In March 2013 I stopped supporting Sunderland AFC. I threw away almost all of my Sunderland shirts, scarves, and memorabilia. “How can you fall out of love so quickly?” people have asked me. The truth is, it wasn’t sudden, we grew apart over a long time and then eventually…
I’ve supported Sunderland since I was a kid, my first game was in 1978 with my school pal Steven Woodmass. We wandered from Millfield to Roker Park and paid 40p to get in the Roker End. Sunderland won – I can’t recall who it was against – and that was that, I was in love.
By 1980 I had moved to the back of the Fulwell End but was soon back in the Roker with the other Skinheads.
In the second half of the 1980s I had left school and the prices were so low back then that even dole money could stretch to away games. Preston NE was my first away game, on the old wooden terracing.
The utter chaos at York, Wembley for the play-off final and later Hillsborough for the FA cup semi-final were among my favourite memories.
The move to the new stadium in 1997 was where it started to go wrong. For a while it was OK though. I remember being gob-smacked when I entered the Stadium of Light and walked from the concourse to the ‘terraces’ for the opening game against Ajax and it had nowt to do with Status Quo!
The higher ticket price were softened somewhat by the fact we had a cracking team under Peter Reid; Quinn and Phillips, good crowds, good atmosphere.
After 2001 the price of tickets really started to bite. Going from attending home and away to not even being able to afford the home games became my reality.
No matter what the club did, such as freezing prices for the odd season, it was of no help to the thousands like me who still couldn’t afford it. No matter how much I loved the club, I had a constant feeling that they were taking the piss with the prices being charged.
So eventually, reduced to discounted early cup rounds and cheap tickets via the bairns’ school, I was only getting to a handful of games a season.
Meanwhile, despite his qualifier about not meaning the poor, it was hard to hear Niall Quinn say he ‘despised’ fans, like me, who watched at the pub rather than the stadium. It also rankled a bit being called a part-timer by those who could afford a season ticket. Fuck that! I was there home and away when we were in the third division. Part-timers? Robbing the club of finance? What the fuck?
When, in 2012, they moved the away fans to the upper tier of the graveyard end, it killed the dynamic between the south west corner and the visitors. The move meant a considerably reduced atmosphere.
Later in 2012, during the James McClean poppy drama, I supported his right to do as he pleased, free country and all that. I knew people would disagree with him but I didn’t expect threats to kill from my so-called fellow Sunderland supporters. No, not to James, they ‘only’ booed his name and barely celebrated when he scored. It was me the Sunderland fans threatened to kill for speaking in support of him. I wasn’t best pleased about that.
I still loved my club through all of this and I would have continued this affair, even if it wasn’t all plain sailing, if not for the events of March 2013.
I was in the pub when the Sky Sports announcer said Paolo di Canio had been appointed as the new manager. I was devastated.
Despite the Shankly cliché, there are many things more important than football. The idea of a self-confessed fascist being at my club was simply unacceptable. The camel’s back had been broken, me and Sunderland were finished.
The club, the supporters, the local media and the fascist himself issued various statements and excuses but for me thats all they were; excuses. Blind loyalty to the club trumped any kind of ethical, moral or political principle for the overwhelming majority of fans. Fine but there’s no way I was being part of it.
Like leaving a toxic relationship, you start to see the bad things you once ignored. I realised how much I didn’t like many of the other Sunderland fans.
For example, take the rivalry with Newcastle United. The utter obsession with ‘the Mags’ shows how small minded and bereft of ambition many of the fans are. Far too many subscribe to the “as long as we beat the mags” bollocks. At derby games you might even hear that stubborn racism from the dark ages in the “I’d rather be a Paki than a Mag” chant.
What did surprise me was the way the independent fanzine ‘A Love Supreme’ quickly forgot their liberal politics and printed up Paolo shirts. The editor, Martyn McFadden, is the son of a prominent union man, Alec McFadden, who has been physically assaulted by fascists in the past. SAFC uber alles eh?
When they sacked the fascist a few months later the club might have won me back IF they had sacked him because of his fascist beliefs but they only sacked him because he was a pain in the arse.
So it was over for good. Why would I support the club that wasn’t bothered about employing a fascist. Why would I sit with fans who threatened to kill me? No, goodbye and fuck off.
A year or so later I have a new love, someone who had always been there, quietly earning my admiration as the years passed. What had been my long-term second team became my first team and I’m very, very happy…especially when I’m watching us beat Sunderland and Newcastle.