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Sunderland v Sheffield Wednesday - Sky Bet League One - Play Off - Semi Final - First Leg - Stadium of Light

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Sunderland’s future is bright if there’s leadership and ambition for the whole club!

“Football is changing and Sunderland AFC can play a big part in its future, but only if we - the club and its supporters - show ambitious leadership rather than following the crowd,” writes Rich Speight.

Photo by Richard Sellers/PA Images via Getty Images

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No matter the result on Saturday, next season has the potential to be even better than this one for Sunderland AFC. I think almost all fans can be assured that on the football side of the club at least, things look brighter now than they did 12 months ago.

We have two young and talented squads led by two no-nonsense and ambitious head coaches in Alex Neil and Mel Reay. We have the youth structures in place with promising players at all levels who are starting to win trophies. These are the fundamentals that future success is built upon.

The game at Wembley will, however, have huge a bearing on the future and the issue of the ownership and governance of our club will, quite rightly, be on the agenda again this summer whether or not both senior squads are in Tier 2.

Sheffield Wednesday v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One Play-Off Semi Final 2nd Leg Photo by Mark Fletcher/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Off the field, we’ve seen both Juan Sartori and Margarita Louis-Dreyfus in attendance at the Sunderland men’s games recently, which potentially indicates an increased interest from the multi-billionaire commodities trading dynasties that currently hold a combined 61 percent stake in the club.

The EFL Championship requires more finance but can generate more revenue and is a step closer to the promised land, so there is an opportunity for either a new or existing investor to help take us on our journey to the next level.

Examples such as Coventry and, most notably, Luton, demonstrate that it is entirely possible for well-run, well-coached clubs promoted from League 1 to prosper in tier two of the men’s pyramid without succumbing to the worst excesses of what’s been described as a financial basket case of a division.

What we need is serious people with serious intentions and a commitment to being true custodians and trustworthy partners for fans as we rebuild our whole club together. We also need honesty and clarity about intentions, and while nobody is or should be expecting this to be the priority ahead of the huge game next weekend, unanswered questions about the future still linger in the background.

Promotion will not just make us joyously happy as fans - it will make the club a more valuable asset, and this is what the current minority shareholders will be hoping to cash in upon. But whoever does or does not move to purchase Donald and Methven’s 39 percent of Sunderland AFC, there are huge impending external changes in the way the sport is run that the club and us as supporters need to keep abreast of and participate in.

Sheffield Wednesday v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One Play-Off Semi Final 2nd Leg
Sunderland shareholder Juan Sartori (L) looks over the pitch before the Sky Bet League One Play-Off Semi Final 2nd Leg match between Sheffield Wednesday and Sunderland at Hillsborough on May 9, 2022
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

In the Queen’s Speech this month, the UK Government announced that “proposals will be published to establish an independent regulator of English football”, but there was no mention of accompanying primary legislation in the coming Parliamentary session.

After an inexplicable period of delay, in April the Tories finally responded positively to the recommendations of Tracy Crouch’s Fan Led Review of Football, whose report they chose to publish in November last year. They say that they will publish a White Paper this summer to consider how to implement the long-overdue reforms, and yet no time is in the calendar to turn this into law.

The costs to our game of this procrastination by an administration paralysed by its own ineptitude, corruption, and dishonesty are clear for all to see.

The Report was made public shortly after the Butcher of Yemen was encouraged by Boris Johnson in his successful bid to purchase one football club in order to aid his sports washing enterprises, and its implementation follows in the wake of another club being sanctioned because of its owner's decades-long financial and political association with another suspected war criminal, Vladimir Putin.

There are huge risks when state entities control what Crouch describes as “important cultural assets” that “must never be the playthings of owners”. The Saudi regime is inherently unstable - much like its dictator - but the autocrats and their lackeys stick together.

They know that a dangerous (in their warped moral universe) precedent has been set with the forced sale of Chelsea and that, in the medium term, there is a precarious future for their sponsor petrostates. Sportswashing is not just about international reputation, it's about economic diversification and internal placation of domestic populations. But the world has changed, and MBS is no longer embraced by global political and commercial leaders.

Russia v Saudi Arabia: Group A - 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia Photo by Pool/Getty Images

So many important horses have bolted long before the stable doors have even been ordered, let alone installed and firmly secured. The Premier League has also been given plenty of time to “lawyer up” and hone its PR campaign against the more stringent elements of the Crouch proposals, particularly those dealing with ownership and finances.

As no time has been given for legislation to go through the Westminster Parliament in the coming session, the timetable for achieving the ultimate goal of creating an independent Regulator for English Football (iREF) is still up in the air and it is now highly unlikely we’ll see anything in place until at least 2024 (when a General Election is expected). By that time, who knows what the “Scab 6” Super League clubs and the new pretender up the road will have concocted in order to control or undermine the national game.

Although all of the Crouch recommendations, including the creation of iREF, have been either accepted or supported by the Department of Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS), the proposals are still liable to be watered down through a concerted lobbying effort by the vested interests during the legislative process.

And if and when it is created, the effectiveness or otherwise of iREF is likely to depend on the personnel chosen to lead it. Having the regulator headed by either an “industry insider”, or a political ally of the Tory party and their super-rich friends, will open up the distinct possibility of decisions being taken (or, perhaps more importantly, not taken) that are in the interest of billionaire owners, corporate sponsors, and broadcasters rather than supporters and the clubs they love.

It’s up to us as citizens to ensure that we make this an issue that our politicians care about and keep pushing forward; Sunderland MP Julie Elliot sits on the DCMS Select Committee and, due to the public interest in this matter, she and other Members across the House of Commons have worked to ensure that the Crouch Report is implemented as swiftly as possible - our pressure as individuals and as part of organised groups really does get results.

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

As supporters who care, then, we need to be vigilant and vocal. Too often fan groups can be fobbed off with half-answers to tough questions or lack focus when big, strategic, and long-term issues that require difficult questions to be asked and clear-headed leadership to be shown are concerned.

It's therefore down to us as members to ensure that our Supporters Trust, The Red & White Army, and our other representative bodies like the Branch Liaison Council, are raising the ideas that are at the centre of the Crouch Report regularly with our club and as part of the Football Supporters Association.

The club itself, as a key member of the EFL, should not seek to stand in the way of the proposals or any future legislation. And, as I have written on multiple occasions, Sunderland AFC could show proper leadership and intent by implementing the shadow board and golden share recommendations immediately, there is no good reason to delay these things until they’re forced upon us.

It is unlikely that we will see an account of the Supporter Collective structured dialogue meeting held at the end of April until after the conclusion of the League 1 season, so fans will have to wait and see what, if any, questions were raised and answers were forthcoming on these matters.

The minutes are still with the club, which is pretty busy right now preparing for the trip to Wembley, but supporters in Branches and members of Red & White Army will I’m sure be keeping an eye out for if they get released beforehand.

FBL-ENG-LCUP-ARSENAL-SUNDERLAND Photo by GLYN KIRK/AFP via Getty Images

One thing we do know from the Supporters Collective meeting is that Alex Clark, the SAFC Women’s general manager, presented his strategy for the future of women’s football at the club. He spoke to us last week and outlined that it has five main strands:

  • True financial sustainability and maximising revenue opportunities
  • Local recruitment and promotion of our young players
  • Embracing data and technology
  • Player and coach development
  • Community engagement and supporter experience

This is encouraging and, from the details we have, seems well-thought-out. It is focused on the aspects of the club that need to be improved and developed over the next few years, but again, it needs to be seen through the lens of the wider developments in the governance and financing of the game.

The recommendation in the Crouch Report relating to women’s football is one area that is still outstanding and no firm proposals were made in the Government’s response, but it is one that will be vital for the long-term health and prosperity of our game and our club, given the potential revenue and audience growth.

It is now accepted by the government that the women’s game should be treated “with parity” and given its own separate review that recognises its distinct character and stage of development, and that this review will be kicking off once they can agree on terms of reference, find a suitably qualified chair (Croach has recused herself), and create a panel.

Chelsea Women v Manchester United Women - Barclays FA Women’s Super League
FWA Player of the Year, Sam Kerr, of Chelsea FC Women, chills on the pitch at their dedicated home ground of Kingsmeadow after her team won the WSL last Sunday
Photo by Naomi Baker - The FA/The FA via Getty Images

What might be included in that review, or what might its eventual recommendations seek to achieve? Tom Garry from the Daily Telegraph gave it a stab the other week, and came up with eight areas where reform would be welcome:

Expand the Leagues, particularly our division - the FA Women’s Championship. There’s currently a bottleneck for promotion and there’s an overall lack of fixtures in the calendar.

Equalise access to football in schools and at the grassroots, Garry is right that there’s no good reason why every girl in the country should not be given the opportunity to play football at school.

Stop 11.30 am kick-offs as they clash with grassroots games that many of the supporters either play in or help to organise.

Increase access to modern stadiums - we’ve seen massive attendances at some women’s games recently, but the location and facilities on offer at many clubs including our own leave a lot to be desired and do not help with increasing the audience or coverage (the lack of telephony infrastructure is an important but oft-overlooked restriction on the media).

Address the disparity in prize money - both in the FA Cup and in the leagues. FA Cup money is being increased but not to the extent it could be, but there is no prize money in the FA Women’s Championship so it ultimately doesn't matter if you finish second or eleventh and the Conti Cup pot goes nowhere near covering expenses.

WSL referees should be full-time professionals... this one goes without saying, the standard of referring is notoriously poor, but they need to be given more support to get better.

Keep players safe by ensuring medical equality - Garry quotes Julian Knight, the chair of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport select committee, as claiming that women’s players were being “treated as second-class citizens”, with only one doctor required at WSL games and four in the men’s Premier League. Also, there’s currently what Garry described as an “epidemic of ALC injuries” that needs to be understood and dealt with as it has the potential to ruin many young women’s careers before they’ve even got going.

Introduce wage limits to ensure that the increase in TV and sponsorship money in the game doesn’t simply go into the pockets of a few dozen individual footballers at the top clubs.

What does a plan like this mean for a club like Sunderland? Our players have access to world-class medical and training facilities already, but money is still tight while the men are outside the Premier League and that won’t change in the short to medium term even with a significant increase in TV revenue and sponsorship from Barclays coming into Tier 2 next season.

I’m generally more in favour of squad size caps and/or squad budget caps linked to revenue and allowing for owner investment than individual or squad salary caps, especially while women’s pay lags so far behind men's in football. The legality of salary caps is also highly questionable, as we have seen when it was tried in the EFL.

A squad size cap would also aid competitiveness by the spreading of quality players throughout the clubs and leagues, and also ensure that the harvesting of talent by the “Big 6” men’s clubs cannot be replicated in the women’s structures. An overriding concern amongst Sunderland fans is that yet another crop of youngsters developed by our club will have to eventually move to Manchester, Liverpool or London to pursue their WSL and England ambitions.

Sunderland v Sheffield United: FA Women’s Championship
Neve Herron of Sunderland and England U19s is the kind of talent that might be overlooked if she were sat on the bench for a WSL side.
Photo by Will Matthews/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The kick-off time issue goes beyond the specifics of 11.30 am, and there’s still much debate about what day, time, or even time of year women’s football should be played in order to maximise attendance and TV viewers. Durham WFC play at 12 noon on a Sunday as standard but runs grassroots games at their ground beforehand, which actually helps to boost attendances and grow their support.

It always seems to me that what will suit some will be detrimental to others, and ultimately if people really want to attend games they will find a way. But if they can’t, the clubs and the leagues should do all they can to ensure radio commentary, online streaming, and highlights packages are readily available - which will mean better facilities.

This brings us to the stadium issue, which for us is an interesting one. Playing more games at the men’s ground is often seen as the solution, but the issue of impact on the pitch is, I think, a huge barrier to teams like Sunderland playing regularly at the Stadium of Light.

But then there’s also the fact that relatively empty stadiums are not great for the atmosphere. The Lasses love having Eppleton, which we lease from a Trust, as their own home, and yet we know for certain that the location of SAFC Women’s games on the outskirts of Sunderland impacts attendance significantly, as does the relatively rudimentary fan experience on offer, and public transport is limited on Sundays too.

Sunderland v Sheffield United: FA Women’s Championship
Our Graeme taking up his usual position for a good view of the Sunderland Lasses’ game at Eppleton CW
Photo by Will Matthews/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

If our club’s strategy envisages Sunderland Women competing for a place in a newly expanded WSL in three years’ time as Clark suggested, then we will need a new home in order to meet license requirements and attendance targets that currently stand at 6,000 on average. It’s something he is aware that we need to keep under review.

In the long run, perhaps over the next three years as the men’s team (hopefully) makes progress towards a return to the Premier League, I think it would be sensible for Sunderland AFC to work with Sunderland City Council, and other sports clubs to create a new small but ultra-modern venue fit for the rest of this century in the heart of the city.

I think there’s potential at a site at our “spiritual home” of Hendon, be close to large numbers of people and an area in desperate need of a boost to both its economy and its health; over 50 percent of children in that area live in poverty. It could also better meet the community engagement, supporter experience, technology, and financial sustainability elements of the club’s strategy.

Hendon has abundant brownfield land, it has our club’s history all around, and it has great transport links with the new coastal route into the city centre. Schemes such as the creation of a multi-purpose 8,000 capacity community stadium in Workington might provide a model for the clubs, the local authority, and local charities to build upon, and funding is available for such initiatives if they can be proven to boost the welfare and wealth of local communities and be financially sustainable.

Better, more modern facilities, right in the heart of our city will bring bigger crowds and more commercial opportunities. If financial sustainability is what’s required for women’s football to be maintained in Sunderland once and for all, then thinking big and being bold - in the same way that Bob Murray did when he built the Stadium of Light - surely has to be the approach we take.

Our Women’s Championship rivals Sheffield United did have similar plans for a new £5m ground before their ownership changed, they now play 40 minutes away from the city in Chesterfield in front of minimal crowds, but got over 4,000 when they played at Bramall Lane this season.

Artists impression of the Sheffield United women’s stadium proposed in 2018

But I would add into the mixture two further elements that need to be at the heart of the review of women’s football: firstly, that there needs to be a clear guarantee that promotion, relegation, and expansion be achieved on footballing merit unless otherwise absolutely necessary (i.e. a club goes bust completely) and, secondly, that the women's game is regulated within iREF on the same statutory basis.

For the guarantee of promotion on footballing merit to work, some sort of means-tested “Licence Requirement Fund” would have to be established. This central pot of money, controlled by iREF, would give smaller, independent outfits the ability to meet the FA’s stipulations for grounds and player contracts as they move up the tiers by winning promotion on the pitch. Over time, as teams go up and down, this would help to develop stadium facilities and professionalism across the pyramid and in different regions of the country.

Sunderland’s women have suffered from unfair penalties on multiple occasions, summarily demoted in from Tier 1 in both 2010 and 2018, denied promotion to Tier 1 in the early 2010s due to a lack of commitment from the club, and General Manager Clark told us that sustainability now isn’t just about the financial side - it’s also about maintaining our place in the league, and that is at the heart of the club’s new strategy

Sunderland has always been the leading women’s football club in our region, and I hope the owners and directors of our club have the resolve and foresight to keep it that way. Our club’s history shows that others have had more ambition, more drive, and have directed more investment the way of their women’s sides, meaning we’ve either been overlooked or overtaken in the various reorganisations of the pyramid over the last two decades.

Having women’s football regulated on an equal basis with men’s football by the same organisation with the same or similar legislative framework will mean that the two sides of the sport can develop and learn from one another.

The WSL may well fall into the hands of the Premier League and be rebranded and reorganised accordingly, with the same clubs ultimately controlling both leagues. Women’s football simply cannot be left without protection from the forces of global capital and geopolitics, even more wide open to the influence of sports washing and corporate capture.

In general, the Sunderland AFC should therefore do what it can to support the women’s review as wholeheartedly as possible - perhaps by hosting the panel and evidence-gathering sessions at the Stadium of Light or Academy.

We are, after all, the most successful and historic women’s side in our region. The club has much to gain from better financing of women’s football, more and better coverage, and expanded divisions with more fixtures.

All of this and more is on offer if we get the structures governing the game right at this stage and head off the emerging replication of problems that dog the men’s game - particularly the ownership of clubs by state entities and the large financial disparities - the steep cliff edges and huge income boosts - that exists between the leagues.

It’s an exciting time to be a Sunderland fan who follows both the Lads and the Lasses both on and off the pitch. The resources available to develop both parts of the club will depend upon what happens with the men’s side at Wembley against Wycombe Wanderers.

That’s clearly what “sustainable” is taken to mean by those in positions of power at the Academy of Light. There is certainly a well-thought-out strategy, but fitting that in with the wider developments in the game will be important too. For that, fans and the club need to work together in the interests of football overall.

Football is changing and Sunderland AFC can play a big part in its future, but only if we - the club and its supporters - show ambitious leadership rather than following the crowd.

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