Today is one of those rare occasions where 99% of Sunderland supporters find themselves in agreement. It is unacceptable, no matter how much dirty money it brings in, to decorate our ground in Newcastle United colours. We all agree because this is about a little bit more than opinion – it's about who we are as supporters of the Club, and therefore as people. This decision is scary, as it begs the question of how much of who we are the leadership are willing to give away in pursuit of their so-called progress.
As a lifelong supporter of a football club, your affiliation becomes an integral part of who you are. It affects your values, your habits and your interactions with others. Therefore, it is vital that either the identity of the Club is stable, or you are able to adapt with it.
There are layers to the identity of a Club – an obvious one that springs to mind are Burnley in recent times. For so long, the identity of a Burnley fan was embellished by the grittiness and toughness of being willing to dig in and scrap – 4-4-2 every week, no nonsense, no such thing as a bad point on the road. You know the drill. But when Vincent Kompany took over and started signing lads who weren’t from Lancashire or Ireland, that changed, and their supporters have had to adapt with that. A style of football is an adaptable element of most clubs’ identities (with some exceptions).
Far less negotiable, though, are the fundamental symbols that we associate with, whether they be words, colours, places – and so on. Vincent Tan’s attempts to make Cardiff play in red spring to mind, or Wimbledon’s move to Milton Keynes. We will always play in red and white, say Ha’Way the Lads and sing Wise Men Say. You can’t change that. All of these, and that we represent the City of Sunderland, are fundamental parts of how we identify with our Club. They come together to make our Club what we recognise it to be.
And that’s important.
The response of football supporters across the country to today’s images shows that our reaction says nothing about us, other than that we are just like every other set of football supporters.
Away from the size of the clubs involved in Saturday’s game, the issue is perfectly relatable – no Exeter fan would allow a bar to be painted green, no Bolton fan would allow Up the Tics to be scrawled on their concourse and no Portsmouth fan would ever allow a drop of red to be smeared on the Fratton End (or the Spinnaker Tower, if you want a far less football-related example than our own that caused a similar outcry).
It is simply unthinkable to any true football fan that their home ground, their sacred place, could ever be willingly desecrated with the colours of the enemy. To do so is to undermine part of what your club stands for and to make fools of the people who identify themselves by it.
An essential part of how we identify with SAFC is our shared contempt for NUFC – and the same for them in reverse. The same applies to nations, big brand companies and pretty much anything else you can name that people identify with or get behind – it’s inevitable.
Undermine the us/them binary, and you undermine a fundamental part of what it means to be, well, us. And that’s dangerous.
It raises a convenient question – what price are you willing to pay for success? Are you willing to lose a bit of who you are? Or completely rip it away? Let’s ask our friends up the road and, unwittingly, they will tell us yes. For years they told the world that ‘all they want is a team that tries’. Well, not anymore. ‘Trying’ doesn’t quite cut it when you’re getting bankrolled by an oil behemoth nation-state.
The fundamental identity of NUFC has changed and the supporters, blinded by the imminent signing of Kylian Mbappe, changed with it, in what someone should really research as the perfect example of sportswashing – to make sure it can’t be done again.
For me, the price I put on the soul of the club is far more than what we will get from cosying up to the Mags. And I’d rather stay in the Championship, or even League One, than lose who we are, because if you can’t recognise the Club when it succeeds, what reason will you have to enjoy it when it does?
I, as almost all of us will, will see past this and will be in a state of sheer delirium if we are in Round 4 come 3pm Saturday, but this must not happen again.
How this happened is beyond any of us, really. If we had owners who didn’t ‘get’ football, had never been around football and were obviously just mercenaries, that would be an answer. But we don’t – well the first two points of that trio certainly aren’t the case.
Kyril’s father ran Marseille, one of the most passionately supported, all-round bonkers football clubs in the world, for years. You don’t do things like our Club has done today if you’ve had any interaction, or even just awareness, of a club like that.
Paint an Eiffel Tower on the Velodrome and you might as well just fold the club and start again. Be it ignorance, incompetence, naivety, disorganisation or just a simple profit-above-all attitude that has caused this fiasco, it cannot be allowed to happen again.
Because if Ha’Way the Lads becomes Ho’Way the Lads, what is there left for us?