Still needing consolation after Sunday’s latest low point in the peaks-and-troughs existence common to all followers of SAFC, we turn to a man who has combined lifelong passion for the club and obvious business flair to come up with a way of giving a deeper dimension to supporting Sunderland …
The name on the shirts our players wear tells you why people in the media, and especially in the North East, want to interview Phil Cronin.
He’s as Sunderland daft as anyone who reads this site, and once drove this splendidly decked out Mini to show his allegiance (to the extent of choosing high-risk parking spot at Newcastle Central Station).
Phil is also chief executive of Tombola, SAFC’s kit sponsors (and that’s the last time in this article you’ll see the t/T capped up; Phil sticks to the firm’s preference for lower case).
Inconveniently for the media, he is not one for interviews. All the more reason for Salut! Sunderland to be grateful that he has made this one exception.
Phil tells us about his company’s important links with the city and club, links that include providing employment for 150 people and should comfortably overcome the high-minded objections we heard last year to Sunderland’s announcement of the sponsorship deal.
He talks about the best and worst he’s known as a Sunderland supporter (yes, he was at Eastlands), offers upbeats thoughts on the club’s progress under Ellis Short, Niall Quinn and Steve Bruce and fills us in on that Mini …
Salut! Sunderland: Phil, you are known to be a massive Sunderland supporter but how exactly did your kit sponsorship come about? You’re a businessman but could you envisage sponsoring another club, ie one you didn’t support?
tombola has been spending a lot of money building the brand, including sponsoring the second biggest show on ITV, Emmerdale. Sponsoring Sunderland and everything that comes with that from the shirts, pitch-side hoardings, backing boards etc is a great way of promoting the business, but tombola probably wouldn’t sponsor another club in the UK. Although the deal had to make sense from a media value point of view, the sponsorship is more than just a media deal. tombola is proud of its Sunderland roots, competing against big national and international companies and more than holding its own.
Was there anything in your early career that suggested to you that one day you’d have some kind of commercial link to the club?
My Dad was a director at the club in the 70s, but I never thought I would work with the club in this way.
How did you get where you are now and what do you hope still to achieve in business or life generally?
I started off working for my Dad’s printing business Edward Thompson. Edward Thompson has been a really important company in Sunderland over many decades. My Dad, Frank Cronin, took an old family business from a dozen staff to over 700 supplying product made in Sunderland all over the world. I learnt an awful lot from him and the great people at Edward Thompson. My brother Paddy (also a big Sunderland fan) now runs the company and my old man is still chairman. I left ET in ’95 to set up a company called Intermedia and then tombola in 1999. tombola launched its first online bingo game with The Sun in 2006 and then went on its own in 2008. Since then tombola.co.uk has become the biggest online bingo site in the UK, ahead of Gala, Mecca, Foxy, William Hill, Ladbrokes and over 300 other sites. In the summer tombola will launch in its first major market outside of the UK and our hope is that the business can continue to grow in the UK and internationally.
Would you describe your own history as a SAFC supporter? Do you get to many games, home and away? Did you play yourself at any level beyond school?
My Dad was a season ticket holder long before he became a director at Sunderland and me and Paddy went to all the home games from very young. I was eight when we won the FA cup and there was no escape after that. I’ve been a season ticket holder for 25 years. I get to only a few away games each season so that’s why I don’t justify the “massive fan” tag but looking through the fence at the stadium once a week as it was being built and having a bit of Roker Park in my back garden, must mean I’m a bit Sunderland daft. I have been to some great away games, especially the cup runs and I’ve been lucky enough to get to all the derbys home and away for the last 20 years including the one where the fans were banned from St James’.
What have been your stand-out highs and deepest lows as a supporter?
I’ve got three boys who I’ve infected and I tell them the lows should make the highs better but… Lows would include every relegation, especially to the third although the season in the third was where I got to see more away games than any other, the 15 point season, not seeing us win at Wembley yet, third round FA Cup exits, derby defeats including this season’s nightmare. Highlights would be; Being behind the goal when Marco scored in the play-offs at St James, Chris Waddle’s free kick at Roker Park which gave me my 15 seconds of fame on Premier Passions, Philips chip in the first 2-1, Quinn’s header in the second, the 105 points season, the screamers in the Stadium of Light Philips(v Chelsea), Murphy, Edwards, Richardson’s free kick, hearing the mags relegation confirmed on my radio, but the one that still tops the lot for me was Gordon Armstrong’s goal against Chelsea in the FA Cup.
And what do you make of the progress we’ve made under Quinn/consortium and now Quinn/Ellis Short?
I think the progress has been fantastic. Its never going to be straightforward but personally I’m very happy to see the relative safety of mid table with a chance of finishing in the top half. If we could seriously challenge for a European position and have a run in a cup next season then that would be real progress.
Who are the best players you have seen in our colours and who would you rather not have had to watch at all?
I grew up watching the 73 cup final team of Bobby Kerr, Billy Hughes, Jimmy Montgomery, but for me the best player I’ve seen in a red and white shirt by some distance has been Kevin Phillips, and the championship winning team with 105 points was the best team.
The biggest disappointment especially on a pound for pound basis must have been Tore Andre Flo – the definition of “panic buy”.
Tell us about the Mini in Sunderland colours and its journey to Newcastle town centre? What became of it?
I had an old style red Mini Cooper with four white stripes on the bonnet and an FTM number plate. I used to park it in Newcastle Central Station if I was travelling to London, and one time I came back to find someone had written a letter and stuck it under the wiper threatening to tear it apart if I parked it in Newcastle again. After years in storage I’ve only just recently sold it to a friend but I’ve got visiting rights.
I heard about that (the Mini) from a fellow subscriber to the Blackcats e-mail loop. I believe you may once have been on the list, too, but what other ways do you have of showing or acting upon your support?
I was on the Blackcats email list for years but always more of a reader than a contributor. I read the SMB (on Ready To Go) quite a bit now but I’ve only posted a couple of times.
The tough one! My mother and one or two aunties were regular bingo players and I can imagine they’d play online if they were alive today. But what do you say to traditionalists – one or two came on here when the sponsorship was announced – who get snooty about a word like tombola being on the Sunderland top?
I understand that the sponsorship divides opinion and everyone is entitled to their view. On the SMB we come in for a bit of stick sometimes but there are also people who are happy that the company was started in Sunderland and seem to appreciate that we are doing well. We’re trying to build a business of real substance and I hope that in the long term people can feel a sense of pride that a company which started in Sunderland is a success internationally. But we’ve got to continue to work hard to achieve that success.
A couple of general football questions:
1 What did you make of Theo Walcott’s public admission to having dived in hopes of winning a penalty – in other words, does cheating still matter or is it now so commonplace that we might as well accept it as part of the moern game?
I think the current set up where players can be booked for diving should and probably does work. I don’t see diving as a bigger problem now than it has been in the past but it should never be acceptable. I think we are probably more aware of it because we have 10 views on an incident where the ref usually only has a couple.
2 How disappointed were you that the 2018 World Cup would not be coming after all to England and, indeed, Sunderland?
Very. I know that so many people at the club had worked tirelessly to help bring the 2018 World Cup to England and Sunderland’s had been the best part of the bid.
You’re not a great fan of giving interviews but since you, for once, you have an audience – and you know it’s one that thinks pretty much the same as you on wanting the best for SAFC – do you have any last message for them?
I went to the game at the City of Manchester Stadium yesterday and came away feeling very miserable, but I still feel the club is heading in the right direction. Lets hope that in two or three years time we’re watching our first European tie at the Stadium of Light.
* Check out Tombola’s site at https://www.tombola.co.uk