Chelsea, Manchester United, Sunderland: the rights and wrongs of choosing your club

The thoughts of Robert Simmons, our Voice of America, and the fellow-American supporters who made themselves known after his most recent article, prompted Colin Randall to raid the Salut! Sunderland archives for a piece, now slightly updated, describing his True Supporter Test…

Like the look of Chelsea? Gasp in admiration at Man United’s trophy cupboard or Messi’s skills for Barca?

Fine, then let’s become a supporter. We can always find out where the place is later. Conscious of my own origins as far due south of Wearside as is possible without falling into the sea, I took a whimsical look at the hoops we should expect to go through before being regarded as genuine supporters of our chosen clubs.

But what tests should a supporter pass to qualify as a real fan and not a mere bandwagon jumper?

I have my own set of rules.

You are entitled to support Sunderland or Melchester Rovers or whoever IF one of the following applies:

1 You were born or brought up in Sunderland, Melchester or whatever, or their surrounding areas

2 They were the team your dad took you to see for your first professional league game

3 Your family’s roots are in the relevant area even though you were born and/or raised far away, even abroad

4 You formed a close bond through playing or otherwise working for the club, or in the town or city where it plays

You do NOT qualify IF:

1 You decided to support the club because it seemed to be very successful or had just won something important

2 You liked the club’s name

3 All the lads at school put club names in a hat and you had to promise to support the one you pulled out

That’s all dogmatic enough and I’m aware of another rule: the one about glasshouses and stone-throwing.

I believe I match up to my own demands on proper football support on rules 1-3 of eligibility. I was born far away from Sunderland – in Hove for heaven’s sake – but my family, which had many roots in the North East, Sunderland included, moved to Shildon, County Durham when I was a few months old.

Sunderland was always known as the County Durham team, whatever fiddling was later done with local authority boundaries to create Tyne and Wear. Quite simply, if you grew up in what I do not remember being called, in those days, The Land of the Prince Bishops, you supported SAFC and Durham County Cricket Club. Allowances were made if your bit of Durham was so close to Newcastle or Middlesbrough to make one of them the more obvious choice.

You could be much stricter than this, and some people are. They argue that the right to support a club is determined by one thing and one thing alone: place of birth.

But if you applied the letter of that law, it would exclude all sorts of people with long-established family traditions of support or strong links developed in one way or another with the club in question. In Sunderland’s case, it would disenfranchise thousands upon thousands of people who have, like me, always regarded the whole of County Durham as a legitimate catchment area. If only people born and bred in Sunderland were allowed to support the team, the attendances over the years would have been much lower.

Look at this girlhood memory of Kate Adie, from an interview for our Celebrity Supporters series that began life in the magazine of the SAFC Supporters’ Association London and SE branch.

“I remember thinking how curious it was as you got nearer the ground to see all these rather ancient buses full of supporters from Tow Law or Spennymoor or Crook. They seemed such far-off places. The small towns and pit villages were somehow seen as separate from Sunderland, and the one time that the divide was breached was at the match.”

I’ll go even further. Sir Tim Rice would expect to be disqualified under my ineligibility rule number two. He and his school pals were deciding who they should follow, and young Timothy liked the name of Sunderland. Yet no one could doubt that he has become an ardent and loyal fan, albeit without attending more than a handful of games

Read the interview he gave me a few years ago and see if you agree.

I liked his reference to failing to see the point of supporting Man United or Liverpool unless you actually grew up there.

Ineligibility rule one might also shunt Lance Hardy, author of the 1973 FA Cup final book, into the sidings of football support. At home in Nottinghamshire as a very young boy, in a family without trace of North-eastenr origins, he was placed in front of the television on May 5 of that year and told to shout for the Lads against Leeds. He has supported us passionately ever since.

So maybe my rules are not rules at all but guidelines. There has to be flexibility. In a piece for the ESPN FC network blog the other day, I mentioned a friend who suddenly reinvented himself as an Arsenal fan after always having supported Forest.

Another friend, from Darlington, showed no interest in football when we were lads but became a devoted Newcastle United fan as an adult before becoming an equally devoted Boro supporter. I once saw a French teenager wearing a spotless, gleaming Sunderland top in the streets of a Mediterranean resort and couldn’t resist the temptation to ask; he idolised Lork Cana, then with us.