When I was 8 years old I wrote a letter to my favourite player at the time, Kevin Ball.
This was the spring of 1997 – our final season at Roker Park – with the team embroiled in a hard fought but ultimately unsuccessful fight against relegation in our debut Premier League season. For reasons still unknown, Gareth Hall somehow featured regularly at right back and Lee Howey turned out frequently in the Premier League in both defence and attack. Now there's a scary thought. The team gave a good account of themselves but were limited at best. We had one or two exciting players, like Bridges and Craig Russell, but Bally stood out above the rest for his character and tenacity. Along with Hulk Hogan and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, I adorned my school lunch box with stickers from the 1997 Merlin Premier League sticker album, with Bally's taking pride of place in the centre.
I liked Bally for other reasons, too. He and his family lived close to my cousin, who attended the same school as Bally’s son. That meant I could tag along to summer fayres and catch a glimpse of our captain in the flesh, buying tickets for the tombola or chucking balls at the coconut shy like you and I. For an 8-year-old it was all very exciting.
A few weeks later I received a letter through the door. Inside was a two-page handwritten reply from the man himself, apologising for the delay in responding and promising to pass on his regards to the rest of the team. In my original letter to him I’d badgered him with some guff about the team, my school and his own upbringing in Hastings. In his reply, he’d taken the time to respond to each point with his typical charm and enthusiasm, explaining in detail about Hastings and where to find it on a map. I was over the moon. I felt so proud and wanted to show off my letter so much that I even kept the envelope in a plastic wallet to show everyone, and came across it again last year in a box of important documents in my Mam's loft.
But I digress. The point I’m making here is that kids look up to and treat their favourite players as heroes, like I did with Kevin Ball. In the park I always tried to imitate my other favourite player, Niall Quinn. He was tall like myself, and although Phillips scored all the goals and received the most adulation, he was slight, fast and nimble, whereas I was lanky, gangly and ungainly. Even when we’ve really struggled over the years, we’ve always had at least one cult hero for kids to hang their hats on. Defoe was the obvious choice last season, but even aside from him there are tons of examples. Djibril Cisse and his flashy hair. Julio Arca. Marco and Don Goodman in the early 90s. Stephen Elliott in the Championship under Mick McCarthy.
I’ve started to wonder though, who exactly do the 8-year-olds of today look up to in our current team?
I’ve thought long and hard about it but can’t really come up with any suggestions. We don’t have a natural goal scorer in the team for kids to gravitate towards, and our only senior striker following Grabban’s decision to cry off back to Bournemouth reserves has 2 goals all season. Other than McGeady, who flatters to deceive and is badly out of form, and Watmore who is injured, we have no pace, flair or creativity. There's no excitement and no-one you could imagine any kid wanting to hang a poster up of or emulate in the park.
Now, the obvious retort is that Kevin Ball was hardly the most exciting or gifted player either, but he at least had passion and spirit and was easy to relate to. Even though he was born and raised over 300 miles away - something he told me himself in his letter - you could tell even as an 8-year-old that he was proud to represent the club. For years though we have recruited players who see Sunderland as an easy ride. There are one or two exceptions, but the current players share all the dislikeable traits as the superstars – the money, the flash cars, the big houses in Darras Hall – without any of the talent to back it up.
Not only that though, but times have changed. It’s all about the Premier League now, and if you’re not there or competing to get there, you’re nowhere. It could just be where I sit, but I’ve noticed a much older crowd at the SOL now compared to previous relegation seasons. Kids get their football fix from FIFA on the Playstation now and watch highlights of Messi running rings around defenders on Youtube. James Vaughan in a cold and miserable SOL just doesn’t cut it.
This worries me, as the longer we’re floundering at the bottom of the Championship – and especially if we do go down again – the more we risk alienating the next generation of fans. I have a family friend who is a fanatical Sunderland supporter, who tells me his son – who is the same age as I was – ‘supports’ Ronaldo and Harry Kane. He last attended the SOL to see Southampton hammer us last season in the freezing cold and cannot be persuaded to go again, despite great encouragement and borderline bribery. I doubt he’s alone in that.
And that’s probably the saddest thing about our current predicament. We have nothing to show for a decade in the richest league in the world and our future prospects look bleak. We have sickened off the older generation and are doing nothing to attract the next generation of fans. To paraphrase Jamie Carragher, nobody grows up wanting to be Billy Jones.