and yes his wealth, is so welcome at our club, and I believe that in this way we can truly build the future of Sunderland Together back at the top of our national game.

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