Ha'way the Lads! Sunderland players surprise fans as they help breathe new life into the Stadium of Light
Sometimes it's the small things in life which make the biggest difference.
Who would have thought that a scheme to replace more than 30,000 faded pink seats could have helped galvanised a football club, which only a couple of months ago was on the edge of the abyss.
It might seem a small thing but the pink seats had come to symbolise the demise of Sunderland AFC, following successive relegations from the Premier League to League One.
But with new owners, a new manager and a new crop of players, the mood around the Stadium of Light has been revived.
I spent the afternoon at the stadium, chatting with those fans who are helping make a big difference to the home of the Black Cats.
“There’s a feelgood factor which hasn’t been here since the days of Quinn and Phillips,” says David Jackson, one of many fans who has voluntarily helped with the stadium’s revamp.
More than 3,000 supporters have taken part in the scheme, currently in its second phase which will see 4,000 seats replaced in the North Stand, where the iconic Ha’way the Lads phrase is situated.
The work is expected to be completed by the weekend, with Sunderland next at home a week on Saturday when Rochdale visit Wearside.
There are also plans in place to replace seats in the South and West stands later this year.
The project, which started last month, is just one of the moves new chairman Stewart Donald has made to re-engage with supporters.
“It’s brilliant the way the club is at the minute,” adds Jackson. “I feel a part of it which I’ve never felt for years.”
Fans have jumped at the opportunity to give the stadium a much-needed makeover, so much so that some supporters were unsuccessful when applying to help with the first stage.
“It’s a little bit of history,” explains Joanne Youngson from Sunderland, when asked why she volunteered for the scheme.
“It’s about being involved and everybody getting back on board to make the future great for the club.”
Some enjoyed the first phase so much, they even came back a second time.
That loyalty has been noticed, and while fans were hard at work on Thursday afternoon, they received a pleasant surprise when the first-team squad paid them an unexpected visit.
The players had trained on the Stadium of Light pitch on Thursday morning, before the whole squad travel to Burton for Saturday’s game.
Sign up to our daily newsletter
The i newsletter cut through the noise
Among them was midfielder Lee Cattermole, a player who has been at the club since 2009 and experienced some of the darker days in recent years.
“As players it makes us really proud to see the stadium looking as good as this,” he says.
“I think the way everyone is pulling together at what has been a difficult time is great for the club.”
Of course, the atmosphere has been helped by the club’s unbeaten start to the season, providing a platform for the off-field positivity.
“First and foremost you give the fans it on the pitch, that’s where they get the most enjoyment from watching the lads play well,” adds Cattermole.
Even so, this group of players appear much more relatable than their previous counterparts, and the sight of Josh Maja and Bali Mumba joking around, before the latter is hoisted into the air on a giant crane, shows the camaraderie Jack Ross has created.
“I don’t think that would have happened before with the old players,”says Phil Cororan from Cullercoats after chatting which some of his idols.
“Even the new players seem to be getting more in touch with the fans again.”
The Sunderland players spend a good half an hour with their fans, chatting away while getting stuck in with the job at hand.
“At the end of the day we just want to be a team that the fans are proud of,” says captain George Honeyman.
“Hopefully that’s winning promotion this year and making a it real good, community, feelgood club again.”
Maja, the club’s top scorer, adds: “It’s great, they (the fans) spend their hard earned money every week so we want to give something back.
“Seeing them help out getting the seats done is good to see and as players that’s going to push us to do better.”
Some should probably stick to football though, as Vince Hodgson from Sunderland points out.
“It was really nice of the players to come along and give a hand, perhaps they are better off on the football pitch than trying to do engineering work though.”
Even so, this project represents a fresh start and renewed relationship between the club and it’s supporters.
Who would have thought those plastic pink seats could make such a difference.