Traditionally, football fandom was forged through either geography, family or in some cases, both. Everyone remembers a relative taking them along to their team, somewhere along the line you got hooked and that was it for life. The concept of choosing a team, particularly in a football obsessed area like the north east was considered ludicrous. Naturally, you always had exceptions to this rule but for the most part it rung true.
Overtime, television became an increasingly prevalent part of football culture, a fan’s first taste of football often came from watching it via that medium. As a 22-year-old, I am part of that generation. I remember everyone crowding around the TV in the school canteen to watch England vs Brazil during the 2002 World Cup, it was the first time I became aware of the impact football could have on people.
Some cried, others spent the entirety of the school day in a huff and even certain members of staff didn’t seem their usual selves. My first experience of Sunderland also came via the TV, it was the 2-1 home win over Liverpool and the lads hoodwinked me into thinking we were a decent side. This presented a challenge to the old school concept of fandom but it became more of an extra step on the path of being a fully-fledged supporter.
From a personal perspective, I nagged my parents for weeks on end to take me to a game, when they eventually gave in, my mam took me to see Sunderland vs Charlton… that’s right, the three own goals game. Thanks mam. This didn’t dampen my enthusiasm and at the start of the following season I was taken to my second match at the Stadium. This was another glamour tie at home to Walsall in October 2003, this time we won 1-0 and I truly fell in love.
When Marcus Stewart scored the only goal of the game, it was the first time I had got caught up in the emotion of the moment rather than copied the reaction of others. My dad and I jumped up and down hugging each other shouting ourselves hoarse and grinning from ear to ear. I will always remember that day and I hope a succession of generations experience that feeling, but I fear we are in danger of losing the historic connection the football club has always enjoyed with the City of Sunderland and the surrounding areas.
On December 17th 2016, we beat Watford by a goal to nil at the Stadium of Light. Caught up in festive cheer, imagine that a father decides to cave into his 10-year-old son’s plea to be taken to a game and goes one step further by buying a pair of half season tickets as part of his child’s Christmas present. Despite a nightmare second half of the campaign, he bites the bullet and purchases season tickets for them both this season, because obviously the football will be more exciting and we’ll win more games down a division, right? It would have taken that poor kid almost exactly a year to experience that winning feeling. So that’s one win over Fulham to shout about amidst all the crushing disappointments.
For many people it’s becoming harder and harder for people to drag themselves to the match with each passing defeat and depressing performance. Since August 2012 we have won just 24 home league games. Grim. Add into the mix last season’s relegation and the fact it took us until October 31st to even take the lead in a game in 2017 and it’s not hard to see why people are getting disillusioned. Now imagine you’re that kid I described earlier. Why would he want to keep going? Since our relegation we’ve gone from crowds of 40,000 plus to crowds of just over 26,000. We’ve gone from seeing the likes of Aguero and Hazard to Daryl Murphy scoring late winners against us. I am very much of the “I go to watch Sunderland not the opposition” school of thought, but I remember watching Thierry Henry as an 11-year-old and being completely mesmerised by him. It’s all part of the process of falling in love with football.
This brings me onto my next point, where are the players that the next generation can aspire to be like? Although, they may learn that Donald Love has played European football for Manchester United and therefore think that dream is attainable for themselves. My childhood isn’t really a distant memory, and my early years of following Sunderland generally resulted in relegation or Championship football. At least there were characters though, at least there were heroes. Whether it was Julio Arca with his seemingly never-ending drag-backs, putting defenders on their arses, Marcus Stewart firing in goals in our promotion season, or Nyron Nosworthy doing Cruyff turns on the edge of his own penalty area, there were something to really love. I knew we were still crap, but I still had genuine affection for some of the players. Maybe I’m just getting old but I would hate to be growing up with this minging selection of players.
Even if we do turn around our abysmal run of form and get back to the Premier League in the next couple of years, we still face a potential situation where the concept of choosing a football team becomes more common amongst the young people of Wearside. We are now in a position where football has become a 24-7 event, not merely a sport that occurs in your local area on weekends. With wall to wall television coverage, PlayStation games like FIFA and social media it is possible to be completely immersed in football on an almost constant basis. This presents a huge problem, particularly when you consider how technologically savvy most children are.
Earlier, I gave an example of a young child who got taken to regular matches by his father. The odds are massively stacked in favour of him being a lifelong massive lads fan despite our woes. Other kids are not so lucky/unlucky. Now imagine a case of a lad in that same child’s class, his dad used to be a Sunderland season ticket holder but gave it up after getting disillusioned with the modern game and the direction SAFC were going in. He now has no inclination to go to the matches.
Therefore, his football mad son chooses instead to watch Manchester City on the TV, he instantly falls in love with Augero and Gabriel Jesus. He watches that last minute winner to win them their first league title in over 40 years on repeat, on FIFA he plays with City, the graphics now so realistic it’s almost as if he is playing with his new heroes. On Twitter and Facebook, he follows Manchester City fan pages and interacts with like-minded people his age. He can watch City on telly whenever he wants, keep up with all their latest transfers and watch all their club related content on you tube. Suddenly he doesn’t only feel like a Manchester City supporter but part of the community as well.
I hope I am wrong, but right now a perfect storm for losing a generation of support appears to be brewing.