Sunderland AFTER We Die - new 'Heaven Branch' of SAFC supporters' club created
Sunderland AFC has a new fans’ club branch paying tribute to the team’s supporters who have passed away.
The club already has more than branches throughout the UK and over 30 abroad, from the Wearmouth branch, virtually on top of the Stadium of Light to Sydney and North America.
Now fans can show their love and support for eternity with the creation of a Heaven Branch
Joanne Youngson, of the Sunderland Supporters Branch Liaison Council, said the branch gave families and friends of departed fans a way to acknowledge how much the Black Cats had meant to them.
“No one doubts the fanaticism of Sunderland fans and we had the idea, after a discussion between supporters, of recognising the commitment of lifelong fans after they pass away,” she said.
“They leave a void behind and the Heaven Branch gives their families something that recognises that and it’s a tribute to their years of dedicated support.
“We even have a Sunderland standard, or flag, in club colours, that can be lent for funerals so that a loved one’s coffin can be draped in a fitting tribute.”
The Heaven Branch was established during the pandemic and already has more than 600 members – and even its own branch officers.
These include chairman, the late Fred Taylor, a fan all his life and a regular in the stadium’s North Stand. Fred died in 2019. The vice-chair is Keith Charlton, in his lifetime a member of the Boldon branch, and variously a club programme seller, turnstile operator and steward – he died in 2018.
And secretary is David Dent, a fan from the age of five who passed away aged just 33 in 2020.
“We have had the Heaven Branch recognised by the club and it is the same as all our other branches except it has no voting rights. It has been very well received by supporters,” said Joanne.
“It all came about after a conversation between myself and fellow supporter Billy Wright about supporters we’ve lost and the loss we feel when they are gone. This is a way of keeping their memories alive.”
Joanne says the new branch is also considering announcing a mascot – who else but Bradley Lowery, the brave little fan befriended by striker Jermain Defoe before losing his cancer battle, aged six, back in 2017?
The families of Heaven branch members receive free certificates and Joanne is keen to stress it is not a money-making initiative. The branch is also strictly non-religious and non-denominational and is open to people of all faiths or none – except, perhaps, their lifelong bond with Sunderland AFC.
Recognition has also come from the Netflix series’ producers Fulwell 73, now an internationally-acclaimed production company with offices in London and Hollywood.
Leo Pearlman is one of the original four founders – three of them diehard Sunderland fans.
Mr Pearlman said: “This is fantastic, an idea which I’m sure will garner interest locally, nationally and internationally. This is such a human story.
"It just feels so right and particularly apt that Sunderland supporters should come up with this initiative, a Heaven Branch for supporters. It’s quite something for those who’ve passed on and for those they leave behind.
“Because with Sunderland, it’s not really to do with the football but all to do with the community. The Heaven branch is such a statement of community and how integral the football club is to the city.
“When we at Fulwell 73 chose Sunderland Till I Die as the title for our series, it was because our premise wasn’t about results on the pitch, nor about goals or a particular moment.
"It was about the club and its place in the community and why we keep coming back. The series was for anyone who has lived with the hopes and dreams of supporting a club and what it feels like as a fan to support them your whole life.
“They say it’s the hope that kills you and there is something in that. Sunderland fans always hope.
"Now the Heaven Branch is showing it’s not just Sunderland Till I Die ... but Sunderland Till I Die - and beyond!”
Leo even has a possible candidate for membership close to home: “My grandfather passed away recently in the pandemic. He was 95 and my first connection with the club and Roker Park,” he said.
"He loved them but never had a good word to say about Sunderland. Even when they beat Newcastle he would look at me and ‘Hmmm, we’ll lose next week’.
“So we know all about the hope and despair but we’re Sunderland for life.
"And now beyond it with the Heaven branch, too.”
The new branch also has links with Washington Mind and shares information on bereavement and loss for people who may need it.
It is an important part of its function and there is a Mental Health Hub at the Foundation of Light building each match day, next to the stadium.
Sunderland AFC has warmly welcomed the establishment of the Heaven Branch.
Chris Waters, the club’s Supporters Liaison Officer, said: “The official branch network at SAFC has always been an area the club has been very proud of.
“There are over 80 supporters branches representing the dedicated support of our fans world wide. The Heaven Branch is a welcome new addition and has the club’s full backing.
“Sunderland AFC plays such an important part in many of our supporters’ lives. We hear from many families reaching out for support when they lose a loved one who has followed the club through thick and thin.
“The Heaven Branch now provides a community for these families to celebrate their loved one’s lifelong support, to share memories of games and to get comfort from engaging with fellow fans.”
Check out the Heaven Branch at: https://safcheavenbranch.co.uk