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Editorial: There’s still everything to play for, and forever to play it in for Sunderland

“We can learn from the past, but Sunderland as a club needs to embrace the future if it is to regain its status amongst England’s elite,” argues Rich Speight.

Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

The last few months of supporting this football club have got me thinking about the past and the future, how we as fans relate to them, how the club uses the emotions associated with them - hope, fear, and nostalgia - to engage us and motivate us, how heavily the past weighs down on us and how it can be a drag on Sunderland’s progress.

Football clubs as organisations really should be almost entirely future-focused if they are to succeed - the next game, the next season, the next player, the next step up the pyramid, bigger crowds, better matchday experience, more revenue, more spending, even more trophies. There’s no time to look back. No time to really pause and take stock.

The hunger for victory, for more, is never satisfied.

As the classic Mitchell & Webb sketch declares “There’s still everything to play for, and forever to play it in”.

But our club, and everyone else’s club, is a socially, historically situated cultural institution. It is part very many ongoing stories, the stories of leagues and cups, of coaches and players, of staff and fans, of owners and other teams, of the city and the region, of the nation and even the world. And they are all part of the story of the club too.

And the club is how we tell the story of our lives to ourselves and others. We pass down the “tradition” of supporting Sunderland to our children. We define ourselves against and in relation to the club, its players, and its teams. It’s why the idea of boycotting the club because of our grievances - be that the employment of a fascist manager or the shareholding of a Tory PR man - never really gains much traction.

We dig through the stats in compendiums and websites, we pour over history books, we trawl YouTube to watch that goal, we like and share that clip. We go to talk-ins with club legends, we listen to podcast interviews, we read and write articles about games that happened 130-odd years ago, and we revel in the reflected glory of having won titles way back when.

But the future always beckons. A football club is about youth, it’s about vigour, it’s about progress. Organised sport is meant to make us better human beings, physically and emotionally. It’s meant to be a civilising force for good in the world.

The coming of the Louis-Dreyfus era was meant to bring a forward-looking, modern, technically-savvy, data-driven, unsentimental, financially sustainable, educational, twenty-first-century reinvention of our club. It would be a new Sunderland AFC forged in the white heat of technology and we were invited along for the ride.

Many of us were sold on this vision when it was set out 13 months ago, and we thought that the transfer business for the men’s squad and the effort made to ensure second-tier status for the women’s squad last summer demonstrated the plan in action.

But the past loomed over us heavily - the suspicion that what we saw on the surface was not entirely what existed behind the scenes, that corners were being cut throughout the club, and the vision started to become ever more blurry.

Up the road at Newcastle United, we can witness how hopes for the future are only really motivating for the masses in so far as the path to the promised land is clearly and unambiguously in view, and how they will travel it is spelled out in very simple terms.

In their case, it just happens to be a path made of blood-soaked petrodollars signposted with green and white Saudi flags, but the path is obviously there and the Geordie faithful are proving more than willing to walk it. The buzz around every aspect of that club, for those who are willing to hold their noses and try to ignore (if not explain away) the stench of death, seems infectious.

Newcastle United v Sunderland - Premier League Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images

But those in charge of Sunderland AFC thought they could use our collective story to keep us on board, particularly while the crowd-pulling men’s side languishes down in tier three and things start to go wrong. They knew that appeals to the rose-tinted certainties of glories past can motivate the Mackem masses in ways that the promise of an uncertain, and increasingly distant, future cannot.

That’s how we’ve ended up where we are. The unsuccessful seven-week return of Jermaine Defoe (as well as the flirtation with bringing back Roy Keane as manager at the end of January) has been widely interpreted as a public relations-driven as much as a football-driven episode.

Both Defoe and Keane played on our emotions, both appealed to our sense of ourselves as part of a big football club that used to attract big names. It was a yearning for that one last dance - a moment off the pitch when we could make headlines - that “if only” feeling of what could have been - that illogical romance that we know deep down is a folly, but that draws even the most level-headed rationalist amongst us in. It’s the power of that collective story.

However, the negative impact of the pursuit of Keane and the swift departure of Defoe should remind the powers that be at Sunderland AFC that the short-term benefits of placating popular sentiment will almost always melt away when exposed to the hard reality of the juggernaut of competitive professional football.

Cheltenham Town and Doncaster Rovers would not sit back while we took to the field with no Head Coach in charge. Charlton and Lincoln’s defenders would not defer to the inevitable hand of history and allow Defoe to walk past them on his way to fulfilling his destiny.

Sunderland’s women’s team captain Keira Ramshaw said something really important when we spoke with her for the podcast last week. She outlined that her love - pure and simple - of playing for Sunderland AFC means she could never imagine playing for anyone else.

That’s really sentimental. And Ramshaw told us she turned down offers from other clubs in England and abroad when her squad was demoted two divisions in 2018 for non-footballing reasons. Yet her focus immediately turned to doing everything she could to regain our place back in the WSL.

That’s the kind of relentless focus on the future, based on love and loyalty to the shirt and the badge, that the key leaders at our football club should be seeking to emulate across the board at all times. There is no better example than Ramshaw and her colleagues in this respect.

The announcement of the recruitment of a new women’s Under 23 squad for next season to act as a bridge between the Regional Talent Club (RTC) and the senior side shows that at least one section of the club truly seems determined to be relentlessly progressive - the one that, it could be argued, has the most long-term growth potential and the one that is closest to regaining Sunderland status amongst the game’s elite.

Perhaps it's no coincidence that this is the section of the club where the story and the emotion are less entrenched. Perhaps that gives those currently charged with building this section of the football business more freedom. Get it right, and the Lasses could quite feasibly be back in the WSL in the next couple of years.

Kyril Louis-Dreyfus, Juan Sartori, Steve Davison, Kristjaan Speakman - despite their respective CVs and backgrounds - are all new to this game in various ways, they need to learn and learn quickly about what it takes to run a modern football and cultural institution of the size and importance to its community as Sunderland AFC.

The past is something they can study and learn from, but it is not a place that we should look to return to. Our history should inspire us to succeed, not push down on us like an inescapable force of nature.

Football is ultimately an unsentimental business where there will always be winners and losers, but one that is built on the stories, hopes, fears, and ambitions of the people and places who make it.

And it’s a story that never ends. Mel Reay’s side has achieved their goal this season despite all the challenges they’ve faced - the youngest squad in the league, up against full-time teams and those backed by men’s Premier League clubs. Alex Neil’s side still has the potential to achieve theirs too. There’s still everything to play for.


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