This week saw a controversial photo from a packed London theatre emerge online. The London Palladium hosted two events on Sunday and Monday, one of them a Q&A with Arsene Wenger. The photos showed hundreds of people sat close together in an indoor theatre. However plans to let thousands of fans safely back in outdoor sport arenas from October 1st were put on hold due to a recent spike in Coronavirus cases.
The #LetFansIn campaign was started in response to the Government’s decision to put on hold the return to stadiums. At the time of writing the petition has 197,317 signatures, which means it will force a discussion in Parliament. The Independent revealed on Wednesday that the process of fans travelling to events was the main concern for the government and why it was scrapped for now.
Who’s right or wrong in this situation is a debate for another time but what is clear is that football clubs need fans back in the grounds in order to generate revenue to survive. It has been said that playing behind closed doors could continue for at least six months, that would see many clubs lower down the leagues facing financial ruin. Even if the grounds are not at full capacity, the revenue generated from limited capacity could save some clubs from going bust.
Going to a football game can be a first bonding session between parent and child. It can be the first love for people, the first time they experience passion or experience heartbreak.If it wasn’t for football games many people would not have cherished memories with family and friends.
The first away game I ever attended was Barnsley in March 2007, when the world was a totally different place, Tony Blair was the Prime Minister, the average price of a pint was £2.58 (£3.80 now) and Take That were top of the UK charts with Shine! Sunderland were also shining in March 2007 as they were winning games of football and looking favourites to head back to the Premier League at the first time of asking.
As a tiny seven year old I had just got my first ever season ticket in the previous August, I had watch us lose our first four games of the campaign with Niall Quinn as manager. Which had me thinking that this Sunderland supporting thing doesn’t seem that good, it was then I was told that’s what being a Sunderland fan is all about. My love for Sunderland quickly grew after Roy Keane was appointed and we signed six players on deadline day 2006 including Stan Varga, Ross Wallace and David Connolly. After Sunderland had appointed Keane we had gradually made our way up the Championship table. The Black Cats went into the game in 4th place after winning seven out of their last nine. Keane had a squad mixed with players that were at the beginning and end of their careers. Young guns Jonny Evans and Danny Simpson had signed on loan from Manchester United whilst old timer Dwight Yorke had joined from Australian side Sydney FC.
The game was to be attended by 8,000 Sunderland fans, taking up two sides of Oakwell. I remember travelling down to Barnsley in a car full of my dad and his mates when we heard the controversial team news or should I say bus news. Roy Keane being Roy Keane had told the team bus to leave without Anthony Stokes, Tobias Hysen and Marton Fulop, who sadly passed away in 2015. The trio had been late for the bus which had infuriated Keane who explained his decision saying: "Could not make it for the 4.15pm coach yesterday afternoon, although we'd finished training just past noon. That's not good enough. In the past I have the feeling that players at the club have thought Sunderland is a soft touch. No more. If you work in a normal job in a factory you punch in. That's what I used to do years ago. So I left them behind.”
I remember walking to the game that day and seeing wave after wave of Sunderland coaches parked outside the ground with thousands of SAFC fans spilling out of them. Sunderland fans were everywhere, playing football on the grass and chanting at the top of their lungs. It was first getting into the ground which I will remember the most and it wasn’t for the atmosphere, it was the toilets. They were outside and had no roof, fortunately that day it wasn’t raining. I was sat in the West Stand, which was usually part of the home end. But because of the lads’ big following we had an extra side of the ground. The atmosphere was electric before the game and the noise was deafening. Roy Keane received a hero’s welcome from the away end that day with The Guardian commenting that he received 'messianic adulation that only a pope, banana-republic dictators and football folk heroes can command.'
At half time the game was 0-0. Nerves began to creep into the Sunderland fans in the second half as we searched for a goal to keep up the pace with the league leaders and continue our promotion push.That goal came in the 65th minute from a young Grant Leadbitter, who’s bobbling shot beat Nick Colgan in the Barnsley goal and released a tidal wave of emotion amongst the travelling army. My memories of that goal are that I had asked my dad to take me to the toilet because I had one too many fruit shoots. Luckily we were only on the steps next to our seats when it went in so we managed to see it and join in the celebrations. Man of the match David Connolly grabbed a deserved second that afternoon in the last minute and sparked a mini pitch invasion from the jubilant Sunderland fans. The scenes at full time when the players walked into the tunnel, which was next to the Sunderland fans were incredible, you’d have thought we won the Champions League not gone 3rd in the Championship.
Leaving the game that day was just as good, the atmosphere and optimism in the air was superb and there was a real belief that Sunderland go could all the way to the top of the Championship.That is was happened come the end of the season, as we won the title on the final day, losing only one game in the New Year.
The memories I have that day will stay with me for the rest of my life. It is why the safe return of fans in Stadiums needs to happen in order for fans to be able to support their team otherwise they face the possibility of not having a team to support.