Sunderland: The revealing footage that makes you wince

I WAS relatively late to the excellent series, Sunderland ‘Til I Die, largely because I am naturally cynical about carefully-scripted documentaries that supposedly tell the inside story of a club or institution. However, having watched the entire two-series offering, I not only feel I know Sunderland a little better, but the revealing content confirmed conventional business and football are very uncomfortable bedfellows.

Stewart Donald and Charlie Methven, the co-owners, both came across as entrepreneurial, and hard-working people. They may be disciples of marketing speak and corporate jargon, but they are also football fans. They seemed decent, ambitious, competitive and energetic.

Results-driven

Were they suitable owners for Sunderland, a club that has been described as a “sleeping giant”, “100% f*****” and a “basket case”? As we know, the football world is not like the rest of the business community. Common sense often goes missing, accountability is a quality that is rarely found and the heart rules the head. All businesses are results-driven, but while regular sectors base their performance on the balance sheet, a football club’s success is judged on scorelines. It is not easy for pragmatic, target-driven people to pass on their strategy to many of the people running clubs.

Sunderland is an under-achiever par excellence with an excellent stadium, there’s scarcely a person left alive who can remember when they were among the genuinely top names in the English game. Even the FA Cup triumph of 1973 is so far back in time that a 20 year-old at Wembley May 5 1973 would be pushing 70 today. The club has enjoyed the impetus of increased support from the launch of a new stadium, but on the pitch, Sunderland have recently been in freefall, with two successive relegations in 2017 and 2018. I was there the afternoon they dropped into League One at the end of 2017-18, making a complete hash of a very average Burton Albion team. The atmosphere was toxic and somewhat soul-destroying.

Donald came from the non-league world, specifically Eastleigh. He brought with him Richard Hill as head of Football Operations. Hill was manager of Stevenage when I covered them for the Hertfordshire Mercury for two seasons. His career has ebbed and flowed for the past 20-plus years, but there’s no denying he lives and loves the game.

Welcomed

Sunderland fans were so tired and disillusioned with previous owner Ellis Short they welcomed Donald and Methven with open arms, even though like Short they were not from the north-east. There has always been a lot of emphasis on understanding the region and the people, but in this cosmopolitan world, should that still be so relevant? The history of Sunderland (the city) is based on ship-building and pits, a heritage that forms the basis of the soundtrack of the series, but the last shipyard closed 30 years ago, a victim, to some extent, of creeping globalisation. Today, Sunderland is one of the worst areas in the United Kingdom for finding work.

Football supporters everywhere are fickle, to such an extent that their emotions get a little carried away – they are black and white (no pun intended) in their opinions and assumptions. Everyone is great until they are not. In other words, they love you on the way up and hate you on the way down.

Methven approached his workforce like an operations manager from the City of London, all white board messaging and missions. You wondered if it was lost on an industry where the difference between success and failure can often be one goal. Two relegations have left the club’s finances in a mess and unfortunately, the new regime had to make some difficult decisions. The new owners didn’t pretend to be a “silver bullet” solution to Sunderland’s economic situation and told the assembled supporters that clubs with billionaire benefactors made the fan base largely irrelevant. At clubs where every piece of income is hard-won, the fans’ contribution is greatly valued.

Donald later admitted to being on a big learning curve – “dealing with agents is the worst part of football”, he said as one of their most promising players, Joshua Maja, kept the club guessing over his future before leaving for Bordeaux.

The entire series underlined how fragile the margins between success and failure are in football. It also portrayed Sunderland as a club where expectation rises and falls almost on a daily basis and perception of the current situation changes constantly, from the security of employees (the catering staff were the stars of the show!) to fan satisfaction.

The assumption is nobody cares more than the fans, yet the emotions of people like Donald and Methven demonstrate how involvement breeds passion. As successful professional people, they don’t easily contemplate failure and doubtless despise being associated with something that doesn’t work.

Fragile

The difference between people like club owners and the fans is the former can leave Sunderland while people who seem to live in replica shirts and club leisurewear cannot possibly desert the ship. Their personal well-being depends on the success and failure of a football team.

The film is very much “warts and all”, which probably makes some club officials wince now, but it tells a heart-rending tale of failure and false dawns and more than a little sadness at how a big club from football’s pioneering years has struggled to remain stable.

In the end, you feel for so many people – for manager Chris Coleman who tried to raise the phoenix, for ever-upbeat chef Joyce Rome, for the long-suffering fans who dye their hair, tattoo their skin with messages of loyalty and live and breath the club, and for Stewart Donald and his backroom team. There are many TV films made about football clubs, but I have never seen one that reflects how people can become so devoted to chasing causes that are all-too-frequently lost.

Sunderland’s loyal fans eventually fell out of love with the Stewart Donald regime, prompting him to step down as chairman and put the club up for sale early this year. He desperately wants to get out. And so the drama continues at one of the grand old names of football…

@GameofthePeople

 

 

Football’s almost home, but the family is still dysfunctional

IT’S HARD to get too excited about the resumption of big time football. Unless you are a die-hard fan of the participating clubs, watching a game that has all the ambience of a pre-match kick around (Arsenal’s Leno may disagree), really is unappetising.

Of course, we know why they are taking place, to satisfy the broadcasters who have already paid-out their fees. The most logical thing to have done was to abandon the season, although the Football Association surely didn’t fancy having thousands of Liverpool fans besieging them at their headquarters and on social media.

As it is, Liverpool’s triumph will be a hollow one to some extent. No celebrations, no glorious march-past and no heaving pubs full of emotional scousers. The most captivating Liverpool team since 1988 will be denied their moment of true anointment. For now.

The return of football has been an opportunity for the game to assert its self-importance, the powerful messaging of Black Lives Matter has joined similar demonstrations like “Help for Heroes” and “Love the  NHS” to shape football as a social commentator and voice of the people.

The sentiment is absolutely right, but wearing shirts with the message emblazoned across the back could prove to be a distraction to remove any idea that football is receiving preferential treatment. As with most aspects of inequality and prejudice, the remedy or reaction invariably becomes a case of frantic over-compensation. Importantly, by making gestures like taking the knee, it does not absolve football from doing something genuinely constructive about the problem. We have, after all, been here before with largely ignored campaigns.

It will be interesting to see how clubs eventually deal with the problem of racism when normal service is resumed. Will they eject fans who spout obscenities, racism, homophobia and sexism? Or will people merely look the other way, laugh uncomfortably or ignore? Society tolerates unacceptable behaviour and attitudes for far too long – just take your pick. We were talking about racism at football in the 1970s, we were discussing climate change back in the 1980s and we were bemoaning the “glass ceiling” in the corporate world in the 1990s. We are still challenging all of these problems today. Sadly, we are seeing a resurgence of racism, anti-semitism and homophobia, brought on by a combination of the 2008 financial crisis, Brexit and a general shift in the political mood around the world.

From football’s perspective, there has never been a better time to eradicate racism and racist fans. The coronavirus has been a time when many people have decided to be civil to each other, while others, such as bull-necked, barrel-bellied right wingers have begrudged black people their right to say “enough”. In the case of slavery, how can anyone be an apologist unless they have no education at all? Or realise that removing memorials of a time of inequality is a very appropriate act?

Meanwhile, there has been a degree of frustration in society that has boiled over at times. The trouble is, some of those right-wingers are football fans and you can be sure they will be back inside football stadiums when we are allowed to return. But how do you change the mindset of those who are stuck in a less-than-perfect past when the pink of empire dominated pull-down maps in schoolrooms?

We should all be gagging for football to return, but there are so many things that we need to come back to restore the balance to our lives. Pubs, restaurants, cinemas, theatres, holidays and, above all, schools. There are more important things than football that need to be back in action regardless of how virtuous the world’s most media-hungry sport appears to be. I’m not sure bringing back a pale imitation of the game we love is really satisfying a yearning – especially as the economic impact of the past six months has yet to be felt across the globe.

 

@GameofthePeople

Photo: PA