The past few years have seen the Stadium of Light host a misshapen jigsaw. Ill fitting pieces have been wedged in the wrong places and the edges of each piece have been dog eared or torn. Irresponsible ownership and neglect have spilled sour milk leaving a once delightful picture of a blossoming scene looking like a bedraggled abandoned plaything. Hastily shoved back into the box with pieces missing it was inevitable that the jigsaw would be put on a stall at a car boot sale in the hope that some unsuspecting passer by would be attracted by the low price to restore the joy that so many had found and relieve the previous owner of the guilt he felt every time he looked at the mess he had created. Various buyers took an interest, one saw the true potential and recognised the need for a complete overhaul.
As a child I would sit next to my mother doing a jigsaw, fascinated by the picture building in front of me. It seems trite to talk about strategy and planning when it comes to putting a jigsaw together but I learned all of that while sitting with her. You need to get the four corner pieces and build the edges. It’s only then that you can start to fill in the middle which will give you the full picture.
Stewart Donald has done exactly that. He has the corner pieces in place and the frame is building nicely. The first corner piece was to restore engagement and hope with the fans. He swooped in, completed the deal at pace and popped in to a podcast on the day of the takeover. Working along from that corner he has continued to engage with fans and uses social media to create a buzz around the club. Season tickets are selling quickly. There is a spirit about the club that has long been lost.
The second corner piece was the manager. Not so much the who but the what. The club required someone with the right attitude. Someone who had a plan and a vision. Someone who had an ideology rather than a vague inkling they might make a good manager. Now you always need to take the hyperbole following an appointment with a healthy sprinkling of salt but when Stewart Donald says he spoke to people involved in football who all pointed him towards Jack Ross from the very beginning, I believe him. Jack Ross is now on board. The photos have been released and the feedback from his previous clubs is glowing. Following his appointment he also joined a fan podcast and so joined up with the edge Donald himself put in place. We now have a manager who appears to have an ideology, a football identity, who also has a willingness to engage with the fans. His signings will be testament to that as will the work he does in the academy.
The third corner is financing. No club can exist or progress without investment. Stewart Donald knows this and in the early days he talked about a very respectable transfer budget. He probably also recognised that he could not do it alone. In the first week of his ownership he moved from securing the managerial appointment to trying to cement further investment. It was widely reported that he was attending the Monaco Grand Prix to meet with potential investors. Now news is coming through that he has been successful in those endeavours. How much investment is unknown and quite rightly so. You don’t show your hand when you are walking into negotiations. The signs are promising though.
Now the final piece. Understandably it is the piece that is undeveloped as yet. It is all about the players. We are already seeing signs of development in this area though with news of a potential sale of Didier Ndong. That is an incredibly important development and marks the transition between old and new. Out with the players who may well deliver elsewhere but were largely at Sunderland for the salary and the platform rather than the club itself. The transition will be from players who see the club as a service for their careers and earnings to a club with players who appreciate what it means to play for this great club. In time I hope to see that edge of the frame developed further. No more fitting players from across the globe into wedges that do not form part of the whole picture, but players who contribute to the greater aim of igniting the passion and noise that Sunderland are capable of. Players who know they are privileged to grace the halls of our great club and play like every match is a gift. For now though the manager has just landed. Give him time. We aren’t going to be linked with Messi or Ronaldo, we need to accept that there will be players where we ask “who?” But we need to trust that Jack Ross is building his vision. Bizarrely a documentary on the history channel mentioned that Maradona was considering retirement in 1977 if he wasn’t allowed to join Sunderland. Rumours that he abandoned his dream due to the lack of an airport for regular deliveries from South America are unconfirmed but that sums up everything we need to move away from. With the exception of some remarkable foreign players like Arca, Sunderland thrive on players who understand the club and the passion and the working class city they serve. If we can build that then we will have a club where players and fans are as one. Sunderland have never been called the entertainers, never the invincibles, never tika taka, never Brazil. Sunderland perform best as the hard nosed cocky little kid who will run through walls and be roared through by partisan support. We played Watford in the season when we blew the Championship apart. Graham Taylor was interviewed after the match and said they had played well for about 10 minutes then the steamroller that is Sunderland hit them. Like those tanks on the scoreboard at Roker, attack attack attack. A Panzer attack with the fans and the team leaving opposition dazed. Give us that Jack and we could have a beautiful few years ahead of us.
In unison we can all fill the rest of the jigsaw. The fans, the players, the manager and the owners can all work together to create a picture that we can sit back and admire. The seats will be deep red, the pitch lush and green, the fans will be smiling. There will be no squeezing ill fitting pieces in or getting to the end and realising that you’re missing one piece. It will be glorious technicolour. I am not a flag waver for the club, I never have been, but I am someone who yearns for this beast to roar again. We can only roar if we all come together. If you are in two minds about getting a season ticket, don’t be. You are part of the fabric of this club and we need you playing your part and moving us on to a bright glorious future. Get your season ticket now.