For a club that had been pretty close to going out of business a couple of months previously, as we dropped down to our lowest rank in three decades, the Big Seat Change was a very public opportunity for a fresh start at Sunderland AFC, for fans and players alike.
The new owners, Madrox Partners, had been told by fans groups upon arrival at the club that getting rid of the patchwork of embarrassing beached-pink seats inside the Stadium of Light was one tangible thing that the club could do to improve the match day experience and the feel around the club.
Initially, it was announced at the end of June that Sunderland 10,000 new red seats would replace the existing faded pink ones over a nine-day period, and the club invited fans to register to volunteer to for the initiative. Ultimately 29,836 seats were changed in the main bowl of the arena to give it its current, striking white-cornered design.
This was a no-brainer for a PR man like Charlie Methven, and played into Stewart Donald’s desire to ingratiate himself with the fans. Despite the club’s debt having been largely written off by Ellis Short, money was tight; 200 staff had been laid off and budgets for everything were slashed to the bone in order to adapt to life outside the top two divisions. Stewart Donald told the Chronicle:
There is a huge amount of work to be done throughout the club. Replacing the seats, and making the Stadium of Light somewhere we can all be proud of again, is just part of our project to work to restore this great club to what it should be.
Encouraging fans to play their part in the seat replacement process is part of our policy of re-engaging with fans - these things may seem trivial to some, but as football fans ourselves Charlie and I know how important it is for supporters to have a sense of ownership of their club.
It was an initiative that proved extraordinarily popular then, and is still spoken of as amongst the best things the club has done together with the fans for many years. Starting on 11th July 2018, 3,523 fans - including my dad and probably a good few of those reading these words - worked a total of 14,092 hours, alongside a few of the newly recruited first-team squad including Glenn Loovens and Luke O’Nien, to complete the job.
The sun was (mostly) out, bacon rolls and cups of tea were served, everyone had fun and worked with smiles on their faces. It all made for made for great TV, and featured heavily in the early episodes of season two of Sunderland ‘Til I Die.
The result was a smashing job well done, and many who took part have said how you can’t put a value on the knowledge that you have materially contributed to the place that means the most to us as fans (it’s probably well over £200,000 in manual labour costs, if you’re interested). As for Donald and Methven, this is, perhaps, about as good as things got in their fan engagement and giving us a sense of ownership over our club.
The Stadium of Light, now over 20 years old, remains a unique modern football stadium - a class above and apart from the soulless, generic, off-the-shelf 30,000 jobs that you can find in a good few other towns and cities around England and Wales. A sunken, and thus deceptively vast cauldron, that - on the right occasion - can amplify the sound of almost 49,000 people to produce an atmosphere to rival any in English, indeed world, football. Bob Murray did us right.
Writing this piece makes me long for the place. I need to be back there as soon as I can with my son, my dad, my nephew, and with everyone else too, and hopefully an enthusiastic new team playing good football and winning games to bring it alive once more.