It’s always been a bracing; chastening place has Sunderland and its environs. Not for the fainthearted is the blustery coastline from the south banks shielding the Tyne, down south to the Tees, across the Wear’s big mouth and former docks, it’s broad tributaries reaching, grasping inland across the mining villages of Durham. It’s a bleak and beautiful place and the football club throws out it’s net across this catchment and trawlers in the affection of all those who happen across it’s footballing sirens: Doig, Gurney, Carter, Shack, Hurley, Montgomery, Rowell, Gabbiadini, Phillips.
This stormy land has conjured up, in 2020, a perfect storm of discontent, apathy and disillusionment that could change the football club for ever. The Covid pandemic has seen football fans thrown into an existential crisis: if two teams play a football match and there’s no one there to see it, who gives a fuck? Sunderland have doubled-down on this philosophical exercise with the worst owners in our history, (arguably) the worst manager and a firm focus on a potential hattrick of our ever lower bar for the ‘worst season in our history’.
This is not exclusively a Sunderland problem. The lack of fans at football matches as a result of the pandemic has fundamentally changed the game in the 2020/21 season and possibly for ever. Much as the torture of loyal fans not been able to fulfil their match day rituals endures, it’s hard to dissuade yourself of the sense that, for the Premier League at least, they’ve adjusted a little too comfortably to the lack of fans. There is a foreboding sense that, actually, the Premier League and it’s multi-million pound TV sponsors might just be thinking they could probably do without these strange people who insist on actually physically turning up at football grounds instead of viewing it through the lens of their huge TVs or omnipresent devices. For the 2017/18 season, KPMG estimated that broadcasting was around 79% of the total revenue of a mid-table club like, say, Stoke City, and around 48% of a ‘big six’ side like Liverpool (who generate huge amounts through commercial revenue). Financially, gate and matchday income may be around 20%. It’s not that important for the big league.
However, Sunderland aren’t in the big league anymore, nor will they be any time soon. Sunderland are intent on making themselves comfortable in the lower leagues. With lower league owners, a lower league manager and lower league squad. For the lower league sides, it’s different: they need fans to turn up and pay money to watch the side. This season that’s not possible and, as a life-long fan in my mid-forties, the love is rapidly ebbing away.
No one supports Sunderland for the glory. Hell, we don’t even support them for the enjoyment of football! Not much in the last 40 years anyway. Rather it has been about a sense of identity and camaraderie. A coming together of people with a shared experience of place and people and values and occasionally, very occasionally, the glory and beauty of football, teamwork, of victory against the odds.
Not now. Not anymore. You can’t fulfil those Saturday rituals of going to the match. You can’t swirl your buttered-bread around the breakfast juices of your mid-morning fry-up, wrap scarves round necks, head out into the cold day. See the breath of men shouting clouds of obscenities across roads, all laughter and lewd gestures, their Ready-brek glow of mis-placed optimism insulating them on the walk through town centres, across parks, over bridges and into pubs, into crowds of familiar, un-named faces, five-deep at the bar, all beery breath and banter. Spilling out onto streets that bit too late, jostling through crowds outside big concrete bowls and squeezing through gates. Not now. Now it is £10 online payments, tilting cards to try and read the three numbers on the back. Sitting in your own lounge, on your own. Open up your laptop. Silently watching spectral, soulless training-style matches between try-hards and nearly men trying not to lose, just boot it, just don’t lose, don’t lose, try not to lose.
Of course, the pandemic isn’t the club’s fault. But for Sunderland the pandemic has struck with the worst possible timing. The club has lost it’s way. The club’s owners have been, well, disingenuous at best about their actions and their ambition. They have neither the funds, the imagination nor the ambition to wrench it kicking and screaming out of its torpor. The incumbent manager is as bereft of ideas as he is of personality. Each season is a new nadir. The worst ever. Each year I think we’ve bottomed out, only for the club to somehow, somehow, find new ways to break the hearts of fans and sink even lower. The self-styled ‘chronicler of misery’ and (brilliant) football writer George Caulkin once remarked of his years covering north east football that, no matter how bad things seem, never forget they can always get worse! I used to find it funny.
So, when will we finally bottom out? At the time of writing we are a bang average League One side (thank you Cameron Jerome) who haven’t won in our last five games. In a recent week we lost to League Two strugglers Mansfield town in the FA Cup, to Fleetwood Town – who have only existed since 1997 – in the Football League Trophy and then lost to MK Dons – who don’t really exist at all – in the league. We have followed that up with two 1-1- draws snatched from the jaws of victory. I’ll be honest, I was neither surprised, nor hurt by it. If it is true that the opposite of love is not hate but apathy, then I think that’s where we’re heading. The only outcome I can see is that we will be workmanlike enough to hover around the play offs without troubling those more ambitious than us. Without being able to experience the games, participate in the spectacle, what’s the point of caring any more? The club may be struggling with the finances of life in the lower leagues during the pandemic, but it is absolutely haemorrhaging the support and good will of the fans.
A manager honed on lower leagues, functional football – honest, workmanlike – ground down by the strife of financial hardship and survival as the extent of ambition does not give me hope. The lure of regime change, of a shining knight in the form of a 23-year old trust-fund-baby and a shuffle and re-dealing of the shares does not fill me with hope. Football ownership is littered with tales of businessmen who, successful in one field, ego’s buoyed, believed their own legend, only to run aground on the reality that football can never be run as ‘just another business’. If the current incumbents think promotion is going to deliver their ‘told you so’ windfall they are not the shrewd businessmen their coterie of yes-men let them believe. I fear Sunderland will be in League One for a very long time and I’m not sure I want to be with them anymore.