“Being Back In The Ground Means Everything” – Why Sunderland Fans Returning To The Stadium Of Light Will Benefit Everyone

After 14 long months away, 10,000 Sunderland fans can finally return to the Stadium of Light on Saturday - Graeme Atkinson explores the mutual benefits

Here we are, on the verge of being together again. Fans reunited. Saturday 22nd May 2021 will be an emotional occasion. How can it not be? Sunderland supporters have not been shoulder to shoulder in the Stadium of Light for 14 long months. For many us during that time our lives changed in a myriad of different ways.

As we gather at the ground, it will be a joyous moment for some and bittersweet for others. It’s heart breaking for those folks who, due to COVID, are no longer here to sit with family or friends again in what will be their first time back at the SoL. Hopefully, for those fans in particular, some comfort will be found in sharing this reunifying moment with others.

With all of the emotion around the occasion you would be forgiven for forgetting that there is a football match for the Lads to compete in. Yes, the playoffs have arrived again and irrespective of the result at Sincil Bank on Wednesday, a win in front of a home crowd on Wearside would be salve to a long suffering wound.

Thankfully, having fans back in the ground again is literally a game changer. Indeed demonstrably so; but we’ll come back to that.

Of course, the crowd having a positive impact on results isn’t a view that has always been shared, even by those who still have a financial stake in the club. Sunderland fans have, to some degree, been conditioned to believe they have contributed to the team’s decline on the pitch. Let’s not forget it was the former owner who said, “…the attitude of the fans is putting off investors”.

There are many other examples of this ‘propaganda’ which have been reported in the media. The flames largely fanned by either pundits who watched on from afar or by those within the club trying to cover up their own failings. Even Tony Coton, once Head of Recruitment, happily informed the senior supporters group that players’ agents were making clear to him deals agreed verbally, were falling through once word of the fan negativity reached their clients. Hardly the ideal way to engage supporters, is it?

Yet, let’s not dwell on the past. These long months have taught us many important things, of that we can be certain; about what we may have previously taken for granted and about what, and who, we hold dearest. In relation to football and Sunderland, the togetherness on a match day is unrivalled. To say we’ve missed it is an understatement. It’s almost spiritual at times. COVID took our religion and removed the ability for collective worship. Our congregation was distanced but not fractured. Therefore, in the context of what we are all collectively emerging from, what others may say about us as a group of supporters is surely an irrelevance.

Sure, we can’t honestly say that every fan has been singing Kumbaya in the stands during the last several seasons, or even prior to that. But, by and large, the atmosphere in the ground has exceeded the quality on the pitch.

Yet, for anyone out there still questioning the impact supporters have had on the team, here are a few stats to throw at you; during lockdown and in an empty Stadium of Light, Sunderland have notched up 35 points over 23 games, an average of 1.50pts per game (ppg).
Conversely, since the Black Cats descended into League One and up until COVID it was 2.00ppg. In that period the Black Cats played 42 games and amassed 84 points. 1.50 without fans vs 2.00ppg with them.

You don’t need to be Einstein to do the maths – we’re literally the fabled twelfth man, the extra push when such a thing is needed. The evidence is there in black and white. We shouldn’t try to make our case. The results make the case for us.

However, stats are by their nature often dry. The more tangible way to realise the difference supporters can make is to close your eyes and reminisce. A great and recent example is the Chelsea home game under Sam Allardyce. The noise was electric and the atmosphere perhaps the best the Stadium has produced. Now under a new owner and a new era, we’re within touching distance of hopefully being close to those moments again.

These 14months physically absent from the club have shown us that for Sunderland to have the best chance of success the team and supporters need to be together. It’s a reciprocal arrangement. The players produce the excitement, the fans provide the atmosphere, and the two then feed off each other. Which comes first the chicken or the egg? That’s for another day.

Victory in the playoffs would be special, the best way to go up, as they say. But, soon, the Red & White Army will no longer be estranged and in this moment, leading up to Saturday, being back in the ground means everything.

Graeme Atkinson