Chelsea, Manchester United, Sunderland: the rights and wrongs of choosing your club

Another Tony Roffe/Jake collaboration: but do you need to be born in its shadow to support SAFC?

The thoughts of Robert Simmons, our Voice of America, and the fellow-American supporters who made themselves known after his most recent article, prompted this raid of the Salut! Sunderland archives for a piece, now slightly updated, describing Monsieur Salut’s True Supporter Test …

Like the look of Chelsea? Gasp in admiration at Man United’s trophy cupboard or Messi’s skills for Barca?

Fine, then let’s become a supporter. We can always find out where the place is later. Conscious of my own origins as far due south of Wearside as is possible without falling into the sea, I took a whimsical look at the hoops we should expect to go through before being regarded as genuine supporters of our chosen clubs.

But what tests should a supporter pass to qualify as a real fan and not a mere bandwagon jumper?

I have my own set of rules.

You are entitled to support Sunderland or Melchester Rovers or whoever IF one of the following applies:

1 You were born or brought up in Sunderland, Melchester or whatever, or their surrounding areas

2 They were the team your dad took you to see for your first professional league game

3 Your family’s roots are in the relevant area even though you were born and/or raised far away, even abroad

4 You formed a close bond through playing or otherwise working for the club, or in the town or city where it plays

You do NOT qualify if:

1 You decided to support the club because it seemed to be very successful or had just won something important

2 You liked the club’s name

3 All the lads at school put club names in a hat and you had to promise to support the one you pulled out

That’s all dogmatic enough and I’m aware of another rule: the one about glasshouses and stone-throwing.

I believe I match up to my own demands on proper football support on rules 1-3 of eligibility. I was born far away from Sunderland – in Hove for heaven’s sake – but my family, which had many roots in the North East, Sunderland included, moved to Shildon, County Durham when I was a few months old.

Sunderland was always known as the County Durham team, whatever fiddling was later done with local authority boundaries to create Tyne and Wear. Quite simply, if you grew up in what I do not remember being called, in those days, The Land of the Prince Bishops, you supported SAFC and Durham County Cricket Club. Allowances were made if your bit of Durham was so close to Newcastle or Middlesbrough to make one of them the more obvious choice.

Jake's princess, Xuana: born in Spain but readily qualifies

You could be much stricter than this, and some people are. They argue that the right to support a club is determined by one thing and one thing alone: place of birth.

But if you applied the letter of that law, it would exclude all sorts of people with long-established family traditions of support or strong links developed in one way or another with the club in question. In Sunderland’s case, it would disenfranchise thousands upon thousands of people who have, like me, always regarded the whole of County Durham as a legitimate catchment area. If only people born and bred in Sunderland were allowed to support the team, the attendances over the years would have been much lower.

Look at this girlhood memory of Kate Adie, from an interview for the Celebrity Supporters series that began life in the magazine of the SAFC Supporters’ Association London and SE branch.

“I remember thinking how curious it was as you got nearer the ground to see all these rather ancient buses full of supporters from Tow Law or Spennymoor or Crook. They seemed such far-off places. The small towns and pit villages were somehow seen as separate from Sunderland, and the one time that the divide was breached was at the match.”

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I’ll go even further. Sir Tim Rice would expect to be disqualified under my ineligibility rule number two. He and his school pals were deciding who they should follow, and young Timothy liked the name of Sunderland. Yet no one could doubt that he has become an ardent and loyal fan, albeit without attending more than a handful of games

Read the interview he gave me a few years ago and see if you agree:
. I liked his reference to failing to see the point of supporting Man Utd or Liverpool unless you actually grew up there.

Ineligibility rule one might also shunt Lance Hardy, author of the 1973 FA Cup final book, into the sidings of football support. At home in Nottinghamshire as a very young boy, in a family without trace of North-eastern origins, he was placed in front of the television on May 5 of that year and told to shout for the Lads against Leeds. He has supported us passionately ever since.

So maybe my rules are not rules at all but guidelines. There has to be flexibility. In a piece for the ESPN FC network blog the other day, I mentioned a friend who suddenly reinvented himself as an Arsenal fan after always having supported Forest.

Another friend, from Darlington, showed no interest in football when we were lads but became a devoted Newcastle United fan as an adult before becoming an equally devoted Boro supporter. I once saw a French teenager wearing a spotless, gleaming Sunderland top in the street in a Mediterranean resort and couldn’t resist the temptation to ask; he idolised Lorik Cana, then with us.

What do others think?

You can learn more about the origins and depth of Lance’s allegiance to Sunderland AFC, and about his book, Stokoe, Sunderland and ‘73: The Story of the Greatest FA Cup Final Shock of All Time in my interview with him at the followinng link:

Monsieur Salut, by Matt

27 thoughts on “Chelsea, Manchester United, Sunderland: the rights and wrongs of choosing your club”

  1. Sobs. I couldn’t agree more. Being a supporter means standing rank and file, cheek to jowel with your fellow supporter in rain, hail or shine. I very much doubt whether the “Man U pubs” your referred to were within a 100 quid taxi ride of Old Trafford.

    There’s a criteria here which has to be added and which you referred to in your post. You didn’t choose Sunderland. Sunderland chose you. Absolutely correct. If we had been making a selection, even at a tender age, we would presumably have gone for something glittery and successful and not Sunderland. If “deciding” on a team were some sort of rational or reasoned choice then most clubs in the country would have no supporters whatsoever. It’s not a delicatessen where you choose your pate de fois gras or Black Forest Ham and a quarter of cole slaw. Allegiance is forged in the cauldron of life and shared experience. Proper supporters know it and rarely feel the need to discuss it. Do any of these plastic fans think that Doncaster or Tranmere fans made a “choice” in the shadow of more illustrious neighbours?

    Watching football on TV at home or in the pub doesn’t make you a supporter if that’s the only experience you have. Continuing the food analogy here, that;s very much the Coors Lite and Chicken Korma experience for people who don’t appreciate beer or curry. It’s diet football for lite fans.

    Who you end up with is a lottery. It’s no different to being born in Japan, Honduras or the Phillipines. We were just fortunate enough to be born into the SAFC family as a birthright. It has also been a privilege to me. If you weren’t fortunate enough to share that privilege and birthright then you wouldn’t even know what that means.

  2. Born in Easington, lived in Houghton, Durham, N*castle, Stockton, Whitley Bay, and mostly Bishop. I didn’t choose Sunderland, they chose me.

    It really irritates me when my Sunday afternoon football watching down the pub is interrupted by someone proclaiming “this is a Man U pub” simply because it is where they choose to watch “their” team rather than actually go to a game. I like watching Barca, but I’m not a supporter – in what way does watching the telly make you a supporter?

    • Ah, there’s another facet. Half of the population of Spain will say they support Barca. The other half will say they support Real. Spain being a big country they might not go tomatches but they do watch them on TV, often to the detriment of their local teams. At least, that’s my experience. What does your suggest, Jake?

      • It’s true John, everybody is either Real or Barca, even people with little interest in football will express a preference. Personally I wouldn’t give either the time of day, all that rolling around, grimacing and whingeing gets on my effin’ wick!

  3. I spent a couple of years working in Seaham, and was ribbed mercilessly by the local lads for being a “Townie” and for the way I spoke. I would go as far as to say that some of them actually hated Townies. But, the same lads were among the most fervent Sunderland supporters I’ve ever known. Isn’t life strange?

  4. First poster Gautam’s argument falls apart because he left out one important word to defend his plasticity.

    He said: Football started out as an entertainment for bored industry workers.

    When he should have said: Football started out as an entertainment for local bored industry workers.

    Granted, the Old Etonians and Corinthians, etc. codified thie game but it was the local working class who took things forward and gave us the tremendous rivalries we have now.

    Great article, Geoff, for which you will find the majority are in agreement. Having said that, there needs to be a special clause (even commendation) for people like Robert who pick an unsuccessful team like ours to support.


  5. I was so motivated to put pen to paper so to speak on this, that I didn’t even comment on your wonderful post Geoff. Hope you are feeling better fellah.

  6. By and large the Sunderland faifthful come from a background that Jake most eruditely summarised. Sir Tim Rice may be considered an ardent supporter by some, but not by me. I couldn’t care less if he supports us or not. He’s famous, and a celebrity. So what? He hasn’t been to many games; therefore he isn’t a supporter. He may be a “fan” but he’s not the same as the rest of us who have gone to games all of their lives and I will fight to the death anyone who says differently 🙂

    We are a privincial club that has always (well in my lifetime anyway) lacked the glamour which attracts “fandom” in various parts of the world and especially in my corner of it. Parents of kids in my lad’s team often make some comment about their kid supporting Man Utd as if I could care less. It’s none of their business whatsoever, and they don’t care themselves.Glory hunters are the same anywhere. To some extent in Canada there is a excuse as all they have is crap to watch in the MLS. I wouldn’t watch that if they paid me. I was recently introduced to a guy who was from Croatia and was walking around with a Chelsea cap on. Don’t they have football teams in the former Yugoslavia these days? What happended to Red Star and Velez Mostar? I would have been interested in talking to the fellah if he’d been wearing a blue shirt with Prosinecki on the back, but a Chelsea cap for God’s sake? Give it a rest. Not interested. Move on mate. Nothing to say.

    No affinity, no cultural undertanding, and no real empathy if you don’t grow up in the area or have some family connections, and that’s the end of it.

  7. Always an interesting discussion – why do we support the team we do? The same question applies to our ‘life partner’ what is love? When I was teaching a bit of PHSE to Year 10, a question I would ask is ‘How does someone know they are in love?’
    The way I tried to explain was by linking it to football (everything can be analogised to football- if that is a word). Allegedly, men are attracted by physical attributes (breasts mainly) but love is different to lust. Therefore, when the breasts get saggy (mine too), love remains. So if the Lads ever fall through the leagues and end up playing Macclesfield on a breast saggy Tuesday night, I will still support them. Because supporting your team is being in love. No matter how many times you are let down, you will support/love them till you die. You will never support another team (an affair).
    I have posted in the past that the River Wear is a connection – SW Durham was and is a massive fan base. Something in the water?
    In my experience, Sunderland fans tend to have a connection – be it birth, relocation or genes – to County Durham. Living in Essex, whenever I see a shirt, I know that the wearer is closely connected to the North East and is therefore one of life’s good guys. I can’t say this for any other shirt.
    We support a culture, an ethos. Players, chairmen and managers come and go, but the culture of your home club should be a constant and it says a lot about you.
    What is the ethos of SAFC and the people of the North East? I would be fascinated by any suggestions. For me – decency, honesty, humour, openness, humility, self deprecation, piss taking, friendliness, more piss taking, love of suffering, not taking your self too seriously.
    That is why we love the ‘Lads’ – not individual Lads, but the club. That is why we love Sunderland ’till we die’. Love in its purest form.
    I may have drunk too much wine.

  8. Re Kate Adie’s remarks. Those of us from the pit villages regarded the Townies as a strange race with strange customs. Although I was brought up only 7 miles from Sunderland when I went to work in what was then “The Town” aged 22 I heard expressions that weren’t part of the pitmatic dialect that I spoke.

    But I do remember hearing that Durham was the Land of the Prince Bishops even though there were no signs proclaiming it as such like there are today. It was also known as the Land of the Three Rivers, with the Tyne and Tees forming the north and south boundaries and The Wear flowing through the county town despite Roger Whittaker’s assertions.

    But then again M. Salut, we knew Sunderland as The Black Cats in the 1960s, a term with which I believe you were unfamiliar at the time. We were very parochial back then, the world defined by the bus routes you were on.

    • Whitaker’s song is believed to be about South Shields with ‘Durham’ a reference to the county, not the city.

      • “I’m gonna leave old Durham town and the leavin’s gonna get me down” are the lyrics. How does that refer to South Shields?

      • Newcastle Exhibition can explain many such utterances. There used to be an advertisement:” Exhibition, now you’re talking”, modifed by us to “Exhibition, now you’re talking rubbish”
        Could that be it?

  9. A great article about one of my irrational bugbears the plastic fan or glory hunter.Only last Saturday night i listened to a Liverpool “fan” giving Robbie Savage a right mouthfull on 606.Nothing wrong with that you might say and usually you
    would be right.But the Liverpool “fan” was from Nottingham.I had no way of putting him to the plastic fan test(i told you this was irrational!) but i smelled a rat.The amount of Liverpool,Man Utd,Chelsea,Arsenal and recently Man City “fans” who phone these shows and who live in totaly different parts of the country to “their” teams is remarkable.With the Northwest teams you can virtualy guarantee liverpool and United fans will be plastic,old school City and Everton fans will be genuine.As for the N.E ,anyone from around the region and anywhere else is a most welcome and genuine Sunderland supporter,but anyone who fits that criteria and supports Newcastle should have a long hard look at themselves in the mirror!

    • I agree about the ‘glory hunters’, but there are other reasons to support a team, which, to me at least, appear very genuine…
      Personally, after QPR had been relegated at the end of the 1960s, with a record low points tally, I started to go to Loftus Road with a QPR supporting mate from school, and just didn’t stop, despite playing in 3 levels of English football, and starting, very much, not at the ‘glory hunter’ stage…
      Season ticket at the third level/third division/League 1, whatever you want to call it now, home and away, win or lose… supporting QPR since 1970, no, sorry, but I can’t agree I am a ‘plastic’ fan…
      Also, a good younger mate of mine has supported QPR through the lower leagues, going to home and away matches too, but he was born in Stockport, and chose QPR over Man United, because the liked the kit! He supported QPR through thick and thin, and never saw a really decent QPR team, and, obviously, we’re still not there yet!
      It’s a bit more complicated, OK, ‘glory hunters’ bad, but, many more good reasons to support a team 🙂

  10. ,What if Iam from Asia,Africa,Australia etc,have no roots to any club but I want to support an EPL club what rules must I satisfy,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,

  11. Your rules would also rule out our own manager as a childhood supporter as he followed them following the 73 FA Cup win.

    Personally I have sneaked in under your rules,though I was definately excluded for many years by my own volition.

    Born in Glasgow,but supported Leeds Utd in the late 60s,on the only basis that some local team player told me they were Leeds Utd and I thought I d actually been watching them live…..seems it stuck with me.

    In fact I supported Leeds during the 73 final,much to the disgust of my family(all Sunderland born and bred)I actualy despised Sunderland for many a year after that.(there I said it)
    Followed Leeds till early 80s and got fed up supporting a team I had nowt in common with.Started going to games with my dad at Roker park in the mid 80s…and eventullay became hooked….though you could never say accuse me of was glory hunting…Lawrie MacMenemy for chrissakes!!!!!

  12. in August 1891 the “Athletic News” reported that the North Eastern Railway Company had agreed with the club that cheap excursions should run on match days from “colliery settlements” in the County of Durham.

    The club’s support from its hinterland goes back to before motorised transport. I think that justifies any claim from anyone in County Durham, Tyne and Wear and Teeside that they have a historic right to follow the true faith. I’d even accept Kirkby Stephen, Alston and similar places in Cumbria.

  13. Football started out as an entertainment for bored industry workers. It was not intended to divide different regions of the country based on club affiliations. I enjoy watching Manchester United play so I am a supporter. Sunderland are not that attractive comparatively so I don’t prefer watching them. This is perfectly in accordance w/ what football set out to achieve. The term “plastic fan” is a modern invention to abuse supporters of rival clubs. I believe in competition and rivalry but not bitter hatred.

    • That’s actually a very clever way of defending gloryseeking!

      Like lots of people of my generation, I also found the Man Utd of long ago attractive and was devastated to come home from playing football in the park, when very young, to be told of the Munich air crash. I willed them, unsuccessfully, to win the ensuing cup final vs Bolton. But I could never, ever have supported them in the way I support Sunderland. I’d feel a complete fraud. Out of the billions who “support” United, how many couldn’t even point to Manchester on a map? Finding this or that team attractive is a weak basis for proper allegiance; what if the owners go bust, leaving the club with massive debts it cannot handle and United suddenly become less attractive? On your logic, you bid a sad farewell and look around for the next “attractive” club to support.

    • Tony Mason’s definitive work “Association Football & English Society 1863-1915” shows makes a very powerful argument that it was the upper class, University-educated players who codified football and created the Football Association. It is wrong to think of football as just a working class sport. Its origins owe as much to public schools and their alumni as to working class supporters.

      The book does also suggest tribalism and regionism were rooted in football from the outset. Football might never have been designed to divide regions but it did. It also divided clubs and their support on class lines, e.g. in the Bolton Olympic v Old Etonians cup final.

      • Sorry, it was Blackburn Olympic. I suppose that getting it wrong’s no worse than calling Sunderland Leicester, (except to people from Blackburn or Bolton, to whom I apologise)

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