Recent events surrounding the FA Cup derby against our nearest and dearest have become a polarising experience for many of our fans.
The size of the allocation of tickets to our opponents, the ‘moving’ of season ticket holders from their seats in the North Stand, and the redecoration of the Black Cats Bar have all served to create a toxic atmosphere, particularly in the wake of the appointment of a coach that has been widely criticised.
It has provided an opportunity for all and sundry to take to social media to express their displeasure and frustration with how our beloved club is being run. Bizarrely, the ticketing allocation resulted in calls from some for Kristjaan Speakman to be sacked. Now, I know there are choices about player acquisition and disposal that some would take issue with, but I don’t imagine that he was a particular influence on how the rules of the competition were interpreted when it came to deciding how many black and white shirts would be allowed through the turnstiles.
As fans in the Donald era, we all saw how some of the club’s most promising assets were simply allowed to walk away or traded for peanuts. Look around the Championship, and you will see the likes of Maja, Coburn, and Greenwood plying their trade elsewhere, while there is little to show for the investment Sunderland made in them.
The stadium, the ticket office, the club shop, the online offerings were all allowed to wither under the previous regime, often to the understandable frustration of loyal fans.
None of that sits at the door of Kyril Louis-Dreyfus. But it is also true that many of those issues have not improved in the way that we, as fans, would have wanted.
Yet looking at the contract situation of the players, it is clear that massive improvements have been brought about - all of our young prospects are now secured on long-term contracts. The club is now in a position to dictate how and when they will be sold. Young talents like Jobe see the club as an attractive destination, young academy products, such as Chris Rigg, are choosing to stay, in the face of offers from ‘bigger’ clubs.
Under KLD, the playing squad has changed beyond all recognition and, if the rumours are true, we will hopefully now start to see significant improvements in the kit deal, with an old favourite, Hummel, apparently back in the fold.
What has been noticeable for me during this difficult period is that our Chairman and owner has resisted the temptation to throw others under the bus.
Kyril Louis-Dreyfus may be just 26 years old, but he comes from a family steeped in football. Some of the people he has surrounded himself with are those who were involved with his father at Olympique Marseille.
Since his acquisition of the club, I cannot recall a single instance of KLD laying any blame for the predicament he inherited at the door of the previous owners or anyone else. It would have been tempting, as tempers understandably frayed over the welcome mat we laid out for our fiercest rivals, to identify a ‘villain,’ place them as the target of public opinion and allow the fanbase to vent its anger.
The social media frenzy that accelerated as the derby tie approached would have unnerved even the most experienced owners.
Yet there has been no ‘sacrificial lamb’ offered up to appease the disenchanted. Instead, KLD has chosen to ride the storm. It is an approach that has infuriated some, aggravated many, and perplexed others.
For me, it is a remarkably mature stance for one so young. Football is a game and an industry where progress and setbacks walk hand in hand. Results on the field may turn on an instinctive finish, a brilliant save, or an official’s decision.
Choices off the field will never meet the universal approval of all fans. The dismissal of Mowbray, the appointment of Beale, and the sale or acquisition of players during the transfer window will all be the subject of debate. And we have seen before the folly of trying to please such a disparate fanbase. It resulted in the club seeking affirmation from supporters with the signing of Will Grigg. It appeared again when Jermain Defoe came back for one last dance.
There have undoubtedly been mistakes in the last couple of weeks. There is no denying that decisions have been made that will live long in the memory. And yet, despite all the unrest, there is no sense of panic or crisis.
I will, no doubt, be judged on what I am about to write for years to come. But I see, in KLD, an individual with a maturity that belies his years, someone who has the judgment to surround himself with people he knows that he can rely upon, and someone who has a long-term plan for the club that he has taken ownership of.
It would have been the easy and popular choice to throw someone on the staff to the wolves over what has happened, and I don’t doubt that is exactly what would have happened in many clubs. The fact that there has been no sacrifice as an offering to public opinion is, for me, a sign of a maturing organisation.
If, at the first sign of difficulty, your reaction is to hunt down an individual to carry the can, what message does that send to everyone else who works for you?
There is little doubt that some of our fans would have been more than delighted if KLD had erected stocks next to Bob Stokoe’s statue, lined up a selection of staff members, and provided a supply of overly ripe fruit and vegetables as ammunition, in the wake of our FA Cup exit, and all the accompanying circumstances.
But if that is the approach you choose to take, to jettison others when things get difficult, how do you then persuade the brightest and the best in football that Sunderland is the club where they can properly fulfill their potential?
The last 2 weeks have been uncomfortable and unsettling; there are things that should not have happened and should not be allowed to happen again.
Yet there is an obvious comparison for where we are now, against where we have come from. In the transfer window of 2019, our shining light was Josh Maja. The club’s success or failure seemed crucially intertwined with whether he stayed or left, and with his contract running down, we had little leverage over the situation.
This transfer window, our shining light is Jack Clarke. We are under no pressure to sell and can choose to accept or reject the most generous offers. Whatever decision is made will displease some supporters - many see him staying as critical to a playoff bid; others say we should cash in now, in the wake of his poor showing against the Mags.
However this plays out, I am confident of one thing. Whatever decision is made, whether it is popular or unpopular with the fans, there will be no abdication or deflection of responsibility from KLD.