“Is this a library?” was the question put to the Stadium of Light by the Southend fans on Saturday. In fairness to them, they’re still waiting on an answer. Be it the bitter cold that only got worse as the game wore on, or the fact that Southend United are hardly the most exciting visitors in recent seasons, the atmosphere was somewhat flat during a performance supporters could only have dreamt of before this campaign.
This is not something helped by the seating arrangements inside the ground. Though the away fans were not previously sat in a closed section of the ground, they rarely found themselves sat by considerable Sunderland support in the concourse when it was open.
What is more, visiting supporters are housed at the opposite end of the ground to the most vocal Sunderland support in the South Stand. It is harder for these fans to retaliate to the chants of the opposition when it is a struggle to even make out what they are saying at that distance. This has been particularly noticeable this season, where the trip to the North East is the biggest away day in the calendar.
The away end at Sunderland is comparable to the capacity of the entire home stadium for certain clubs at this level, whose supporters relish the opportunity to see their team play at a Premier League quality stadium as equals of the home side. For Sunderland fans, the visits of the likes of Fleetwood and Scunthorpe do not have the same novelty. The current situation means it is hard to match the enthusiasm of the away supporters, however there are solutions.
One of these is to move the away end back into the lower bowl of the stadium, ideally close to the South Stand. It throws down the gauntlet to the surrounding fans, to challenge the people who have come to Sunderland to encourage on the defeat of the home side and mock the city they represent. It is easy to ignore when the away following are a faceless mass sitting a few hundred yards away, but when the home fans can see these words coming from the mouths of the opposition support mere rows away, it becomes impossible not to rise to it.
The atmosphere at the Stadium of Light would immediately become more partisan, and this can only be a positive thing. In recent years, the home fans have been weaponised by away sides who knew that getting the fans to turn on their team was an easy way to gain the upper hand. Bringing the away end into the game more would encourage more vocal Sunderland home support, which can be equally as intimidating to the opposition.
Of course, moving the away fans nearer to the South Stand would be a logistical nightmare. It would be hazardous for them to be in front of Sunderland supporting boxes in the South West corner and putting them in the South East would mean moving the Fan and Family Zones, and potentially restrict access to the Stokoe Statue. All of that comes before you consider having to move long-standing season card holders. However, with a bit of luck, it might well be a move the club are forced to make in future. As of last season, it is a Premier League requirement that each club ensures at least one block of the away end be next to the pitch (St James’ Park is exempt from this, after it was decided it could not be done without increasing security risks).
If Stewart Donald and Co are to deliver at Sunderland, then this is something which will need to be addressed. If Saturday is anything to go by, it may as well be done now.