Before I say any more, I feel compelled to express how great this club and the fans that follow them are. Through running the Irish supporters club and the writing and podcasting I have done with Roker Report, it has given me a great platform to meet so many great Sunderland fans that I would regard as friends now.
That being said, it is important to raise the extremely disappointing behaviour of some Sunderland fans at Saturday’s game at the DW stadium.
Travelling over from Ireland has become quite a common thing for me over the past few years. I have travelled over for around 16 games home and away this season and it has become almost ritual at this stage.
Sunderland’s performance was fantastic on Saturday. It was everything that we want from our team. High intensity, full commitment, and the kind of comfortable win that has been so rare in recent times.
For the majority of fans, it was probably one of the best games of the season to attend. To bring 5000 fans with the performances that have been served up of late is no mean feat. Unfortunately, for myself, it was overshadowed by a continuous barrage of xenophobic anti-Irish abuse.
It is well known that James McClean is a player that causes a stir for many fans in England. From where he is from in Derry and the history of that area, he is entitled to his beliefs, as is anybody who has been directly impacted by any conflict of any sort.
Rightly or wrongly, his beliefs and, more to the point, the way he expresses them, have caused issues for a number of years.
McClean was quite a successful player for Sunderland during his time at the club, considering he cost next to nothing. But the way he has behaved since has at times been questionable, to say the least, and painfully moronic at most.
However, on Saturday, McClean, for once, did not interact with the Sunderland crowd once throughout the game. Yet it appeared that his sheer presence on the pitch on Saturday was enough to rile the away crowd.
As is standard practice, McClean was jeered with every touch and cheered with every mistake... As was Max Power, which bewildered me somewhat.
It did not end there, however. Consistent chanting of anti-IRA songs persisted throughout. Whilst one could question the appropriateness of bringing politics into a football game, it is not something that particularly upset me. The history between the United Kingdom and Ireland is a shared one. One where nobody won, but everyone was affected. People are allowed to be patriotic.
Unfortunately, some people couldn’t just be patriotic. As the chants became more and more prominent, so did the vitriol that they were expressed with. Whether it was because of alcohol or not, anger and apathy were growing and I felt that some people around me were searching for reasons to be offended. To feel wronged. To justify their angst.
McClean was the person targeted. His background and heritage was their problem, and it was not even half time yet. As the half wore on, a group of people behind me began to engage in Anti-Irish slurs. Slurs slating the country, the people, and its religion.
Now, these words were not targeting the player on the pitch. These words were targeted at a nation. They were prejudiced against a country. My country.
And for what reason? Because they dislike a particular footballer. For the first time as a Sunderland fan, I was uncomfortable around people I thought were my own. I was afraid to speak in case I was heard.
From my perspective, McClean was the liberator. He will be used by people to validate their reasons for behaving in a certain way. It must be made clear that he was not the reason. Certain individuals chose to behave like this.
The saddest thing about this was the people doing it were probably twice my age. Grown men who should know better than this. Men who probably have children of their own.
There was an abundance of children in my vicinity and they probably look up to these men are role models. People they aspire to be like. What sort of atmosphere are we creating for our younger fans?
As I left the DW Stadium on Saturday, my friend and I discussed how saddening it was to see. We questioned would we ever bring our children to something like that? Do they need to listen to this?
Rich Speight wrote a fantastic article about how education is the way to defeat racism. He was completely correct. As I reflect on what I heard on Saturday, I wonder if these people even realise what they are saying or what impact they have on people.
People associate racism with skin colour. It is far more than that. Being prejudiced about someone’s country or religion is the same as being racist about someone’s skin colour. At best it is complete ignorance, at worst it is purposeful xenophobia.
It has be to made abundantly clear, disliking a footballer for whatever reason does not give anybody the excuse to be racist. To be prejudiced. To be xenophobic.
Whatever political beliefs or opinions you have, it should not lead to the behaviour I witnessed on Saturday. I am aware that for some people this may not be a big issue. In my opinion, it should be. Racism is a problem throughout football.
As fans, we are constantly demanding better from the people who run our football club. Maybe it is high time that we demand better from ourselves, better from each other. We should call each other out if we hear unacceptable comments. Call out racism.
This is a fantastic club with an exceptional fanbase. We should not let it be tainted by people who want to bring out the worst in us. Fans have a responsibility to represent the club as best they can. This was not the case for some on Saturday.
I am a proud Irishman, and I am sure many of the people around me were proud Englishmen. Or any other nationality for that matter. We are brought together with our mutual love and affection for the same football club. The way it should be.
From Charlie Hurley to Niall Quinn and Roy Keane to Aiden McGeady today, Sunderland and Ireland have a deep historical connection and association with each other. We also have a very active supporters branch. The comments we heard on Saturday will not change that. That being said, it has left a bitter taste for many of us.
Racism and discrimination of any sort still should be called out. This club is better than that. Our fans are better than that.