The Sunderland village fearing the death of two non-league football clubs in two years

Written by on 31st March 2023

Meadow Park main stand. Image credit: Luke Duden


In the shadow of the city at the centre of popular Netflix documentary “Sunderland ‘til I Die”, it is the non-league football clubs in Wearside that are staring death in the face.

And unless the younger generation of fans get involved, that warning of “death” might have to be taken literally.

Last year Ryhope Colliery Welfare were forced to hand in their resignation to the EBAC Northern League as they struggled with finances in the aftermath of a global pandemic, and ultimately folded just weeks after winning the Durham Challenge Cup.

This season the ripples in the village still showed with Sunderland RCA stating their intention to resign from the EBAC Northern League in November, just months after their local rivals, and seemed set to follow suit stating “finance, support, and active committee involvement” as factors.

However, an upturn in gate receipts and new sponsors mean Ryhope will still have a club in the fourth step of the non-league pyramid in 2023/24 – but the appeal for new volunteers has never wavered.

And they need to be young. Or at least youngish.

Sunderland RCA committee room. Image credit: Luke Duden

Club chairman Colin Wilson says: “We need about a dozen people there to help govern the game and, usually, there are four or five of us if we are lucky – so people have to double up on jobs. The big thing is we need people. We are all blokes in our 60s and 70s, we need more younger people to get involved.”

However, some of the factors that had left the club “seven or eight thousand pounds short” coming into the final few games were more football focused.

“There were a couple of very tight games in both the FA Vase and the FA Cup that could have gone either way, but they did not. You can not anticipate that.” Colin told us.

“All you can assume is that you are going to play one game in each of the two competitions but, normally, we end up playing five or six games over the two and that adds a good few thousand pounds.”

Colin also explained the importance of gates, which he admitted have been “pretty poor” this season. “The extra 30 or 40 people through the gate makes a big difference. After the gate receipt, raffle and café/bar income it would average to about £10 per visitor to the ground.

“Most of the money you are spending regardless of if there are 50 people there or 300. That makes a big difference, and actually we have got the local community involved these last few weeks.”

Meadow Park barrier of pitch. Image credit: Luke Duden

A Ryhope councillor, Usman Ali, has offered an explanation as to why the crowds have been lower than usual over the course of the season – while also encouraging his community to get involved with volunteering.

He said: “We are facing the issue of people who cannot afford to go to these matches due to the cost-of-living crisis. People have not got the time. People who had one job are now having to work longer hours just to get through the energy crisis.

“I would absolutely encourage the community to get involved, they really need that younger generation to be driving them forward. I feel that if we can help support them in the interim, they will be able to survive this.”

Competitions and attendances, sponsors are a massive deal for clubs to generate revenue. Whether it be for the stadium, shirts or player sponsors, it is absolutely vital for a club at any level of football to stay afloat.

This sentiment is echoed by North East non-league football expert, and full-time football writer, Mark Carruthers who spoke of how the relationship between the club and the sponsor is crucial.

“It is not purely just down to the sponsors; it is also down to the club,” he claimed. “Some other clubs have just brought in sponsors and not really looked after them – they got their money and kind of forgot about them. You have got to look after them. Invite them down to games, offer them tickets and that sort of thing to keep that relationship going.

“Every single penny that goes into a Northern League club is essential – especially since we are in the aftermath of Covid, and the financial implication of Covid. Sponsors are probably more important than ever now, because a lot of sponsors have had to withdraw their backing from clubs or opted against giving their support to clubs. So, when you do get a sponsor, it is essential that you look after them as much as they look after you. “

Of course, a manager is absolutely vital to a team’s on-field performances, and that was something RCA were without following the “amicable departure” of head honcho Steve Riley.

With the club in financial disarray, forced to offload the majority of their senior players within the last month and conceding 23 goals in their last three fixtures, former Ryhope Colliery Welfare and RCA boss Martin Swales returned to the village dugout on February 19 – just one day after a 13-0 loss at Heaton Stannington.

‘Swaz’ made the decision as the club were in “trouble of getting relegated”, and despite guiding his side to a 3-2 win at Tow Law Town in early March they have since suffered another three defeats on the spin.

Admitting there is still work to do, Swales said: “The present squad is very young and inexperienced, so we are trying to bring some experience into the side but it is proving extremely difficult without a budget.”

The club have applied for £50k funding which would allow them to improve their facilities.

So, while the general skies over Wearside remain dark, there are chinks of light.

Football in Ryhope is not ready for its funeral just yet.

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