Next season’s fixtures are out and Sunderland’s Chief Operating Officer Steve Davison has told us that season card sales are strong, so it seems that we can start looking forward to some decent crowds in the coming months.
A lot is made of our attendances and for many years, they’ve been one of the few positives about the club. However, even by those standards, 2022/2023 was impressive.
Boasting the highest average attendance in the Championship by far at just under 40,000, the numbers compared very favourably with several Premier League and top flight European clubs, and saw Sunderland record our fourth highest league aggregate ever – not bad considering this is now our longest spell outside of the elite.
Relatively good gates at the Stadium of Light are almost taken as a given, and are in part down to deeply ingrained social and cultural behaviours. In addition, it’s probably fair to say that the figures have been boosted in the aftermath of COVID-19 by the general tendency of folk to make the most of outdoor events.
If we dig a little deeper, though, and look at some of the other factors, I think it makes the statistics above even more notable.
The action on the pitch will always be the main influence and of course we’ve been treated to some hugely enjoyable football. It’s easy to forget that results on Wearside weren’t always what we hoped for last season, and that our home form was one of the weakest of the teams in the playoff race.
There were times when we looked well off the promotion pace, and yet people were still filing through the turnstiles.
It feels like there’s a close affinity with the squad and the staff, and it seems to be one of the things that’s kept the fans engaged.
The players look and perform as if they want to be here, whilst Tony Mowbray himself appears to fit the mould for what we like to see in a ‘manager’ perfectly.
Without doubt, he’s certainly produced football-wise, but in this context, I’m referring to him more as a man. He comes across as a down-to-earth kind of bloke and as having the type of values supporters can appreciate.
There were a few light-hearted comments about the gilet he would often wear on the touchline during games but the story is that this was a Christmas gift from one of his children.
Earlier in the summer, a clip emerged of the gaffer having a walk along the coast with his family, possibly at Redcar, and whilst these things may be nothing out of the ordinary, that’s entirely the point.
Mowbray isn’t some aloof figure living a high roller’s life that many of us cannot comprehend; he’s a family man who gets the culture and with whom we can identify.
When there was talk of the club looking to see what other options were out there for the head coach’s role, I could fully understand their position.
This was in no way a slight on Mowbray or the job he’s done so far, and I do think one advantage he’ll always have over most other candidates is this sense of being.
Being based close to the club has allowed him to enjoy a balance. He obviously works very hard and puts a lot of thought into what he does, but he’s not spending daft hours at the training ground each day and is therefore able to be present for his kids.
That allows a greater balance for him personally, but it also encourages a better atmosphere within the club and from our point of view, it resonates.
The fanbase covers many age groups and personalities but there’s certainly an overriding sense of family and community within Sunderland’s support. Most of us are there through some sort of link to a relative or loved one, and having a coach in which you can see yourself or somebody close to you carries a bit of weight.
Another trait is that we’re not often keen on anybody that’s ‘up themselves’ or not putting the graft in, so watching a team that’s made up of humble young lads and established pros that don’t take their position for granted is refreshing indeed.
The side wants to do well for themselves, but they want to do the same for the badge, and we can all get on board with that.
It’s not even as if going to the match has been easy.
Sadly, finances remain a major headache for many whilst physically getting to the Stadium of Light is made harder due to instances such as fixtures being rescheduled.
As well as television schedules, the winter World Cup threw things out of sync and due to the death of The Queen, there was a long spell without a traditional home 3:00pm kick off on a Saturday.
Boxing Day and Middlesbrough, two of the traditional crowd-pullers, were inconveniently early and to make matters worse, some games were affected by Metro strikes or shockingly bad weather. There was even the rare occurrence of an appearance of council telly for the Fulham cup tie, and yet healthy numbers were still clocked.
It’s not as if the attendances are boosted all that often by large travelling contingents either, whilst the actions of some of those away supporters has been an ongoing bone of contention.
Safety concerns and anti-social behaviour in other parts of the ground are still to be addressed satisfactorily, and some areas continue to require maintenance.
The stadium has been open for a long time now and for some, it’s lost its mystique. When the club first moved, the new facilities alone added thousands to the gate, but as we wait for those improvements, people keep coming in the meantime.
The trend on the road is similar.
Despite being somewhat out on a limb geographically, we take over everywhere we go, with the Lads consistently being greeted by packed out away ends as Sunderland topped the visitor charts as well.
The coming campaign will be tough in terms of miles. Relatively close clubs with decent allocations such as Blackpool, Burnley, Sheffield United and Wigan Athletic have all been lost, to be replaced by treks to places as far flung as Ipswich Town, Plymouth Argyle and Southampton.
It’s a set of circumstances we could’ve done without, but it’s unlikely to change the overall data.
Big crowds haven’t always translated into big performances, but in general there was a mood of encouragement towards the Lads during 2022/2023.
In the main, fans are onside with the direction of the squad and will hopefully continue that way.
Strong ticket sales and a strong run in towards the end of last season will raise expectations, but with some intriguing new additions already joining our particularly popular group, don’t be surprised to still see a few ‘sold out’ signs along the way.