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Sunderland v Sheffield Wednesday - Sky Bet League One Play-Off Semi Final 1st Leg

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Promotion on its own will not build bridges with supporters - Sunderland must think creatively

“Championship football opens up a raft of possibilities, both on and off the pitch. As such, the club should be banging the drum and reaching out to fans,” writes Phil West.

Photo by Robbie Jay Barratt - AMA/Getty Images

At the time of writing, season ticket sales for 2022/2023 were looking strong, and unsurprisingly so, as we prepare for the return of Championship football to Wearside for the first time since 2017/2018.

The total sold thus far is firmly established in the mid-20,000s, and it seems certain that home league games next season will be played amid superb atmospheres and with everyone backing the Lads from beginning to end.

However, I do believe that there is more that could be done in order to actively reach out to fans, to rebuild connections that might have been severed during our League One exile, and make them feel as though they are genuinely part of something exciting.

Sunderland v Wycombe Wanderers - Sky Bet League One - Play Off - Final - Wembley Stadium Photo by Steven Paston/PA Images via Getty Images

Achieving promotion was hugely significant and has rightly been celebrated, but is the club still banking on the lingering afterglow in order to sell season tickets?

It does feel as though there is something of an open goal at the moment, and an effort to build anticipation for next season, and let the world know that Sunderland AFC is truly back would be very welcome, in my view.

Of the many things we learned during four challenging years in the third tier, one was that the fans will always respond favourably to positive communication from the club. After all, in this day and age, the scope to get creative with marketing, whether on the internet or out in the wider community, is vast.

Before the playoff campaign, the slogan that went into circulation was ‘‘Til The End’, which felt like a perfect fit.

It was a simple but extremely effective rallying cry, and it seemed to galvanise everyone as we prepared for the final challenge of the season. Since 2018, the club’s social media content has been hit and miss, but that was a winner.

Sunderland v Sheffield Wednesday - Sky Bet League One Play-Off Semi Final 1st Leg Photo by Robbie Jay Barratt - AMA/Getty Images

Taking a broader perspective, there have been a couple of instances that stand out in my mind regarding communication from those in the boardroom.

I remember an interview that Sir Bob Murray gave at the end of the record-breaking 1998/1999 season, for instance, after we’d obliterated all comers en-route to the Division One title and were preparing to welcome the big boys of English football to the Stadium of Light.

Despite his transparent love for the club of which he was the custodian, Murray was never the most charismatic chairman, and when Jeff Brown, then of Tyne Tees Television, asked him if he would like to send a message to the fans, Murray’s reply was very considered.

“It’s difficult, it’s testing, but let’s just keep together for that one season, and battle together,” he replied.

His words had a distinctly earnest tone to them, as if he was unwilling to run the risk of shattering the dreams of supporters further down the track. Ultimately, he had little to worry about- under Peter Reid, we finished seventh, having taken to the top flight with ease.

Seven years later, Niall Quinn embarked upon a dedicated mission to reach out to supporters following the debacle of 2005/06, as he returned to Wearside as chairman.

He attended meetings, he listened, and he lifted everyone with his mere presence. Granted, the recruitment of Roy Keane as manager also helped, but in Alex Neil, we have an equally inspirational manager who breathed new life into the club within five months of his arrival.

Combine Neil’s influence with some shrewd work in the transfer market and the PR department, and the results could be special.

Soccer - Stadium of Light - Sunderland press conference Photo by Tom Buist - PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images

I am not calling for Kristjaan Speakman or Kyril Louis-Dreyfus to make bold, theatrical statements about our chances for next season (been there, done that, thank you) but the fact is that we could be on the verge of something special, if the right steps are taken.

Even a cursory glance at the Championship in recent seasons has demonstrated the value of ensuring that fans are never taken for granted.

Indeed, one of Alex Neil’s former teams- Preston- have embarked on a campaign to lure supporters back to their stadium, with leaflet drops and community engagement. As a result of this, their season ticket sales are booming.

Sunderland AFC should be the heartbeat of the local community, and even simple ideas like longer opening hours for the ticket office and club shop, and exploring the possibility of re-opening outlets in the city centre would be one place to start.

In recent years, we’ve also flirted with fanzones and the like, but second-tier football should provide the platform to make permanent changes, rather than short-term fixes.

This is merely intended as an observation, but I cannot shake the feeling that there is still something of a void at boardroom level, despite the many positive steps that have been taken over the past eighteen months.

We do seem to be missing a ‘link-man’- a savvy, smart operator who can build bridges in the community and surrounding areas, can bang the drum on behalf of the hierarchy, and tap into the raft of possibilities that promotion could present.

Speakman and Stuart Harvey have done some sterling work in the transfer market, but with Dreyfus keeping a reasonably low profile, who exactly is the ‘face’ of the football club at this moment in time?

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

Quinn was unique in the sense that he was a true football man with an aptitude for business, as well as enjoying iconic status on Wearside, and there is no doubt that he used those strengths to full effect. What would we give for such a figure now?

The potential of Sunderland AFC is something to embrace, not to be afraid of, and harnessed properly, there is no reason why we cannot dream of what might be. Perhaps there is a behind-the-scenes campaign already underway that we don’t know about yet, but time is certainly of the essence.

After the turmoil of recent years, fan engagement is now more important than ever.

Ambiguous messaging and evasive answers have been a lingering concern since 2018, and this summer is a fabulous chance to put that behind us and begin to move into a new era, one that brings success on the pitch, and a new level of professionalism and intelligent self-promotion off it.

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