Sunderland AFC will probably never have the best football team in the country, and given recent developments elsewhere, it is highly unlikely that we will have the best football team in the North East anytime soon.
However, there is no reason why SAFC cannot have the best of everything else.
We all remember the scenes in the 1997 documentary ‘Premier Passions’, which at the time were quite comical, with Sir Bob Murray and John Fickling agonising over boardroom taps and the choice of run-out music.
This was at a time when the team was struggling on the pitch, and yet the top two boardroom figures were fretting over what seemed like trivial matters. Those scenes, however, proved that the core aim of the Stadium of Light project was to make every detail of Sunderland’s new home the best it could possibly be.
The Stadium of Light opened in 1997, and for a time, Murray and Fickling’s vision was realised.
It was just about the best stadium in the country, and the fan experience probably equalled it. Subsequently, this level of attention to detail and insistence on quality was repeated at the Academy of Light, and then at the Beacon of Light.
There is no doubt that Sir Bob had his faults, but if he understood one thing about Sunderland, it was that the club had to try much harder than its rivals if it was to be successful, regardless of whether it was because of local economics or politics, geography or history.
Back in the late 1990s, we did exactly that. For most of us, they were the best of times and the quality of the facilities, and of the club in general, reached a high standard.
Without a doubt, the planning and thought that had gone into every aspect of the club bore fruit.
The stadium was brand new, and the team was brilliant. In addition, the kit was magnificent, the gifts which arrived at season ticket renewal time were a delight; the presence of staff in schools and on the touchline at kids’ games was wonderful, and the players regularly mixed with the fans.
In short, everything was geared towards getting the fans on board.
During the Ellis Short and Madrox years of ownership, many of these details – some small and some not so small- were neglected or ignored. Too often, they were thought of as an unnecessary hassle, and something not worth bothering with.
As fans, we felt bribed by the excess of Short’s dollars, drained by the cuts in the latter years, and the subsequent bonfire of assets in the Madrox era.
Looking back, Short’s ownership was typically American: a model of easy money with regular hirings and firings. There were gimmicky promotions such as StubHub, and tacky food outlets on the concourse. Yes there were thrills along the way, but the soul of the club was being ripped away.
In 2018, Madrox came to do a job, to strip the club bare and they did, but maybe they had to.
Thankfully, the club survived when it might not have done, but we were left with a stadium that was showing its age, an academy bereft of staff and coaches, a lack of community engagement, and a ticket office and retail operation being overseen by a skeleton staff. Each cut dealt another blow.
Bob Murray, on the other hand, was from a different era.
His time was during the pre-internet days, and it was far from perfect, but the principle remains the same. Sunderland need to try harder than many other clubs to be successful, and this means that the small details must not be overlooked.
Now that we are on an upward trajectory once again, the executives must take a long hard look at every aspect of the football club and make those small things the absolute best they can be. History tells us that to achieve here, they have to.
This attitude must run through the club’s DNA.
Why can’t the stadium catering be great? Why should Wigan have better pies than Sunderland? Why can’t the pre-match music be a bit different, rather than resembling a mobile disco? And why can’t we have a fantastic fanzone in which people would want to spend time?
All of this could build on the brilliant work done by groups like The Spirit of ‘37. There is an opportunity to make the stadium experience great again, and it is the small details that make the difference.
As a city, Sunderland isn’t blessed with the numbers of big businesses that other cities can benefit from. That is slowly changing, but the corporate team must continue to make an effort.
Another example is the fact that the suites at the stadium are also quite small for the size of the ground. The facilities and experiences in the first fifteen years of the stadium’s life were magnificent occasions, because an effort was made to look after people, but they are much less so now.
The retail aspect of the club has also been a huge bone of contention for some time.
Yes, the MetroCentre store of the late 1990’s would have been an extravagance then, and is clearly a non-starter now, but to have no retail outlet in Sunderland city centre should be an embarrassment to the football club. There is so much more that a club with our rich history could provide in terms of retail, if some thought and imagination were exercised.
In years gone by, kit launches used to be huge events, and we had some brilliant kits as well. Think of Roy Keane’s comments when the 2006/2007 strip was launched after promotion. He referenced the need for a quality kit – the inference being that the new Umbro kit was vastly superior (it was) to the previous year’s Lonsdale-supplied rubbish. Keane, of course, was a product of Manchester United, where standards were expected. Now that we have escaped League One, that approach and attitude is needed once again.
Individually all of the above may be considered ‘low impact’ but combined, they are precisely what builds the identity of a club.
Sunderland may never have the best football team, but if we try harder than everyone else then maybe, just maybe, we can compete. Perhaps if maximum effort is applied throughout the club, we can have not just the best boardroom taps, but the very best of absolutely everything else.