Sunderland chairman Niall Quinn says he does not ‘despise’ fans

SAFC Chairman Niall Quinn.
SAFC Chairman Niall Quinn.
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SAFC Chairman Quinn was criticised - and praised in some quarters - after claiming he despised Sunderland supporters who choose to watch Sunderland home games on illegal pub broadcasts rather than at the Stadium of Light.

But, speaking exclusively to the Echo after Saturday’s 2-1 defeat at the hands of Spurs, the chairman said his comments were aimed at starting a serious debate on the issue.

He said: “I’d tried for two years trying to get the message across, but it didn’t seem to be getting through.

“We are a club with a turnover that is a fifth of some other Premier League clubs. Our biggest strength is our home crowd. I sold a vision to the club owner about a tremendous, passionate following.

“I said that if this club was successful, if the money was invested in players and we became a top-six club, then the crowds of 40,000 would become crowds of 48,000.

“Well, the money has been invested, we have top players here and we’ve spent most of the season in the top six of the Premier League. But we’re 7,000 down. That can’t continue.”

And he insisted that the debate was not about money.

He said: “Our strength is our home crowd. It’s a passionate crowd and opposition teams don’t like playing here when the stadium is packed with Sunderland supporters.

“But what happens when we’re 10,000 down and we’re playing in a stadium that is only two thirds full. The atmosphere will drop and we’ll lose what has always been a tremendous advantage.”

Quinn said he had received many letters criticising his stance during the last week.

He said: “Some have been supportive, but a lot of fans were not happy with what I said. I have to say that some of the reasons why people were staying away were just daft. I’ve had people saying they weren’t coming to games because of the plastic seats, or because we haven’t painted the concourses.

“I don’t understand these daft excuses. What the club has always been about to me is passion. We’re trying to get the passion back, we’re trying to recreate the passion and the success of when Kev Phillips and I were playing to crowds here of 48,000 every week. You couldn’t get a ticket. Well, we’ve got the same success, but where are the crowds of 48,000? We need them back to build on what we’re doing here.

“Of course I don’t despise anyone, but I had to crack the whip, I have a duty to try to get the thousands who choose to stay away back into the ground.

“That is what I am trying to do and over the next few weeks I will be on the road, talking to fans about the importance of choosing to attend a live game instead of spending their money watching the game in the pub.

“This problem is an epidemic up here. It’s not as bad elsewhere as it is up here and it’s not hitting other clubs as badly as it’s hit us. There are some areas – like Seaham for instance – where it is particularly rampant.

“We’re going to look at creative ways of increasing the number of season card holders from 30,000 to 40,000. We’ll do everything we can, and people will see it’s not about the money.

“I know some people think I’m just looking for more money but that is rubbish. Five thousand extra fans means an extra annual income of £1.9m. That will not make or break us, but the stadium emptying will.

“If no-one listens, as Chairman and protector of club and the shareholder I can’t say to him it’s a good idea to continue investing to the same level. We might have to start downsizing if they don’t start coming back. We have about 40,000 regulars, and we’re doing this for them, to give them the club and the success they deserve.

“If pub TV becomes legal, well it’s a different story and we’ll need another solution, but I can’t emphasise enough what a massive danger these people to watch games in pubs is to this club.

“I’m sorry I had to get so strong, but it needed to be said. People have to understand the debate, understand the threat. If I can stop the rot, if we can keep going at the same levels then I think we’ll have won the debate, but we will keep looking at new ways of enticing people back.”

Quinn was delighted with the atmosphere and vociferous home support during Saturday’s defeat against Spurs.

“We know we can compete with and beat these teams, but if we can get the 5,000-7,000 fans back who we’ve lost, then the players will feel even better about playing against such great teams at home.”

And Quinn had a warning about his continuing involvement with the club if fans continue to watch games in their locals: “If people continue doing this in such large numbers then I might have to question my role here.”