Around 20 years ago, almost to the day no doubt, there was a rather prolonged clunking of the letterbox. As a mischievous, and quite frankly nebby, eight-year-old I went into the front porch to examine what had been delivered – as though there would be anything for me.
But in fact, having sifted through all of the boring, unimportant to me, letters addressed to my Mam or Dad before stowing them away on the letter rack – does anybody still have one of those? There were three grey packages; one for my Dad, one for my brother and one for me.
With permission granted to open the package, I ruffled through the pages still not quite aware of what it was I was looking at, I mean why would I have any post? Even with the Sunderland badge emblazed across every shred of paper I was bypassing, I was still none the wiser until I reached the rather bulky bit at the end of the parcel. I pulled out the book cover; Sunderland badge etched onto the front along with the booklet of vouchers. This was a season ticket, for me.
It was the start of my journey. An affinity with the football club I love. Sunderland ‘til I die, so the saying goes.
Every year since then I never thought there would be a summer concludes without the renewal of my season ticket. It was what I always wanted as a kid and what I’ve always loved growing up. It wouldn’t matter how bad we got, I’d still go. Perhaps that inner romance of eight-year-old me may have died a long time ago as a season ticket has never been solely about the football for a number of years now but still, having a season ticket and going to the match has become a part of my identity.
I often see old friends from school for example who will ask “Do you still go to the Sunderland games like?” To which the answer has always been yes. “You must be mad,” is often the retort. But for the first time since that day 20 years ago I don’t have an answer to that question anymore. Well I do, but I don’t want to admit to myself the answer is now more than likely “No.”
It is an answer shared by quite a few it would seem as well following the Sunderland Echo’s poll last week which suggested 62% of fans would not be renewing even when fans are allowed back into the Stadium of Light. A crippling, unfathomable number.
Despite there being next to zero incentive to renew a season ticket based on the on-field matters I would still have renewed – after all, we’ve been in decline long enough now for whatever is served up on a Saturday afternoon to be the cause of no longer having a season ticket.
Instead, it is the off-field matters which look to have sealed my decision. The initial season ticket renewal policy, for me, is something which simply cannot be forgiven. The 24,000 of us, especially, who had season tickets last season are at the top of the list of people the club needed to avoid alienating with everything that has gone on. But the policy initially announced by new CEO Jim Rodwell was nothing short of a disgrace. Throw into the mix the details of last week’s Red And White Army meeting with relevant members of the board and there is nothing to entice anybody to come back.
While this may be going over old ground as the club altered their stance due to the fans dismay, the July 16 deadline for the direct debit scheme has been and passed and I found myself abstaining from renewing. It feels like a time to make a stance against the complete negligence of how my football club, our football club, has been and is being run: the naïve, out of tune, owners, the shady dealings, the selling of academy prospects, the lack of investment, the remarks about being something we clearly are not financially, the ‘jobs for the boys’, said ‘boys’ now leaving in their droves, a manager nobody wants, a playing squad not good enough, a lack of players you can really invest in and get on the edge of your seat about, the likelihood of yet another summer of poor recruitment, a third season in League One with nothing other than blind faith suggesting we will get out of it this time either…the list is pretty endless.
It’s been hard to acknowledge where to begin as far as all things Sunderland are concerned lately. After the season was curtailed, the lasting memory was that pathetic surrender at The Memorial Ground, where Bristol Rovers effectively ruled us out of the opportunity to even compete in the Play-Offs – not that we deserved it, of course. I watched the Play-Off final in disgust. How could we not finish above Oxford United or Wycombe Wanderers; their resources compared to what ours supposedly are? Everybody at the football club should hang their heads in shame.
During the subsequent lockdown I was utilising my one allotted period of daily exercise to go running. There would be one or two stragglers in an otherwise deserted town centre. It was eerie. I’m so used to Sunderland, for all of its knocks, being vibrant and full of colour on a matchday – but instead there was nothing. Even those few passers-by were unrecognisable due to the mask covering their faces.
But as I would drop down onto the River Wear and run under the shadow of the Stadium of Light, I began to realise that the only thing really unrecognisable in Sunderland at the moment is the football club. This isn’t the club in which eight-year-old me couldn’t wait to be a part of, running around the house arms aloft with his first ever season ticket.
This isn’t the football club I have dedicated and arranged parts of my life around. This isn’t the football club which gave me heroes such as Kevin Phillips and Julio Arca and promotion chasing or relegation fighting teams I could at least get on board with. For two seasons we have been in this league now and but for three days after a late winner against Rochdale in 2019, it has never once felt like a promotion winning season. It is relentlessly draining.
“Support the team, not the regime” has often been expressed at several junctures over the 20-years I’ve been religious to the cause. But there is just something different now. Is the damage irreparable? Probably not, because we football fans are fickle. But where in the past I have worked my life around Sunderland AFC, it feels like I now need to work Sunderland AFC around my life.
The talk of new owners does little to dispel the apathy and disillusionment surrounding the club and only worsens when you dig a little deeper into those rumoured to be taking over. Maybe this is just a time out for me? It’s not like I’ll never set foot back in the Stadium of Light, but the mask the club is currently occupying needs to be removed, for too long now this club has been submerged in melancholy and something now has to change. Maybe it’s time to stand on the pavement and watch on by as the circus rolls out of town instead of jumping aboard one of its floats and carrying on.