A new year, time to reminisce. I went to my first Sunderland game in the early 80s. I was 3 years old. It was a 7pm reserve match and I was taken home at half-time as we lived a quarter of a mile from Roker Park and my Dad went back and watched the second half. I’ve no more information that that. No idea of opposition, time of year, or the result.
Those things were not important. The key was at 3 years old my Dad had made me a Sunderland fan. I was forced to go to Church as a kid but when given the choice sacked it off and became an atheist. With SAFC that luxury is not there no matter how hard you try. And I’ve tried. Even moving to London did not help due to the infamous London Branch – I even ended up playing sports I’d hardly played before (cricket) as well as ending up with a season ticket. Moving countries makes it worse. SAFC reels you back in during the good times and the bad.
Fast forward 37 years. As we were in the 80s we’re back in the third division. As in the 90s we are protesting about the Chairman. And as every decade, perhaps since time immemorial, we’re calling for the managers head. The names change (Cowie out, Murray out, Donald out) but the issues remain largely the same: exquisitely inept footballing decisions made by people with limited financial clout and seemingly a only a modicum of footballing nouse.
Cowie recruited ‘McManyMoney’ as he was known in our house and great SAFC historians have poured over those days. Suffice to say it’s almost universally accepted that he was the wrong man, at the wrong club, at the wrong time – great appointment aside from that. Murray was a more complex figure. A faux ‘vote’ to claim a mandate for leaving Roker Park. If you disagreed with leaving Roker you cast a vote. If you did nothing you were counted as being pro the move.
Obviously history has looked kindly on Murray and his vision of a decent stadium, expanding the fan base, and doing so within the financial means of the club now appears a masterstroke. Murray was many things but you could never accuse him of wanting to be liked. He saw the value of Netflix before Netflix was invented by inviting the cameras in to film Premier Passions. The first disaster documentary about our wonderful football club.
Stewart Donald and Charlie Methven. No insurance policy against not either gaining promotion or flipping the club quickly. Piss-takingly bad PR and party to our lowest league position in our history. Fan engagement goes along way in the north-east. They followed the Fat Mike blueprint of pints with fans and as far as I am aware did not quite go the whole hog with replica shirts in the away end. Methven did wear some rank red trousers at times mind.
These guys were populists without the bus. The antithesis of Murray and whilst Short was prone to turning up at the odd branch social he was not publicly on social media nor did he feel the need to massage his own ego. His recruitment of footballing management personal was as if he was a US billionaire with no clue about football.
Anyway, back to the Oxford pair who took a punt on SAFC. The pair (Sartori largely anonymous these days) undertook a gargantuan task and being an exile I’ve witnessed this from afar aside from a handful of glamour ties such as Wimbledon and Gillingham away and Accrington Stanley at home to name but a few last term.
People follow great leaders although do not always agree with them or even like them. People like the fun boss who says yes to everything but don’t respect them. The PR party visibly stopped after two Wembley defeats – Methven even made some comments (rightly or wrongly) about the atmosphere in the stadium in the play-off final v Charlton. I was not there. One Wembley defeat proved enough for me – on top of the previous 3 I had attended. I was too young to go in 1985 and watched with my Nana and Grandad in Grindon.
Methven had just about got away with calling fans parasites months earlier. He’d end up walking away when his Thatcher-loving veneer fell away and his garbled messages became nonsensical, the pressure of financial scrutiny became too much, and Donald ducked Twitter. Public relations were now at an all-time low. They’d made their pod and would need to lie in it. And lie they did claimed some. As we go to Fleetwood today, you wonder did we as fans want to believe their stories of 100 points. “Tell me lies, tell me sweet little lies” anyone? Interestingly on the valuation Wikipedia cites Sartori as saying 3 million for 20%. If Peter Jones were grilling our owners on Dragons Den the basic maths of our current rumoured valuation would not be hard to destroy. 18 months ago Sartori bought into a venture that was valued at 15 million.
The Jack Ross sacking was to appease a minority of fans and Donald made his gravest mistake to date in my opinion. First up, I believed from afar it was time for Ross to go. However, as fans we are not privy to the day-to-day goings on. If Donald believed that Ross could do the job he should have a) backed him properly in the summer and b) given him the January window. He showed himself to be man who wanted to be liked and not a leader. My caveat to Ross going was a leader coming in who could unite the fanbase. Parkinson has managed the latter, sadly.
The Doncaster result gave everyone a lift and no fans I know are taking any crumbs of comfort from that performance. The traveling fans enjoyed the win and that was it. Nobody feels a corner has been turned and we are suddenly on the march up the third tier of English football. Class atmosphere though by all accounts.
Donald has gone into mute mode since leaving Twitter and has not publicly responded to the campaign led by fanzines and backed by a big number from the fanbase. The BBC reported he’d sell up with a “heavy heart” which everyone will have an opinion about. Was Donald the saviour or just a salesman? Did Sunderland AFC get under his skin? He certainly made time for fans. Cynics say they were PR stunts. I’d like to think he meant well and enjoyed some of his time in the north-east.
Where do we go from here? That’s something for another blog. Time will tell. Safe to predict that the wheel will come full circle and we’ll be back in the top flight some day. I just don’t know how and I don’t know when…and until that day we suffer the ignominy of Fleetwood Town away on January 1st 2020. Hark now here, The Sunderland sing…