It has been a tumultuous month or so in the never-ending Sunderland drama, with a Wear-Tyne derby, a managerial change, and the opening of the January window. Predictably, hitting probably the three most dramatic points this season could have offered, all within the space of a few weeks, has absolutely blown the lid off the fanbase’s collective sanity. Fans are at each other’s throats across social media, calls are being made for everyone from Michael Beale through to Kyril Louis-Dreyfus to go - there’s a general level of chaos above and beyond the usual.
Amongst the anger and frustration being aimed in several directions, though, there’s one sentiment that seems to have gained the most traction and united the most people under its banner: the idea that the club is not listening to the fans.
The two catalysts for this are fairly obvious, namely the Black Cats Bar fiasco and the appointment of Michael Beale as head coach. We’ll come to the latter, but the former is self-evidently an incredible clanger the club dropped which I think we’re all probably sick of discussing. It does, though, provide the strongest ammunition for the aforementioned sentiment - no actual Sunderland fan in their right mind would have ever allowed the signage to get within a ten-mile radius of the stadium. If we can see things like this, why can’t they?
Depending on your point of view, this could be due to arrogance, incompetence, greed, naivety, single-mindedness... I think you get the point. Nobody can necessarily agree on the why, just the what. And they are not happy about it.
However - and I think this is the critical issue - there is no guarantee that the fans either know what the ‘right’ decision is in any given scenario, or can even agree on it!
Just taking the Beale appointment as an example, possibly a majority of fans, if not certainly a huge number of them, were against the move in one form or another from the second the rumours started. The grumbling tended to centre around either his lack of stature in the game - ‘no upgrade on Tony Mowbray’ was a common gripe - or various perceived character defects observed during his spells at Rangers and QPR. Not saying that’s right or wrong - this isn’t a Beale defense piece. But even with a rough consensus reached of ‘Beale isn’t the man’, what happens next? Do you think all those disgruntled fans happened to agree on who SHOULD have come in instead? If so, I’ve got a bridge to sell you...
Even granting the fans are right about any given decision, listening to them might help the club avoid a mistake but gets us no closer to progress. Unless you’d like the next managerial search to last six months and effectively be a giant game of ‘Hot and Cold’ as the club edges closer to each target in turn, waiting to see whether or not the fans turn this time, we simply have to accept that decision-makers at the club are going to, well, make decisions. That’s how operating a football club works.
Now, to the crux of the matter. I’d like to preface what I’m about to say by making it clear I have held some shockingly incorrect opinions on SAFC-related matters in my life, I should not be trusted with any aspect of running a football club, and I am grossly underqualified to give out any meaningful criticism of an ownership group which has delivered promotion, playoffs, and a ludicrously talented young squad.
Football fans do not know what they are talking about.
See, I already called myself an idiot before making the sweeping generalisation to try and make it clear - this is not a judgmental or personal statement about any fan. We all get some right, we all get some wrong, and none of us are really qualified to do any of it anyway!
However, the point stands - football fans simply don’t know what they’re talking about. Transfers, to most fans, are basically a bank transfer between the accounts of Club A and Club B for £x million up front, and a player signing a contract in the manager’s office with a smile and a fountain pen.
The actual level of detail, rounds of negotiations, drafting and re-drafting of contracts, amortisation, instalments, and all manner of financial wizardry involved in taking a player from Club A to Club B would make the average fan’s head spin. But it’s extremely easy to log in to Twitter/X, post that ‘my club should DEFINITELY sign x player, and if they don’t, they have no ambition’, then log off and never have to think about the complexity of what was just suggested.
All of this is fine. It is not the job of a supporter to learn contract law to support their team. Fans can and should have opinions on their club’s dealings, transfers or otherwise, and should be able to air and debate those views. That’s what helps make up the fabric upon which is woven the rich tapestry of football - without passionate and outspoken fans, football would be a bleaker sport.
What this doesn’t mean, though, is that the owners and sporting directors of clubs should be beholden to the whims and whimsies of those self-same supporters. Back to Sunderland, Kristjaan Speakman is employed and paid good money by the club to run the footballing side of operations. There is a scouting department made up of people who’ve spent their lives in the game, data scientists, academy coaches, first-team coaches, fitness coaches, and on and on the list goes. When Speakman, the man overseeing the dozens of staff that make up the footballing side of Sunderland AFC day in, day out, is tasked with finding a new Head Coach to work with all those people - what on Earth gives any of us a better insight than him? The man who brought us Mowbray in the first place is suddenly not capable of adequately replacing him, apparently. I don’t buy it.
The fans know better, though. The fans that... didn’t really want Mowbray in the first place and slated the club for not giving Alex Neil full control and trebling his salary. How did that one go? The fans that, when Lee Johnson was sacked, were desperate for Roy Keane to take over and met Neil’s appointment with indifference.
Are you seeing the pattern yet?
We, collectively, as fans, simply are not the right people to listen to. Should there be greater fan involvement in football? Yes, fantastic. Should we be calling the shots? God, no!
Kyril and Speakman between them have delivered the most progress this club’s seen in over two decades. Perhaps it might be for the best if we let them make the calls. Criticise them when you feel it’s going wrong, praise them when they get it right, let yourself be heard - but can we all just chill out a bit and come back from the brink?