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Anger is too easy an emotion for beleaguered fans to fall back on

In a sport that so often lacks perspective, anger and frustration are the crutches upon which football fans rely when their team sucks. When is it right to be angry and when is it misplaced?

“Thanks a lot, mate. You’ve killed our club.”

The climax of Netflix’s superb documentary, Sunderland Til I Die, is, of course, the moment the club are relegated from the Championship and into the third tier of English football. After losing 2-1 to Burton Albion, chairperson Martin Bain is sarcastically clapped off by one fan as he leaves the stadium, telling the Scot he has “killed” Sunderland. Another one confronts manager Chris Coleman, calling him a “fucking prick”, which almost sparks off a fist fight in the car park. At a previous game some fans even attacked one of the filmmaker’s cameras in frustration.

Throughout the series we witness the team’s seemingly unstoppable decline and the furious fan reaction that supplies the backdrop to a disastrous season. The non-football fans watching on are perhaps doing so in bewilderment, but the Netflix show does a great job in illustrating why Sunderland AFC means just so much to the local community.

Being the only club in a working-class area that has been shorn of industry and suffered high levels of unemployment over the years, the people of Sunderland’s identity ties in extremely closely with the club. When it is doing well, they feel a sense of local pride that is not necessarily found among all fan bases. Football is a release, an escape from the reality of life, and in Sunderland the reality can be grim.

That’s not to say that they are more special than other sets of fans or that some of the reaction to being relegated is justified, just because football means everything to them. But anger is understandable, if not misdirected at times.

Accusations of “killing the club” are not really helpful to anyone, but check any online fan forum and there’s bound to be at least one person, if not several, making the same claim about theirs. In the case of Sunderland, the figureheads may have been making poor decisions for years, but no one was actively trying to fail or not go into things without the best of intentions. (The Adam Johnson case excepted, of course, but that’s a whole other story). They should perhaps look across the way at Newcastle United, where fury is an appropriate reaction to their owner Mike Ashley’s stripping away of everything for which the club once stood.

sunderland til I die

Perspective and football fandom, however, are rarely compatible. Supporters, understandably, want glory and for their team to win, but find it hard to look beyond the next game. For any fan whose team is performing poorly and struggling, anger is an easy emotion to turn to. Sometimes you have to remind yourself that your club is not necessarily being destroyed beyond recognition, it’s just a bit crap and that’s okay.

I say that as a Fulham fan and, while I’ve seen some incredibly furious rants in certain online spaces, I’ve been surprised to find many fellow followers hold the same feeling as myself: acceptance. The side isn’t good enough, we’re going down and that’s fine. For many that might read as apathy, but after 20-odd Premier League games we are fully aware of how bad the team is and – while we will cheer them on until the bitter end – we know how the season will in all likelihood end.

The fact is, if a club means that much to you then you can support it no matter the division in which it finds itself, whether it be the top flight or the bottom rung. There is even a case to be made that such hysteria and hyperbole is insulting to fans of clubs that have folded or are currently under threat of doing so thanks to owners actively trying to suck the life out of the organisation. Next time you feel the anger take over, take a moment to think of the recent examples of Leyton Orient, Blackpool, and Charlton, or even go back to the original Wimbeldon FC.

This doesn’t happen to every team that gets relegated, so think carefully about how the club is being run before pronouncing its death. In some cases, relegation can even be a good thing. Yes, really! It can allow a club to regroup, to begin the process of renewal and start afresh. Look at Southampton and Leicester City, who arguably came back stronger than before despite tumbling all the way to League One,just as Sunderland have.

The irony for the Black Cats is that they may well have been better off suffering relegation years earlier, rather than living beyond their means for campaign after campaign in order to cling on in the Premier League. The sheer volume of short-term decisions inevitably caught up with them, and when relegation to the Championship finally did come, they continued to be crushed under the weight of bad governance.

For footballs fans, the focus has to be on what really matters; what does the club stand for? Has it lost its way? Are you being treated with respect or as mere consumers? Does the club connect with its fans? Are working-class fans being priced out of the stadium? Is the average worker at the club being paid a living wage?

I accept that some of these concepts can be somewhat nebulous – Sunderland AFC certainly struggled to grasp them – but that to me is more important than playing Premier League football. It has to be about more than that.