Over recent seasons the Spirit of 37 displays have been a real highlight of the matchday experience. How do you reflect back on the stuff that the volunteers have managed to achieve so far?
The volunteers have been amazing. We have a core group who are in almost every week, before and after the match. We know that some have changed their match day routines to help us so we are hugely appreciative. Then of course there’s the tens and sometimes even hundreds who turned up to help put out cards and collect in cards!
We mean it when we say it physically wouldn’t be possible without them.
There have been a few bumps in the road, though - how challenging is it when working with the club on getting things done?
It is very challenging. Coming in a couple of hours early and putting some flags out in the stand is easy enough, and the club seems happy to let us do that.
The display against Sheff Wed in the League One playoffs was simple enough, however as time has gone on it has got harder and harder. A few examples…
We have to clean up after every display. As you can imagine people are less inclined to pick up scrunched-up cards from the floor, which is fair enough, so it’s left to volunteers armed with a few bin bags to collect them all in. When the club offered to incentivise this by giving signed prints to people for coming in on the day after our opening day fixture v Coventry City, there was no shortage of volunteers. However, when we get accused of being liars as they’ve not received their print six months later, it creates extra stress.
Ahead of the Remembrance Day fixture versus Cardiff City, our entry time was changed from 8am till 10am the day before. Whilst this may not seem a big deal, we had 6000 cards to put out before the turnstiles opened at 1330, so that two hours is important.
Ahead of the Boro game, the club told us we couldn’t use cards six days before the match, despite us already releasing plans to the supporters. The club promised they’d release a statement saying it was their decision to stop fans' money being used for what we said it would. We waited and waited, until we were told the club wouldn’t release a statement. Why? Who knows. You’d have to ask them. The club knew we were doing one against Boro before the season started.
We were promised a standard procedure for submitting display applications. A form to fill in, timelines we had to stick to, timelines the club had to stick to and so on. The form never came for months, when it did it was a two minute Excel job. We submitted it nonetheless. The plan was to do red and white stripes with flags in the lower tier. Silence, nothing from the club for over a week. When they did reply, it was a no. The reason - in case the flags got thrown on the pitch. In five years of putting flags out, not a single one has been thrown on the pitch. Bottles, vapes, coins and god knows what else from the away fans? The club do nothing. Some bits of card? BAN THEM IMMEDIATELY.
We have regularly asked for storage and we always get told “we’ll get something done”. Currently, our storage is three cages and a couple of wheelie bins, which get mistaken for actual rubbish bins and we have to sift through the empty pop bottles every week. We sent the club ideas that would work for us, rooms in the concourse, lockable bins, etc. Their response was - “do you have the funds for these?”
I could go on and on, but I suspect you’re starting to get the picture. Everything is a problem, certain individuals do their best to create problems and shoot down solutions.
It seems like there is an element of the staff on the non-playing side who absolutely hate fans having a good time.
Where do things stand at the moment then - is there anything planned for the opening games of the season?
Nothing above and beyond the usual flags that go out for normal matches.
It’s such a shame, with cards we can be hugely creative and artistic. Cards were our “USP” so to speak, and the club banned them. How very Sunderland. Even the stripes of flags in the lower tier would’ve made a massive impact. Their solution was to have the stripes from Row 7 to Row 15. I don’t have to tell you how silly that would’ve looked.
What more could be done by the club to help get things done?
It's not so much that we want them to do more, we just want them to get out of our way.
We raise our own funds to pay for displays, we recruit our own volunteers, we do the designing, ordering, setting up, and clearing up. When the club banned cards, there was absolutely zero effort to take an educational line first. Explain to fans why they can’t throw them on the pitch. We saw with the Diallo chant it only takes a couple of games for the message to get through.
We do not buy that banning cards is a safety issue. No one will convince us that pieces of card are more dangerous than pop bottles thrown from a height.
How do you see things panning out in the future - can we expect to see bigger and better displays, or will the roadblocks put paid to what you’re trying to do?
We have amazing volunteers who give up so much of their time and get nothing in return from the club. But they do it because they love Sunderland. Now they’re seeing how the club can be with these things and they see the effort we put in and it changes their view.
We’ve lost fundraising because the club cancel, or mess things up, then don’t acknowledge that to the fans and we get the blame.
The flag stock is there and at the moment we’ll put that out as much as possible, but it becomes draining when you’re just presented with problem after problem.
Many clubs in the UK - including Newcastle - seem able to do big crowd displays… what’s different at Sunderland?
A couple of things. Firstly, the attitude of the club. Crystal Palace had a 3D tifo where they had pulleys on the roof. It was funded by the fans group, but the club have to have a can-do attitude towards these things. This conversation wouldn’t even get off the ground with SAFC. In a conversation with a member of staff, they said the easiest thing for them would be to have Middlesbrough matches played behind closed doors, but they can’t so it’ll always be Sunday 12:00. (Our home fixture vs. them was requested by Sky to be Friday at 20:00). A north east “derby” any time other than noon Sunday? No chance.
Norwich have flags that are stored in a non publicly accessible area to keep them safe. Ours live at the back of the stand.
The second thing is financially. We don’t want the club to fund the displays, we take great pride in only using fans’ (including us) money. Newcastle have the owners' full support. They’ve raffled boxes to raise funds, but importantly they’ve not pulled the rug from under them at the last minute, which all helps them gain further fundraising from the supporters.
This is literally the opposite of SAFC.
We spent days making stencils out of cardboard to cut the letters out for our banners. They disappeared between games.
How can people reading this help and get involved in the future?
If people want to get involved, just message us on social media. We have Facebook, Instagram, Twitter (or X, as it’s now called) and we’re on RTG as “The Spirit of 37”.
If people want to donate, it’s via our website - www.thespiritof37.com.
Lots of people have set up a £2 monthly donation. This lets us keep on top of maintenance of the flags, keep stock topped up, and also save up. We have a new batch of scarves coming out soon, so buying one of them helps us too!