Growing up in the hotbed of English football, where following your club is everything, fans wear their hearts on their sleeves (night and day), it’s hard to imagine another way of supporting your football club.
However, until this last 12 months, supporting Sunderland Football Club over the past 5 plus years was not an enjoyable experience – far from it. We’ve had our moments which have been few and far between, certainly since Allardyce left for the England job. Our wilderness years of perpetuating failures, false dawns, saviours turning out to be charlatans and the fans suffered while the footballing world appeared to evolve without us.
Fans of the North East’s big clubs more that most understand that football wasn’t invented in 1992 with the birth of the Premier League and Sky Sports. While the 90s saw some exciting times for the big three – even arguably some form of rebirth for each of them in one sense or another. But ever since, large crowds have been constant, especially in Tyne and Wear. But despite that dedication, it hasn’t brought the clubs any real success.
Instead, there have been many ups and downs in fortunes. As with many clubs across the country, but since my move a few years ago to the North West I see a very real contrast in the way fans support is different. Some may say the sport has evolved, particularly with new money at clubs like Manchester City but is that for the better?
What does it mean to a modern football fan outside the northeast… buy the overpriced shirt, catch a glimpse of your side once in a blue moon, maybe get a ticket for a home game once in a while, scramble to take a selfie (or as some still call it, a photo) of star player for their socials and claim the bragging rights? But how interested or dedicated most of those fans are, is questionable.
Is there really the same collective bond or connection to their team for fans from the Midlands or Northwest with so many clubs, often two or more per city to choose from?
I feel that is unlikely, from some of the many conversations I’ve had or observations I’ve made, clubs where the big money is have sucked the heart and soul out so many areas around.
As Sunderland have seen, the best academy prospects are snapped up by the North West’s big boys. They seem to attract the majority of young impressionable fans too, and it is no surprise to me when both Bury and Bolton, both of the Greater Manchester area, were almost wiped out. Bolton survived, Bury were not so lucky.
But I fear it was no coincidence when a club with new money like Manchester City have power to do anything, swallowing the best and brightest talent on their doorstep and leaving crumbs for those without the financial clout. It is no wonder they have been so successful, even some may say, virtually buying titles (a conversation for another day perhaps).
They sure have a world audience, but that is one of my points. The ‘fans’ in the clubs catchment area virtually support their club as though they were on a different continent. Filling grounds with real fans, is no longer a priority. Which is why it is said so often that Manchester City, despite their successes can’t always fill a stadium less than 5000 more than ours.
We sometimes forget just how unique the northeast landscape is where football is concerned. I once said that Sunderland had much more potential than most clubs due to the huge fanbase alone. That when we finally got the mix right, we would see success.
Indeed, Martin O’Neill summed it recently when he said we’d one day play Champions League football. It’s that potential, that dedicated fanbase that attached our current owner. Our fanbase is something some big clubs can’t buy, which Louis-Dreyfus is fully aware of. His time, leadership and model are working wonders in a fertile environment.
As Sunderland’s season continues an upward trajectory, with the Stadium of Light filling with a strong optimism and togetherness last felt in the days when Reidy’s Kings were at their best cutting teams apart.
Those were the days, the stadium a fortress, turning up confident and feeling almost invincible. The crowd consisted of the same faces every week, there was a solidarity and in those tricky matches the crowd was the twelfth man. Finally, now there is similar positivity in the air and a buzz in the crowd.
I’ve previously remarked over the past few seasons just how many sides would come to the Stadium with the same gameplan, frustrate the crowd long enough and their negativity would inevitably rub off on the players. But just like the side, the fans are growing in confidence and patience are demonstrated against Reading. That is what the club needs for any sustained period of success with Kyril’s kids. I can only imagine teams coming off the field well-beaten by a team with an average age of 22, shaking their heads and muttering ‘but they’re only bloody kids.’
Sunderland aren’t so much playing catchup, but feel they are ahead of the curve, at last. If anyone doesn’t want to buy into the project as they lack the vision, they are free to get off the Sunderland’s magical mystery tour bus.
Meanwhile, deep down in the dark Potteries:
A year since Alex Neil’s appointment as Sunderland manager, however short-lived, must be questioning his own wisdom six months on from his inexplicable decision to leave the Black Cats for Potters. Comparing his six-months on Wearside to his spell down in the Potteries is chalk and cheese.
Especially, when only weeks ago, Nick Hancock who famously supports Stoke City said of his experience as a fan on Twitter: ”53 years of going to watch Stoke. I have been ecstatic, depressed, angry, shocked, sad, elated, amused, entertained, bored ****less, thrilled, heartbroken, cold, p***ed , sober, confused, furious and proud. Never though, until now, completely unengaged.”
So, for someone that wanted out, Alex Neil, it is hard to imagine picking a club in a worse position as his long-term project. But we are quite happy, six-months on since he slammed the door behind him.
Ha’ Way the lads!