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Roker Roundtable: How could Sunderland make their fans feel more connected to the club?

Once known as ‘The Caring Club’, Sunderland could do so much more to show their appreciation for the loyal support they receive. We asked our panel what they would like to see

Photo by Michael Driver/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Gav says...

To be honest, I’m not really bothered about gifts or anything like that - I just want a decent standard of customer service, to get my away tickets in decent time, and to get a decent pint at half time - but I’m easily pleased.

Where I think it’s important that the club make some extra effort is with the young fans.

There’s a genuine alternative up the road and sadly, it’s likely they’ll taste success over the coming years - so whilst supporting the barcodes may become a very simple choice for some, Sunderland need to make sure that we are better than them in every single way off the pitch to ensure we create a new generation of supporters.

When I was a kid I was part of the 24/7 club and I absolutely loved it - it was a great way to keep me connected and engaged, and I used to love the magazines, posters, hats and stuff that came as part of being in the club.

I’m going way back now, but I used to love going to the Charlie Hurley centre with my dad to watch the players train - I know it’s not that easy anymore, but open training sessions during school holidays at the SOL should become the norm, as should family fun days and signing sessions at the club shop.

Where are the stadium tours too? We received an email from a disgruntled supporter this week who has been asking the club for ages about stadium tours but isn’t getting anywhere. All his seven year old son wants for his birthday is to go on a stadium tour, and the fact we don’t do them but just about every other club does really grates on me.

There are so many cost-effective things the club could be doing that also engage our youngest supporters, and why they don’t do more is beyond me.

Sunderland v Sheffield Wednesday - Sky Bet League One Play-Off Semi Final 1st Leg Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

Andrew Parrington says…

The sad reality is that the club feels hollowed out at the minute.

I was ready to put that on the chaotic Madrox ownership, but there have only been anaemic signs of improvement since their influence was reduced.

We should rightly expect the club shop to be open regularly. We should expect a ticket office that responds to issues as they arise, and we should expect major problems of safety in the stadium to be dealt with before they come to a head.

The club should start taking these things seriously. Indeed, Stewart Donald said that these issues would only become a problem for fans when results on the pitch were bad, but we are coming off the back of an eighteen-match unbeaten run, a run that included a promotion, and even then, the problems are too big to ignore.

So please, bring back the little things that made you feel valued by the club, but first and foremost, let the focus be on Sunderland operating like a club of its size should.

Sunderland v Queens Park Rangers - Sky Bet Championship

Phil West says…

When I was growing up, Sunderland was the kind of club where the fans were treated as an integral part of the organisation. Everyone from the boardroom down to the dugout understood, respected, and harnessed the power of the supporters and always tried to make sure that they felt as though their voice was being heard and that their emotional investment in the club was never, ever taken for granted.

Now, I feel that the opposite is true, and it pains me to say it.

Our recent fan letters have been a constant tale of woe: lifelong supporters made to feel unwanted, and their concerns simply not listened to. I do not believe that Kyril Louis-Dreyfus has anything other than good intentions, but at the same time, he is putting his trust in people who are not up to the job, and the consequences are plain to see.

In terms of fan engagement, the club missed a trick over the summer, and they missed it to a criminal degree.

The hard work should’ve started on the Monday morning after the playoff final, with a relentless and focused marketing campaign to ensure that everyone was fully plugged into what was happening, and to also lure disaffected fans back into the fold. Did the club believe that promotion was a magic bullet? Did they simply believe that all of the issues would be magically solved?

In terms of practical measures to reconnect the fans to the club, you can take your pick from open training sessions at the stadium, a far higher standard of service at the ticket office and the club shop, appearances by players at the shop to autograph merchandise, and even the possible resurrection of the immensely popular ‘SAFC 24/7’ fan club, of which kids of all ages used to be members. All of these measures are perfectly possible, and wouldn’t cost the earth, either.

Sunderland fans are not commodities.

We love our club and we don’t ask for much: just respect and acknowledgement of our dedication and maybe one or two little perks here and there to sweeten the deal. It would require investment, but the benefits could be huge.

Sunderland v Wycombe Wanderers - Sky Bet League One Play-Off Final Photo by Marc Atkins/Getty Images

Andrew Smithson says…

As a collector, I used to love the little extras the club would organise from time to time, and I feel that something similar now would be a very easy way to keep people on side.

A small item like a pen or a keyring would be a nice reminder that their support is appreciated and would perhaps generate a bit of goodwill. As for the ‘SAFC 24/7’ group, my kids enjoyed the regular magazines, and it was a good way to get them interested in the club (and also encouraged them to do a bit more reading).

I did think that the benefits attached to the 2022/2023 season cards were a very practical way of fostering a better relationship, but many of them have simply highlighted the issues fans have been experiencing lately.

Gifts and fan clubs would be nice in a perfect world, but first of all, the supporters need to see Sunderland getting the basics right.

Club shop discounts are not much use if they cannot be applied online whilst opening hours are restricted, and because the concourse tills have not been updated, none of the food offers are available yet. We’ve heard plenty of horror stories about missing or double booked season cards too, and speaking from my own experience, I’ve had more problems with away ticket deliveries in the last year than I have in the last twenty five combined.

I appreciate that the staff are trying to do the best they can, but it feels as if they are being forced to work with one hand tied behind their back. The club has made some real strides of late, but until the background infrastructure is brought up to standard, there is a limit as to how much progress can be made.

The new measures to tackle issues in the Roker End suggest that the club is trying to listen to concerns and act on them, but it does feel a little late. I cannot comment on the North Stand in particular as I sit at the other end of the ground, but the problems being addressed have been apparent for some time.

The longer things are allowed to drift, the harder they become to repair.

If people start to feel unwanted, or are unable to interact with the club, a complimentary trinket of some sort will do little to bring them back. If people feel part of Sunderland, and dealing with them isn’t problematic, a little nod from time to time would certainly go a long way.

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