16 February ~ It would be extremely difficult to find a Sunderland supporter willing to criticise Niall Quinn in public. His tenure as club chairman has taken the club from the point of emulating Leeds Utd to an established Premier League side. So the former striker is immensely, and justifiably, popular. But in private some would admit to some mild discomfort at his penchant for a trite media soundbite. And his recent comments – that he "despises" those who watch games in pubs instead of at the ground – have completely split the club's fans. Many have expressed anger and confusion at the strength of the language while others are aghast at criticism of the man who rescued Sunderland from complete disarray in 2006.
Quinn has since claimed that he doesn't regret using emotive words and is glad to have initiated a debate: "If there are 10,000 people now watching our home games in pubs within easy travelling distance of the stadium, what will it be in three years' time if I don't tackle this situation?" But the Sunderland chairman has touched a nerve with a significant minority of supporters. They believe that Quinn has appeared out of touch with the reality of economically difficult times and resent the tone of emotional blackmail, pointing out that the club have the seventh highest average attendance in the Premier League and have won nothing since 1973.
At the heart of this row are several issues that are certainly not unique to Sunderland. While thousands are losing jobs, many resent the perceived greed of footballers. Darren Bent remains a deeply unpopular name on Wearside but, for me, it is the revelation that he handed in a transfer request following a "colossal offer" from Fenerbahce in summer 2010 that says more about the player than his recent move to Villa. Then there's the recent appointment of David Miliband (reportedly earning £75,000 for 12-15 days work a year). Maybe this is the "going rate", and presumably one of Miliband's main roles will be to increase turnover. But with these figures in mind, some feel that being barracked by the public face of such a company for not purchasing its "product" – as modern football likes to see itself – is somewhat unfair. The divide between fans and those employed by the club has never been bigger.
Quinn has referred repeatedly to the effect a sell-out crowd has on the players, referring to his playing time at the Stadium of Light. But the climate is different now. Then, watching the prolific partnership of Quinn and Kevin Phillips, in a brand-new stadium and era when Ipswich could qualify for Europe, anything seemed possible. Now, weariness and cynicism has set in. Years of watching Everton and Aston Villa hitting the glass ceiling have taken their toll, and the sense of Premier League entrenchment is a grim one. It didn't go without notice that for the several weeks that Sunderland were sixth in the table, Sky and many papers showed only the Premier League top five. As soon as Liverpool overtook us a few weeks ago this elite band was suddenly extended to the top six.
Then there's the often tedious nature of modern matchday experience and well-documented problems of all-seater grounds. A group of Sunderland supporters have recently produced banners for the stadium, but now the club is demanding that the fans ask official permission before displaying each flag. When times are hard you can see why some decide to stay in the cheap and social environment of a pub and a TV screen. But despite all the tension between Sunderland fans, it's worth pointing out that there will always be (and always have been) different types of supporters. Some go to home and away games, some have season tickets, some attend occasionally and others will take the opportunity to watch in the pub or online, or just watch "if it's on". That is up to them. You can see why some of the club's "followers" were irked by Quinn's words and tone.
Sunderland fans don't want to seem ungrateful – it's been an excellent season so far – and Quinn has done so much for the club that his reputation suffers no risk of any permanent damage. But it really is time that the chairman got over this personal bugbear, verging on obsession, and changed the subject. Ed Upright