Stan Anderson got it.
“There were three industries in Sunderland: coal, shipbuilding and football,” Anderson said. “Football has survived. Coal and the shipyards have gone.” In the book in which that quote appears, Michael Walker’s excellent ‘Up There’, the author rightly added glassmaking to the list of the city’s historic traditions. That too, has now fallen by the wayside.
The description of the north-east of England as a ‘footballing hotbed’ is as common as it is clichéd, but that does not make it any less accurate. While fanatics can be found up and down the land, far and wide across the world, this particular region retains a unique spot in its heart for the beautiful game.
That is not to say that those from the region have nothing better to think about other than football; the recent dwindling of Sunderland’s attendances is representative of that. Rather, as Anderson recounted, the sport is simply engrained in the fabric of the local communities in these parts, it being a tradition which stretches back over a century.
For while Sunderland AFC may only be a football club to the uninitiated, to those that matter it is so much more. The 1950s and 1960s saw the beginning of the end for the ships. England’s World Cup triumph in 1966 coincided with the first closure of a Wearside mine; twenty-seven years later, the final one disappeared. Glassware lasted a little longer, but by the time that went in 2007 it had been decimated to such a point that just 240 jobs were left to be dispensed of.
As the industries whittled away, replacements were few and far between. The plight of the miners is the most glaring example – the scourge of Thatcherism continues to blight local communities to the present day – but the combination of the three trades disappearing into the North Sea air left little in the way of social hubs around which the local population might feasibly gather. While globalisation has reduced the lure of communality in many areas across these British Isles, Wearside is one of the areas which has suffered most, so infrequent and unforthcoming has government assistance been.
Such events shunted the city’s football club ever clearer into view. Sunderland as a club is not unique in holding long-standing ties with those in its immediate vicinity, but such ties are still vital if one wishes to understand both the club and its meaning to those that follow it. It is a focal point for the city; a matter that can be discussed in pubs and in the paper shop, attended as one body, celebrated together and commiserated together. With so much else having been wrested away, a football club such as this one takes on added importance.
Anderson got it and many others have since. Charlie Hurley, Cork born but Wearside adopted, he got it. Peter Reid, a Scouser dressed in blue, then red and white through and through, he got it. Kevin Ball, a battler from Hastings, he got it. Still does. Wants his ashes to be scattered at the Stadium of Light. Niall Quinn, an Irishman, moulded in London, matured in Manchester, he got it. He got it so much he went and bought it.
What they got was that this was not – is not – just any old football club. Where the modern-day ‘mega clubs’ have long since moved away from the local man to reach out across the seas, such an option is not possible for those further down the footballing pecking order. Success will drive interest off the field, of course, but in order to maintain the essence of a club those involved with it must understand what that club’s essence was in the first place.
Ellis Short has never got it. He might have seemed to have got it, once or twice, way back when, but he never truly did. His is the tale of a man who arrived from America with only the most rudimentary knowledge of a sport he was soon to invest millions in; a man who, to all intents and purposes, simply liked the idea of owning a football club. There were times when he was invested in the club in a manner that wasn’t just financial, flaunting an ‘FTM’ badge and supping victory beers in The Glass Spider, but these were fleeting shows and little more. To suggest Short’s heart wasn’t in it would be unfair, but to suggest he understood his investment would be untrue.
To understand why he has never got it one must look beyond the football pitch. Losses and capitulations are nothing new on Wearside, but other occurrences during Short’s tenure have been. For it is under his premiership that the club has been unmoored from its roots; stripped of its once-held reputation as “the caring club”; seen its standing in the wider footballing world trashed, perhaps beyond repair.
Short’s inability to understand the club he has owned since 2009, and chaired since 2011, is evident in a series of unfortunate and unsavoury events. The promotion of inexperienced family friends to high-ranking positions does not even scratch the surface in the list of ways the club’s name has been besmirched under his ownership, but it does help portray the lack of respect it has been shown. We all know of the most glaring and distasteful incidents. The harassment of local landlords for using the club’s image without seeking permission. The hiring of Paolo Di Canio without realising the offence it would cause. The disgraceful Adam Johnson affair.
Those were failings borne of either ignorance or malice, or, more likely, a mixture of the two. In mitigation, at least he once tried to understand the club, to get it. Now Short is a boardroom fugitive; an owner in absentia. Having plunged the club into crisis, he has taken flight, wanting a way out and washing his hands of the whole sorry affair, one in which he has been hugely complicit.
Sunderland’s chairman attended a mere two home games last season, as the club slid listlessly out of the Premier League. This term, he has managed just a single visit to the Stadium of Light, way back in August for the opening day hosting of Derby County. In spite of this rather telling fact, Short, upon dispensing of the services of Simon Grayson on Halloween, offered the view that he was “as involved as I’ve ever been” in the running of the club.
The reality is much different. Short remains chairman in title only. To all intents and purposes, Martin Bain is steering the ship. It is Bain who faces the iceberg looming large up ahead and, because of the past – and ongoing – decisions of his boss, it is Bain who can do little about what comes next.
What comes next is relegation to League One. A second successive demotion. A plummet to the lowest point in the club’s 139-year history. Unless Chris Coleman can conjure up a miracle, unless he can achieve survival armed with flagging old heads and untried youngsters, Short’s proclamation upon sacking Grayson that the club “should be trying to finish in seventh place [in the Premier League] every season” will look even more delusional than it did then.
To see the damage this owner’s neglect has brought about one need only observe how infrequently wider criticism of his actions has been forthcoming. The club’s decision to place Premier League survival above all else has seen it become little more than an irritant, a club that other fans and clubs are thoroughly sick of. The many distasteful incidents, in particular the Johnson debacle, has led few to have any sympathy whatsoever for the club’s continued demise. Indeed, some even hope for it to worsen.
George Caulkin, Northern Sports Correspondent for The Times, confirmed at the weekend that he had not been asked to cover Sunderland AFC since mid-August. That is how little the wider footballing world cares about the club, about the mounting debts and the never-ending downward drift. That is Short’s legacy, not the sustained period of Premier League tenancy that he harks back to on the rare occasions he fronts up.
More tragically, his legacy is that severance of the bond between club and community. Fans of all clubs stay away in the lean times, it is a fact of life. But this is different. Even those who still go to games, those whose numbers slim with each passing defeat, cannot muster much energy to rouse themselves. The Stadium of Light is a morgue, its inhabitants observing the slow death of a once-close friend.
Meanwhile, the chairman and owner sits back, some three thousand miles away and with little to no interest in his lossmaking investment. He continues to fund shortfalls to stop the club going under, but his desire to lift it from its current malaise has long since disappeared. His hands washed, his eyes closed, his ears muffled. He does not want to know. He is done with the club, save for committing the bare minimum. His unending absence confirms what we fear. The drift will continue. The bonds will not be remade. Nothing changes until he goes.
Chris Weatherspoon’s heart rending account of Short’s stewardship of the club hits so many nails on the head.
He gives a list of past distinguished players and managers which ought to inspire Short, but, as Chris says, he doesn’t get it, despite the fact that everybody else does.
I think it is now right to conclude that Short doesn’t care what happens to Sunderland. His irresponsibility beggars belief in a world where totally irresponsible owners have done irreversible damage to old and distinguished clubs:
Blackburn Rovers and Leyton Orient come immediately to mind. I have started to think the worst: that Sunderland might not only be relegated again this season - the signs are already there - but that the club might go into liquidation and disappear. I can’t think of any other club in modern times where this has happened, unless one includes Third Lanark where, in 1967, mismanagement and corruption destroyed the club. It is trying to revive itself but has a long climb via minor leagues in front of them and success is far from a foregone conclusion.
When I spent my brief childhood in Murton Colliery, Sunderland were a top team a team led by the likes or Raich Carter when they won the FA cup in 1937. I was quite young at the time!
I was living in Sheffield when, against the odds and thanks to the heroics of Jimmy Montgomery and Ian Porterfield’s goal, the cup ended up, perhaps unexpectedly, on Wearside. Any self respecting owner would honour that kind of past, but not, it seems, Ellis Short.
Coal mining and shipbuilding were Thatchered out of existence and now that Ellis Short has fallen disastrously short of his responsibility to do his best for the club. I fear that Sunderland AFC could join the miners and the shipwrights on the scrap heap. We hear that some of the present players are far from committed to Sunderland’s success. They may well be silly, scarcely talented young men who have no place at the club. It’s been fashionable to blame the procession of rubbish players and managers for Sunderland’s plight, but some have done well with other clubs. The real culprit has gone into hiding with the whole of the Atlantic Ocean between him and us. Dare one conclude that he’s done a runner?
Will he ever show his face on Wearside again?
feeling sad and frustrated,
Dave from Sheffield
Just read an excellent article by Chris Weatherspoon on your ALS website!
For Ellis Short read Mike Ashley, as a lifelong Newcastle fan the similarities between the 2 are striking!
Of course, Ashley has a different agenda but in essence him and Short BOTH thought owning a football club was the ‘in’ thing to do!
Both have no interest in the history, heritage or people that matter - us the fans!
And when things go wrong they hide away!
Quite frankly the fans of NUFC and SAFC both deserve better
‘A Chairman In Absentia’ by Chris Weatherspoon was a poignant and well written synopsis on the current situation at SAFC.
Personally, I think the lack of respect shown by Ellis Short and Martin Bain is an insult to everyone who has the interests of Sunderland AFC at heart.
Their silence in a time of crisis has been deafening. These custodians of SAFC Est 1879, a historically famous 139-year-old footballing institution, have never issued any sort of apology for last season’s relegation or our current dire league placing. They have said nothing about any plans, strategy or ambitions for the future.
Short laughingly suggested on his last SAFC.com orchestrated interview that he saw Sunderland as a top seven premiership club which rather flies in the face of appointing a nonentity like Grayson as manager last summer in the tailwind of the hideous failure David Moyes, and giving him £1.25m to spend and farming out several assets on loan. He then outdoes that by giving Chris Coleman precisely zilch to spend in the January transfer window.
Bain for his part has made a mockery of his claim over a year ago that he wanted to reconnect the club with the fan base and the community. They’ve never been further apart. His other ‘triumphs’ have been to rid the club of some excellent staff such as Rob Mason and long serving employees whose annual wages would total a few months’ worth of Rodwell’s, overseeing the false economy sale of Mannone whilst subsequently signing three goalkeepers of lesser ability (pure genius eh?), persevering with Moyes last term and cancelling the prestigious SOL concerts, with the recent news that the club wouldn’t entertain the biggest rock band in musical history, the iconic Rolling Stones, whose presence on Wearside would have attracted global publicity.
Short and Bain’s lack of respect and accountability is unacceptable, and many people are getting decidedly angry at this moment in time and understandably so.
The club we all Iove and spend a great deal of time, cash and emotion on is being run into the ground.
Apparently when the going gets tough, the tough get going.
These two are hiding under a rock somewhere and want bringing out into the open and show some leadership. Gutless is the only word for them right now. Chris Coleman shouldn’t have to front up the crap that isn’t of his making.