For the benefit of doubt and for full disclosure, I don’t know Charlie Methven. Nor do I know Stewart Donald. I have met them both a couple of times, but I suspect they remember less of our conversations than I do, and that’s not a lot. It is absolutely wrong of me, on that basis, to call into question their personality or character as I simply do not know them. I feel like I do though. I feel like I should. These were the men who waltzed on to Wearside the summer before last and told me things were going to change and the pisstake party had stopped.
Prior to that I had never heard of the men from Oxford. I had never really paid that much attention to Eastleigh either but the feedback from their fans about Stewart Donald was overwhelmingly positive. Sunderland had suffered back to back relegations and we found ourselves looking at matches like Accrington Stanley in the calendar. The arrival of the Oxford set meant that instead of the pessimism with which we would otherwise have looked at these matches, morose acceptance was replaced with optimism and novelty. We’re going to enjoy League One, get some wins and be back in the Championship next season. Life was good.
Then there was the open access to Stewart Donald. “What’s that I read on twitter? Your coach has broken down? I’ll send the team coach to pick you up.” This was interaction between boardroom and terraces that we hadn’t seen since St Niall of Quinn paid for a bunch of taxis home. Couple this with Methven and Donald preferring to use fanzines and fan podcasts as their communication vehicles of choice and suddenly Sunderland did seem a very different club. All we had to do, as fans, was to play our part. Many of us did. Seats were replaced by fans, we packed away ends up and down the country we rose to Charlie’s Boxing Day challenge and smashed the attendance record for the season. RAWA introduced the flags to the South stand which was renamed the Roker End and murals were commissioned.
All good stuff yes? Well yes, it is, but something changed along the way. If we wind back the clock and look at our previous relationships with the boardroom they have rarely ended amicably. Those with memories will recall the protests against Murray others will remember how stark the difference was in fanzine relationships with the board between those days and the dawning of the Stew and Charlie era. Ellis Short’s realm started with him drinking with fans on preseason tours and ended with him staying away from the club. In the end he wrote off some of the money owed to him, presumably out of a sense of responsibility or kindness.
In Trafalgar Square before the Portsmouth game Sartori, Donald and Methven were as impressed with the pyrotechnics as the bemused tourists; they were in with the crowd. It was after the Charlton game that things became a little tense. Obviously, the result left many of us devastated. It was not supposed to happen like that. I can imagine Donald and Methven felt the same. Albeit they probably realised they had a bigger job on their hands now. With failure comes the natural and inevitable process of blame.
Some fans blamed Jack Ross for failing to push on at 1-0. Some fans blamed players for lack of effort. Nobody really blamed Stew and Charlie. After all they had brought Mark Campbell to Wembley, so things looked promising for investment. Charlie also laid some blame. He said Charlton brought more fans to Wembley than us and our crowd was quiet. He’s right on both counts.
What’s missing is the why? The fans were quiet because it meant so much. Nerves were jangling and the performance on the pitch was hardly inspiring. We probably brought less because it costs a whole heap more to get from Sunderland to Wembley than it does from South London. Go to Wembley twice in one season and your cost is doubled. Add that to the huge away following and impressive home attendances and suddenly the bills were adding up. Charlie was right, but it’s always best not to point at the fans when they’re feeling pretty irate already.
Follow that up with a spring, summer and autumn of confusion over takeovers that we all thought was a takeover but after the takeover didn’t happen were told that it was never a takeover. Then hear Donald saying that a takeover had been on the table and it feels a little disingenuous. If we all believed it was a takeover and then get told it was never a takeover, we feel a little silly about getting carried away.
Then when the other fella says that there was a potential takeover under discussion then you start to wonder which version to believe. Things have become relatively quiet within the club at the moment. Flat you might say. There is a structured dialogue meeting between fan groups and the board tomorrow where some issues are going to be put on the table for Methven to provide a response. Other than that, we have heard little from the men who were heralding a new dawn. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that’s a bad thing. We’re a Premier League club in all but position and perhaps the Eastleigh model doesn’t quite fit. The difference between the atmosphere at the club has switched dramatically when you compare last summer to the winter that is coming.
If this is the new look for the boardroom then I support, it because it’s professional. It’s not League One. However, it must be consistent and it must be matched by improved performances. If we play well, we feel good. If we feel good, we have a singalong. It really is as simple as that.