Despite enduring a torrid time on the pitch and negativity surrounding the club’s immediate future under an absentee owner, Sunderland’s emergent fan group the Red and White Army are looking to create positive change on Wearside.
Established back in October last year, the Red and White Army is a fledgling democratic collective of Sunderland supporters – the first of its kind at the Championship club.
“We wanted to create a democratic, organic representative organisation for Sunderland fans,” says Red and White Army chair Andrew Hird. “We’re looking to create a focal point for all Sunderland fans to direct their questions and queries – via social media or any other means.
“We want to be truly independent and credible.”
Since its formation, the Red and White Army has had structured dialogue with Sunderland AFC in its sights, providing a mechanism for supporters to communicate with the club openly and with a unified voice.
Previously, Sunderland AFC engaged with its supporters through a cluster of Supporter Liaison and Branch Liaison Groups – a system critics claim was not truly democratic or representative of the modern supporter-base.
“There was a recognition from the football club that they did have to improve communication with supporters,” Andrew said. “And from our end there was a recognition that supporters needed to work together and speak with one voice.”
Bringing supporters together under one umbrella has been an important part of the group’s work in the last few months as they prepared to meet the club’s executives, the first such meeting taking place earlier this month.
“Meeting the club was an important step – it was an interesting meeting,” Andrew said. “It’s important for us as supporters to be able to put questions to the club’s senior staff.
“The chief executive Martin Bain was quite up front about a lot of the challenges facing the club and we’re able to feed that back to the supporters.
“We wanted to get the dialogue right so we got in touch with the FSF for advice – they’ve been really, really helpful. It’s helped us go about it in a positive way.”
Despite the club’s current ownership being increasingly unpopular on Wearside – with a raft of off-the-field redudancies and overseeing a disastrous Premier League campaign last season - the Red And White Army was not established as a protest group, Andrew says.
“I think regardless of promotion or relegation, whether we’re in the Premier League or League One, we would have done this. There’s definitely been a need for a group like us at the club.”
Red and White Army brings together a diversity of voices from across the Sunderland fanbase such as the leading fanzine A Love Supreme, The Roker Report website, Wise Men Say podcast, the South Stand atmosphere group, as well as representatives from LGBT and disabled supporters. The group has made rapid progress since October, pulling together a brand new website, created a solid group of co-opted members and a significant solid media reach.
“We’re not here to replace or repeat the good work undertaken by some of the well-established, existing supporter groups,” Andrew said. “We hope our approach will complement their efforts.”
Beyond club dialogue, Red and White Army have their sights set on improving aspects of the match-day that matter to Sunderland fans – already helping arrange waterproof ponchos for disabled fans sitting in uncovered seating areas at the Stadium of Light.
“There’s a lot of concern about the match-day experience and the atmosphere amongst supporters at the moment,” Andrew said. “It’s not great.
“We’re worried about the next generation of supporters coming through – we don’t want to lose them because it’s not a great experience taking a young fan to a half-empty stadium.
“We want to address this and it’s something we want to work with the club on improving.”
Red And White Army will be holding its first AGM at the end of the season, for more information visit the group’s website here.