When I first started going to Sunderland games all we really knew was that Bob Murray (now Sir) was in charge, and that was that. His reign lasted two decades and, barring a period when John Featherstone stepped up to become chairman to allow Murray to focus on a ground move, everybody knew where they stood.
I have no doubt that behind the scenes there were battles and all the rest of it, and I do recall there being fan unrest at points, but other than a potential return of Tom Cowie (who would also later become a Sir) the issue of club ownership was never really at the forefront of people’s mind.
The world has moved on since then, however, and so too has football. We are now at a point where it feels as if there are new investors interested in Sunderland every summer, whilst during the months in between there is usually some sort of fuss or change rumbling on in the background.
Now, don’t get me wrong, these matters are vitally important, but I do sometimes get a little tired of it all – there are enough business, finance and political matters affecting our day-to-day lives already, and supporting the Lads is supposed to be a break from all that.
Instead of having to get our heads around share ownerships or fretting about who ultimately pulls the strings, I dare say that most of us would rather be putting energy into planning days out to match or idling away a few hours by dreaming about new signings and the like.
You cannot do that though if there is not a club to centre it all around, which is why the talk of interest in the club from The Fans Together (TFT) has prompted the response it has; we might not want to have to think about it, but the situation is real and therefore must be addressed.
Whether we like it or not, ‘crypto currency’ and ‘tokens’ are two terms that are bleeding through into that same daily vocabulary that we use football as an escape from. These are emerging ideas that come with several marks and a dubious track record as far as the common person on the street is concerned - history might show that there is nothing to be worried about, but for the time being the consensus among fans is that were SAFC to miss the boat right now then so be it.
Just when the club looks to be pulling itself around, it would be better to potentially be on the wrong side of the debate for a while than it would jumping in and getting burnt, and Sunderland is too important to too many people for risks to be taken right now.
Fan ownership is another hot topic, and one which prompted strong opinions long before the arrival of TFT. The advantages to this model are a little more obvious and it is something I personally would like to see an element of at the club, but only when it is practical and only when it can be implemented correctly. There seems to be no indication that we are at that point currently, and the fear now is that the term can be bandied about and misused to get people on side and open the door to less palatable ideas.
A lot of the time, when things happen in football there is a depressing sense of helplessness, even when fans can see from the start that something is amiss. It is pleasing then that the reaction to TFT has been loud and clear. The points made above have been repeated several times over, and although it can be hard for supporters on the ground level to step in when big money is supposedly on the table, they can at least make their feelings known. Apathy can be very dangerous, but despite any possible weariness over the seemingly constant ownership machinations the fan base appears united and at present, thanks to results on the pitch, has a revived sense of pride and direction.
Lots of articles, podcasts and social media interactions have been published that clearly show that the proposals apparently being mooted would not be welcome at the Stadium of Light. Whether that will be enough we don’t yet know, but it at least gives TFT, or anybody else that is looking to come on board, a reason to think about what they are trying to do and whether they want to pursue it.
Should these suitors walk away it would be a case of job done, but a deal going through shouldn’t be the end of the matter either. People would no doubt feel conflicted if Sunderland were to become a battleground between ‘team’ Kyril Louis-Dreyfus, which appears to have a progressive yet more traditional plan, and a new unknown faction, but continuing to support the side doesn’t have to also mean blindly accepting groups we were wary of.
Many supporters have invested a lifetime following Sunderland or come from families that have provided generations of loyal backing. You cannot easily switch that off, but you don’t want to feel taken advantage of either or be seen to green light something you feel is fundamentally wrong. I could understand if people felt they had to walk away, but I wouldn’t expect it of them either; my view, rightly or wrongly, is that I support the team, not the regime and I accept it is a fine line, and one which could become very blurry.
Going to games but not buying into all the things foisted onto us is possible, even is some may accuse you of having your cake and eating it. After all, if somebody, of something, unpopular does come in they would not automatically define Sunderland AFC. The likelihood is that we’d still be around a lot longer than them anyway, so there is no need to be complicit in the meantime.
We’ve seen elsewhere that people will hide behind the suggestion that you cannot dictate who owns a football club. If you ignore the contradictory actions from some of those same people like acting yourself in public and signing petitions, there is an element of truth in it, but you don’t necessarily have to lie down and take it. More importantly, you don’t have to then go the other way and wilfully act as an agent of that regime that attempts to legitimise their actions and rounds on those on the receiving end.
We can all point towards clubs where their fans were now wishing they had asked more questions instead of just jumping on the ride. Past statements from joint fan groups, and the well-thought objections made against TFT, show that we have a voice though, and our response should the wrong people turn up needs to be calm and measured, but unequivocal. It doesn’t make you less of a supporter, it just recognises the responsibility we have to our club and to the wider public not to blindly accept everything put in front of us.
Given the political landscape now, and some of things we see at other clubs and in other aspects of life, it is vital that we have our say. We are not puppets, and we are not a test case – I may have had my fill of board room conjecture, but I’ll take it if it means getting the right ownership in the long run. Let’s hope that when it happens, we get this sorted once and for all though, because we then can get back to the fun stuff afterwards…