Loving League One

It’s easy to forget what a football club represents in the modern game. The billions poured in from television rights, the advertising deals, the questionable ethics of sponsorship from gambling companies, the boot deals, the Instagram posts, the ticket prices... I could go on, but you probably get the picture. Football has become an entertainment business. I use the term business deliberately too. A player is not spoken of in terms of playing style as much as he is spoken of in terms of monetary value or weekly wage. How much was Charlie Hurley worth? Who cares? He was a rock at the back who had the crowd chanting “Charlie, Charlie, Charlie” every time he came up for a corner.

Football is now about money. In years long, past it was never about money. It was about the people who flocked through the turnstiles. Those people who really owned the club. A chairman was basically a caretaker for the fans. Entrusted with looking after a prized possession. And who would be a chairman in those days? Good money after bad for little praise. The clubs belonged to the community. As years went by that connection frayed a little. You would see stories about players visiting children’s wards in hospitals at Christmas. That was being part of the community, right? Possibly. To a very small degree. Small gestures like that are blown into something disproportionate.

Every now and then fans would remind clubs that they were human beings and not money pots. When the Malaysian flight crashed and sadly took the lives of two Newcastle fans, Sunderland fans laid down arms and rallied. Rivalries aside those two fellas were football fans and they died following their club. Similarly, the support for Bradley Lowery transcended boundaries not just in this country but all over the world. The fans recognised one of their own and that little lad with the huge smile touched millions of hearts. His legacy remains and the great work done by the foundation set up in his name continues to help bring light to children and their families going through difficult times.

Football moves on though and it is not long before that human side is lost in discussions about finances. Oil rich City. Chelski. How much is Neymar worth? The £100m play off final. A few things have happened this summer which have made many of us have an awakening of sorts but none more so than the rediscovery of our club. We have been spellbound by the difference the new owners have made and we still gawp in amazement at the sight of them in the fanzone. We shouldn’t. The fact is that they simply understand. Sunderland under Bob Murray were the caring club, he may not have invested as much in the transfer market as we would have liked but one thing is for certain, Bob Murray cared about our city. He continues to do so and the Beacon of Light is a project which deserves praise. I am not sure Ellis Short ever got it. It’s not about those nights under the floodlights when the stadium is absolutely rocking. It’s about the connection between the people and the club. All else is vanity and entertainment.

In the North East we eat, sleep and breathe football; probably more so than any other part of the country. Why shouldn’t that passion be harnessed for positive means? The work that Newcastle have done for the food banks is tremendous. It’s a crying shame that work is necessary, but it is work which is worthy of great applause. In being relegated to League One and embracing new ownership I have been struck by some of the stories that have appeared. From a free corporate box to a chap who may not see next season to visits to fans who can’t make it to the match through illness. Stewart Donald has given up his personal time to connect with the people who matter most. It’s not just Sunderland either. Barnsley have a tray in the ladies’ toilet offering free sanitary products because they don’t believe women should be paying for essential items. At this level I have discovered something long lost. Walking down those streets with my bag of sweets with my mate to take our place in the Fulwell end I felt like I owned the place. Walking into Roker Park felt like stepping into my living room. I never noticed it before now but for a long time I have felt like a customer at the Stadium of Light. There to be conned into spending my hard-earned cash. “Enjoy League One,” they said. I am more than enjoying it. It has given me back my club and it has restored my faith in football.