OPINION: Black Cats Bar controversy is another insult to Sunderland supporters

Graeme Atkinson on why the Sunderland hierarchy have serious questions to answer ahead of Saturday's FA Cup showdown with Newcastle United

Ahead of this weekend’s derby day, Sunderland AFC’s decision to support an unprecedented 6,000 away ticket allocation was already difficult for some home fans to swallow. Yet, after it has emerged that  Newcastle United’s own livery was seemingly being adorned inside the Stadium of Light on Saturday until the inevitable backlash ensued, let us go one step further and call it what it is – a massive cash grab by the ownership and an insult to Sunderland supporters.

The ticket allocation issue being dressed up as simply following ‘FA Cup rules’ was already challenged by many supporters. We only need to look at the FA rule itself to appreciate the move for what it was and what was possible.

“FA Cup rules allow for an away allocation of up to 15% of the home stadium. However, this is subject to the local Safety Advisory Group (SAG) agreeing to that ticket allocation number.”

‘Up to’ and ‘subject to…’ of course being key.

The minutes of the Stadium of Light’s Safety Advisory Group will be public in due course and will make interesting reading. Yet, what is clear is that there were always legitimate and reasonable health and safety grounds for the Black Cats to rely upon here to ensure any request for additional away tickets was declined, meaning there was no need to kowtow to Newcastle United in the fashion that has now played out in the last several weeks – other than a purely financial one of course.

If there was any doubt of what was possible in this situation, Middlesbrough’s statement, following their own request for a higher allocation after initially being granted 3,000 seats in the same competition on Wearside back in 2012, easily shows us what should have been the Magpies press release in the present.

Boro’s statement at the time read, “We were aware of the strong demand for this fixture and argued for a significant increase on this figure. Sunderland’s safety advisory group cited problems at the Stadium of Light in previous derby matches as the reason for the small figure.”

That was it. That was sufficient. That is. All. It. Took.

Now, recent pictures surfacing on social media showing Sunderland AFC’s own premium bar being seemingly being redecorated in Black and White signage shows the club have clearly either actively encouraged the additional request all along or at the very least not discouraged it.

Why? Well, it means they could relocate existing ticket holders, including those within the Black Cats Bar, and replace them with rival supporters willing to spend circa £600 on a single ‘enhanced corporate experience’.

Make no mistake though – this is not just on Chief Operating Officer, Steve Davison – this is on the ownership.

Newcastle United supporters’ money entitles them to amongst other things see their own rivals being happy and willing to fawn over them in the away stadium, going the extra mile and then some (at least initially), in sycophantic fashion.

If you consider this ordinary behaviour in other fierce derbies, imagine this all taking place between Rangers/Celtic? Imagine this happening between Fenerbache and Galatsaray? Imagine if you can this being the case at Marseille vs PSG?

Where opportunity existed for Sunderland AFC’s owners to instead help strengthen ties with their own fanbase in order to ensure the Stadium of Light was packed with the most Red and White faithful possible, the derby has been reduced to a purely financial transaction, to the detriment of them.

And, now to rub salt into the wounds, this financial transaction has seen the red carpet being rolled out to the extent our rivals’ colours and signage were being festooned within the Stadium of Light itself. Suggestions now are that the backlash was such that there has been a rethink. Yet, of all the teams to even consider providing this experience for, the ownership decided it should be Newcastle United.

Of course it did.

Let us make one thing absolutely clear, the derby match was always going to be a sell-out one way or another but Louis-Dreyfus et al would seemingly rather a sell out with more profit than one which would be at the betterment of Sunderland fans in attendance.

If this is not true, then as highlighted above, are we meant to believe that any match between Sunderland AFC and Newcastle United has fewer ‘problems’ than those against the Teessiders?  Certainly, there was a legitimate basis with which the club could rely upon meaning the Black Cats’ ownership need not only hand over the Stadium of Light’s entire North Stand to the club’s fiercest rivals but to decorate on their behalf.

Even in the event the banners and signage are indeed now removed before kick-off owing to fan back lash – put simply, it is too late. The misstep is just the latest in a long line of missteps over the last several years.

Yes, the owners have got some things right. We all surely recognise that and are appreciative of it. We have talked about it regularly. But, at what point do we ALL need to demand better? 

This is not good enough.

Indeed, for all of the preening that emanates from Sunderland AFC around the owners realising they are ‘custodians of the club’ and ‘understanding what the club means to supporters’ etc, their actions time and time again prove they do not understand at all – and incidents like this make you wonder if they are ever likely to.

A club statement, issued this afternoon, read: “Sunderland AFC acknowledges that a serious error in judgement was made in relation to Black Cats Bar earlier this afternoon.

“We apologise to our fans for the understandable concern they have fairly voiced in response and this sentiment is shared by the Club’s Ownership Group and Board of Directors, who have requested an immediate review is undertaken to determine how this process unfolded.

“A direct decision has also been taken by the Ownership Group and Board of Directors to return the space to its original state and we once again apologise to our supporters that this was not addressed sooner.”