“There has been no dialogue from the chairman.”
Chris Coleman had not been asked to pinpoint a factor behind Sunderland’s galling demise over the past two seasons, but had that been his mission then he could hardly have happened upon better phrasing. Ellis Short has attended the Stadium of Light only once this season, way back in August when a draw with Derby County suggested this Championship lark might not be too bad after all. He has not spoken a word to Coleman, a man who inhabits possibly the most important job at the club outside of the owner himself.
And following Saturday’s pitiful, predictable loss to Burton Albion, Short was conspicuous by his absence once more. That loss meant relegation, looming on the horizon as it has all season, finally became the reality.
The club’s lowest ebb in its history – and that is no exaggeration, for even the one prior demotion to the third tier was met with more resistance than this sorry effort – was accompanied by a statement which, for once, actually grasped the gravity of what had just unfolded: “Sunderland AFC is so much more than a football club.”
Of course, that statement did not bear the name of Ellis Short. It is tempting to wonder whether, in those thirty minutes or so after relegation had been confirmed, he actually had any clue about what had just happened. His ownership is carried out from afar, and though he continues to fund losses that arise, his attachment to the club is otherwise nil.
The statement did not bear the name of the CEO, Martin Bain, nor anyone else. Whilst Bain likely signed off on it, it would be nice to think that it came from someone working at the club who actually gives a shit. Certainly, too few people at the top of Sunderland AFC have afforded this tenet of the local community the respect and care it deserves.
Football clubs get relegated because they are not very good at playing football, but the neglect at Sunderland has seeped into every crack and crevice possible. To look at the Stadium of Light is to look upon a former fortress in a state of disrepair. This, it should be remembered, is an entity which has receipted over £800m in the last ten years. Using the World Bank’s figures for 2016, that is more than than the annual GDP of no fewer than fourteen of the world’s countries.
Yet just about all of that money has been squandered. Squandered because, far from being invested in the long-term, it has to all intents and purposes filtered into and then out of the club like water through a sieve. Vast sums have been wasted on players and managers alike; almost nothing has been done to address areas off the field.
“Empty pink seats” is a frequent refrain from our friends up the road and while it is easy to brush off, doing so does little to deny the fact that, beneath the mocking, there is a genuine point to be made. The club knows it, announcing as they did in August 2016 a rolling programme to replace them with newer, redder stools. Maintaining “the exceptionally high standards set when [the stadium] opened” was said to be a key goal, and for a little while they held true to that, as they went about replacing a large swathe of seats in the East Stand.
And then, nothing. The cessation of that rolling programme was never officially announced, but at some point it was brushed under the rug. Those new seats now stand out amongst a sea of pink. While it would matter little if exploits on the field were worthy enough for the place to sell out each week, their combination with a playing squad that is clearly unfit for purpose simply makes the situation even less bearable.
It is not just the seats. Take a quick wander around the concourse on a match day and what you will see is largely what you would have seen 20 years ago when the ground opened. In fact, you’d actually see less, given that the banners which once hung down adorned with the names of famous players have long since been removed.
Fans are asked to enjoy their pre-match frivolities in a bland, concrete husk, where a multitude of the concourse bars no longer raise their shutters. Those that have remained open are worryingly out of date. At many you can’t pay by card and plenty more possess cash registers that wouldn’t have looked out of place in The Rovers Return Inn when Alec Gilroy ran it.
The club still does work that arouses pride, and Scott Wilson of The Northern Echo rightly pointed it out last week. The award-winning sensory room is a brilliant, innovative idea, and the work of the club’s Foundation of Light charity – which, it should be noted, Short has now resigned from – deserves wider recognition. Yet these accomplishments are blips on the radar rather any kind of norm.
Admonishments of the playing staff have been in strong supply all season, and here again there are some who should hang their heads in shame. Where is the pride of, say, Jack Rodwell, a man who earns a small fortune each week and cannot be bothered to even play for the club? Or of Darren Gibson, now jobless, a man who got roaring drunk before the season even began and laid into many of his teammates? Gibson evidently has a drinking problem, for which he needs support, but he is just another example of a player who has, quite frankly, taken the piss while on Wearside. He joins a lengthy list and unless the club does something about its dreadful recruitment of players, it is a list which will only continue to lengthen.
Taking the piss out of Sunderland has become a frequent activity in some quarters. Derision and laughter from north of the Tyne comes as no surprise, but to see the Evening Chronicle – which still claims to represent the entirety of the north east – lapping up Saturday’s news with glee is as infuriating as it is disrespectful. Likewise, watching on as the national newspapers lined up to stick the boot in, when most have steered well clear all season, did little to soothe the blow of demotion.
That they can do so without too much of a backlash is again indicative of a club that has lost all sense of purpose and is now just a vehicle for mockery. After all, when some of the club’s own players plainly do not care about the state of their employer, why should anyone else? Mickey-taking about fans who have decided to stay away, beaten down and battered by years of disgraceful home form, is the easiest refuge to take for those who do not know the extent of the recent neglect and cannot be bothered to take the time to understand it. Such attitudes are beyond the club’s control but they have arisen because the club itself has taken little pride in itself since Niall Quinn left in 2012.
Millwall manager Neil Harris, ahead of his side’s 17-game unbeaten run coming to an end against Fulham on Friday night, was moved to point out one of the more intangibles aspects he felt had helped his team. “There needs to be a bond between the terraces and the pitch. [The fans] can see a team they can identify with.” Winning games helps but Harris is right, and the exact opposite is true of Sunderland. Fans see a team made up of players who either don’t care or can’t hack it any more, then look up to the stands and see the chairman’s seat empty and wonder why they should bother. Apathy kills and this is a slow death.
It has been uttered countless times before, by me, by others, but nothing can properly change until the club’s ownership changes. Ellis Short will not invest more money and the club will continue to drift. Yet it would be nice if, at the very least, fans could be given something to hold onto. Perhaps League One will allow for more youngsters to be given a chance, and while they mightn’t ultimately good enough they will at least curry favour from a fan base sick and tired of watched overpaid mercenaries steal a living, week in, week out.
This used to be a club to be proud of. We used to be supporters filled with that pride. Can we have some back, please?