As Martin O’Neill prepares for a busy summer revamping his squad, the first transformation at Sunderland sees away fans moving to the highest point in the Stadium of Light.
It’s a change the club feels will give them better support next season. Having home fans behind both goals will create a better atmosphere and help improve results but what difference will it make to the team?
O’Neill has been tasked with establishing Sunderland in the top 6. While this may be premature given the players at his disposal, the Northern Irishman told the Sunderland Echo that he’s confident it can be achieved.
“I believe that it certainly has the potential to challenge for a place in the top six, simply because of its size.
“We got 40,000 people here for the Bolton Wanderers game recently, which was a game on which nothing was really riding. So, with backing like that, you know you’re a club that can be a top-six club”
Many view Sunderland as a team on the up. They have a large stadium, excellent facilities, passionate support and strong financial backing but after so many false dawns why should fans view a change in seating plan as a sign of things to come?
O’Neill isn’t naive enough to think moving a few fans will mark a sudden surge in results but it’s something that many of Europe’s biggest teams already implement so at least it’s another step on Sunderland’s road to competing at the highest level. Away fans influence matches when sitting in large numbers behind the goal and can be a menacing proposition to deal with. Manchester United already use a similar seating plan as do rivals Newcastle United and both clubs have a reputation for creating a passionate atmosphere that silences away support.
It seems like an excellent idea and considering there are no rules on where to sit fans, why should Sunderland offer their opponents an advantage that others don’t reciprocate? O’Neill told the Daily Mail that he agrees with the changes.
“First of all, it’s behind the goal, it’s important because if you get a big crowd at some of the games, they can take up the whole end, so it’s intimidating for your own goalkeeper having to face that.
“At Sunderland, we’ve got a really great pocket of support in the corner but you want your fans at both ends. I don’t know who will be affected by it, and I apologise if it is people who have been there for some time, but to have both ends full of our supporters will be brilliant.”
While a new look may not be the decisive factor in Sunderland’s progression, O’Neill’s comments still vindicate the changes as being positive. The only negative is a few home fans being relocated but club officials expected some resistance so they gave supporters the option to voice their concerns before a decision was made. Chairman Ellis Short has big plans for Sunderland so will be hoping the new changes encourage locals to return rather than distance any current ticket holders.
The Stadium of Light is an intimidating arena when full but lately it’s struggled to reach capacity. Only the Tyne-Wear derby and matches against the league’s top sides create enough attention to sell extra tickets and this is something that must change if the club is to progress. With an entire stand currently allocated for a select number of away fans the ground has been left visibly empty, especially when television cameras focus on goal mouth action at the visiting end. Moving the empty seats somewhere else will not increase attendances but having both ends full of passionate support is something that will create a much better feel around the stadium.
Results on the pitch will still decide whether the club achieves success but given the current economic climate it’s important for teams to make their brand more appealing and persuade stay away fans to return. Short is furthering the strides made by former chairman Niall Quinn who was vocal in his attempts to reignite local support. Quinn told the Sunderland Echo:
“The number of fans not coming to the games, the number of fans who are choosing instead to watch it in the pubs, is having a massive effect on our attendances”
Clearly there is cause for concern. Sunderland have a long way to go if they’re to reach their potential so the possibility of better support could lead to improved performances and subsequently even bigger attendances. While a change of seating plan doesn’t guarantee improvement on the pitch, at least the club is showing some initiative and any improvements that help put more money into the team are vital if they’re to progress.
Sunderland may not have a squad capable of challenging for Europe just yet but they’re building a solid foundation for the future. Whether or not their league aspirations are realistic, visiting teams will certainly not relish a trip to the Stadium of Light next season.
Are Sunderland doing the right thing? Would you be happy if your team followed suit? Can Sunderland challenge for Europe next season?
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