When Peter Reid was planning to build on our record-breaking 105 point promotion from the Championship in 1999, he hoped to do so with Wallsend-born Lee Clark as a pivotal part of his midfield.
Those who were watching Sunderland at the time have to be honest and concede that he’d been tremendous during the previous season and Reid has since said that he was keen to have him in his side.
However, as the season ended, pictures emerged of Clark at the 1999 FA Cup Final wearing a T-shirt that ridiculed the club and its supporters, and Reid subsequently said that he knew Clark could never wear a Sunderland shirt again.
Reid had been at the club long enough to understand the depth of the rivalry with our Tyneside neighbours, but as we prepare for the FA Cup tie on Saturday, the excitement we’ve all felt has been tarnished by decisions made by the club and its hierarchy.
Under FA rules, away fans are entitled to occupy a certain percentage of the ground’s capacity and I’m sure Northumbria Police weren’t happy with the decision to allow 6,000 Newcastle fans into the Stadium of Light.
That said, I suspect the club and the police had little say in the matter, but what the club did have control over was how they were going to accommodate those fans.
Given that travelling fans are housed in the upper North Stand, it made sense to expand the away section of the stand to accommodate the 6,000 Newcastle supporters, but what the club didn’t need to do was roll out the red carpet and keep the Black Cats Bar open for the game.
When the away allocation was announced, I thought to myself ‘There’s no way they’ll allow the Newcastle fans into the Black Cats Bar’, and I was half expecting an announcement that the decision had been made ‘on the advice of the police’ to ban the sale of alcohol in the North Stand for the game.
Newcastle fans are getting a £600 VIP experience and if that wasn’t painful enough, Thursday saw pictures emerge of the Black Cats Bar being turned into a shrine for our most despised rivals.
The removal of anything Sunderland-themed to be replaced by ‘Black and White’ banners was bad enough, but to see the word Ha’way crossed out and replaced with a ugly black Howay was quite frankly disgusting.
It also seemed as though the bars on the other North Stand concourses got the black and white makeover and for Sunderland fans, it was truly heartbreaking to see this section of the stadium desecrated.
I think we can understand that they may have wanted to tone down the Sunderland memorabilia in what’s now an expanded away end, but it absolutely smacked of a small club desperately trying to fawn over the visit of a far ‘bigger and more important club’.
You couldn’t imagine a club such as Forest Green Rovers doing this, let alone the likes of Celtic or Arsenal if Rangers or Tottenham respectively were arriving for a cup game.
Later on Thursday, the club issued a statement announcing that they allowed Newcastle to manage the cover up of the club’s signage and memorabilia, and that the ownership was incandescent at the news.
Sunderland AFC today issued the following update to its supporters.#SAFC— Sunderland AFC (@SunderlandAFC) January 4, 2024
Incandescent they may be, but the pictures were all over social media. The signs are now gone but the images of the actual intent are there for all to see.
I can’t believe the board and management weren’t aware, and the decision to allow Newcastle to oversee the makeover of part of the ground has to be questioned, given the fact that they’re unlikely to have used contractors who don’t support the club and therefore hate ours.
What’s clearly evident is that many of our fans are outraged at the decisions made in the run up to the game.
I fervently hope we inflict the cruellest of defeats on Saturday, but I also fear that the relationship between the fans and our ownership will never fully recover from what’s being viewed by so many as an act of ultimate betrayal.