Monsieur Salut writes: I often envy the lifestyles of Pete Sixsmith and Malcolm Dawson, enjoying the North East without any longer the need to do much work – though both, in their own ways, remain active – and free to pop along to any match they choose. Then I read their accounts of afternoons or evenings wasted watching SAFC and, remembering too many similar experiences from my own life, start to feel a lot less envious.
Sunderland games have not always been Malcolm’s first choice in recent times. But he has stuck by the team through thin and thinner and is now encouraged by the new regime. He describes his return from the brink quite magnificently. Please read on …
SUNDERLAND AFC AND ME – SINGING FROM THE SAME KARAOKE SONGSHEET
Some years ago I was beginning to wonder why I was still going to the Stadium of Light and I wasn’t the only one. Pete Sixsmith and I occasionally travel together to home games and I was thinking of investing in some of those foam earplugs you get on planes and that swimmers use, such was the ferocity of his outbursts which would inevitably follow another dismal home performance. I have a different coping strategy which involves withdrawing into my introverted shell and planning my next day’s tea, whilst listening to an internally generated version of Ronny Jordan’s acid jazz interpretation of Miles Davis’s So What!
The fact is that not only was I getting increasingly frustrated by what I was witnessing on the pitch but I could see the way the club was being run was leading us down the road to disaster, while feeling increasingly more alienated by the club and disappointed in the demeanour of certain players. But as is often the case in failing relationships, one party makes excuses for the other, believing the empty promises that things will soon change for the better and all will be hunky dory.
I seriously thought about giving up my season card (knowing I probably wouldn’t) about five years ago. And I didn’t. I bought my first one for the Stadium of Light in our second season there while living in the Midlands. I had managed most games home and away the previous year but having to work at the time when the tickets for the Wembley play off game went on sale, I missed out on that match and determined that would not ever happen again.
Over subsequent seasons I continued to attend games home and away, now in the company of new friends met through the Heart of England Branch established by the tireless Chris Herriott, and a small band of us stuck it out during the Wilkinson/Cottrell and Mick McCarthy years. When I returned to live in the North East seven years ago, attending games became so much easier and it made even more sense. But things were changing and soon I was no longer feeling part of the club I had first started following as a small boy in the late 1950s and who I had first seen at Roker Park in the promotion season of 1964/5.
Things had somehow changed. The football we were watching was often not that great, something that a succession of highly thought of managers and an influx of highly paid players did nothing to improve. But it wasn’t so much the quality or lack of entertainment that got to me but this feeling that the club and I were drifting apart – that now those running the club saw it as a business whereas to me it was still a football club and a part of my life.
I almost decided to stop going then was seduced by Dick Advocaat’s change of heart. I was ready for an upturn that didn’t happen and off he went in next to no time. His tears after his last game in charge seemed to indicate that the club and the area had got under his skin, but that his ambition was being thwarted by influences outside of his control.
Big Sam came but there was no immediate change of fortune. Let’s not forget his impact was slow in coming. There was no new manager bounce in those first months but after the signing of the three Ks (and an improving 4th in Younis Kaboul) I was once again conned into renewing by the aftermath of the great escape. As we again avoided the drop with time to spare Big Sam seemed to have found and organised a group of players into a team who had a rapport with the fans and who appeared to have taken the club to their hearts. That was the opportunity to push on and build a team that would challenge for a place the top half of the Premier League.
I should have known better – in fact I probably did. The truth is I had no confidence in the way the club was being run once Ellis Short had marginalised then disposed of the services of Niall Quinn. Somewhere in the annals of the Salut! Sunderland back pages is an article I wrote at the time expressing my doubts about the capabilities of a man, who admittedly poured millions of his own finances into the club, but had come with no knowledge of football or the North East of England to take control of our club. Yes he was badly advised. Yes he appointed a succession of managers and had funded their plans but he had also adopted a business model which had handed responsibility for signings, discipline and players’ contracts to employees who made a succession of poor decisions.
I won’t go into that now – no need – just start to create a list of players signed on big money who hardly ever played for the club, those who came on loan who we then had to sign on permanent deals even if the new manager didn’t want them and who we subsequently carried on paying, at least in part, while they went out on loan again. Then those players who appeared to have little desire to contribute to the cause knowing they would be back at their parent club after picking up a big wage. For every Yann M’Vila, Danny Rose and DeAndre Yedlin, there was an Adnan Januzaj, a Lewis Grabban and a Valentin Roberge.
I was conned into renewing after Big Sam’s great escape and realised when the club failed to sign M’Vila and Yedlin at the first opportunity and even before the aftermath of the Euros and the Iceland debacle. I still believe Sam would have gone even if Hodgson had not and the England job had not come up. I think that because I felt he was, like others before him seeing his plans fail to come to fruition by an owner and his minions with different objectives.
So we got David Moyes and many of us thought he would sort us out. But he didn’t and though his demeanour and tactics brought lots of criticism, I thought I could detect signs of another man lured in with false promises.
I’m afraid that season finished me off. Having to miss two games as the result of a little operation in Sunderland Royal convinced me that I could find other things to do when Sunderland were at home. I made a decision not to pour any more of my cash into the club whilst Ellis Short remained in charge and I missed most of last season, only subbing for Pete with freebies when he was off on his Santa sleigh.
I thought that whilst a billionaire who had come with the American experience of franchised clubs run on business models, continued to control things we the fans were not being seen as an integral part of the club but purely as consumers. I refused to contribute any of my cash to an organisation which was squandering much of its millions on so many undeserving, highly paid players who had no respect for the club or its supporters and on highly paid Directors of Football and Chief Executives who likewise showed we fans scant respect.
I don’t know what Ellis Short’s motivation was when he was persuaded to buy out the Drummaville consortium and I accept that he took a big financial hit through his involvement, but with him at the helm it always felt like he saw it as his club, rather than our club. Some might argue that it was but that is not the type of football club I really want to be involved with. Ending relationships can be traumatic, but sometimes deep down you know it is for the best. Simon Grayson was on a loser from the start but towards the end I thought Chris Coleman was showing the right kind of thinking with regard to the club’s future. I was sorry to see him go.
So here we are in a new phase. Ellis Short has gone and I have a new season card – over in the West Stand where the sun never shines in ones eyes. And like many others I am excited by this new chapter. We have a new partnership at the helm and in Stewart and Charlie two men who actually seem to understand what the game and being a supporter is all about. Unlike Monsieur Salut, I have never met either man but already feel I can refer to them by their first names. Our previous owner was always Ellis Short, but now we have Stewart and Charlie. I like they way the have presented themselves and I like their vision for the club. I like the fact that our new Managing Director is a Sunderland fan and used to be Samson the Cat in a previous life. I understand that Charlie Methvin is a professional public relations man and is good at his work and time will tell if my optimism is well founded but at this moment I will put my faith in the new teams on and off the field.
Jack Ross is making the right noises and promising a style of play which will excite. His track record would suggest we can expect a more entertaining experience from our boys. I like the way the club is handling those spoiled overpaid remnants still under contract and I was impressed with Charlie Methven’s responses to the questions Salut! Sunderland sent in his direction. We once again have a club which seems to value its supporters.
I am happy with the transfer dealings so far. Plenty of players in relatively early. OK they may not be big names or come for big fees but it was that sort of approach that has got us into the state we are in at the moment and though, Rodwell, Lens and Borini are off the pay roll there are still plenty more who are eating into the budget that I am sure the club is looking to move on. But again I am impressed by the apparent unwillingness to let them go for peanuts. What many vocal fans often fail to take into account is that there is a ceiling to the amount clubs can pay their players and we may have the biggest budget in League 1 but at present too much is going on honouring the contracts of players who see their futures elsewhere.
I am realistic and will be patient. Of course I want to see us do well but for the next year or two I will be happy if we are competitive in the league we are in, if the players who turn out for us actually look interested, if an air of positivity and optimism hangs over the Wear again and going to games actually feels like a good way to spend some time.
The big house that was SAFC was falling into disrepair and proving expensive to shore up. But now the demolition process has begun and while we are maybe having to make do with a couple of porta cabins and a static caravan at the moment the rebuilding work is underway and the newly laid foundations would seem to be up to the task.
I am beginning to feel I know Stewart and Charlie in a way that I could never imagine relating to the reclusive Ellis Short, who appeared to me to be some kind of Jay Gatsby. Stewart and Charlie I can imagine tempting me up to the karaoke machine on a boozy meet the fans night, starting with a couple of Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes tracks where I kick off with The Love I Lost which segues into their version of Don’t Leave Me This Way and ends with the three of us singing along to the Hall and Oates classic Back Together Again.
Ha’way the Lads