After taking the plunge and accepting you are a Sunderland fan, the very first lesson we all have to learn is that we love a club who will always strive to do everything in the hardest possible way. We fancy ourselves for promotion? No bother. Give the rest of the league a 4 month head start. We have a key striker we probably know we can't keep a hold of? Rightio, best fight all summer to keep him and then let him leave 2 days after the transfer window shuts.
And in true 'The Sunderland Way' fashion, we can now add another one to the list. Need a mega-rich billionaire benefactor with ambitious plans to achieve anything in football these days? Best wait until the football bubble is about to burst before getting one. I am, of course, talking about the onset of the Financial Fair Play era in football.
Ellis Short has been a brilliant addition to the armoury of Sunderland AFC. Even if you take his vast personal wealth out of the equation, the club have still benefited from his expertise and experience. I can understand why fans may perhaps find it difficult to trust such a reclusive and private person as Short with such a pivotal role at the club, especially having grown accustomed to the soothing dulcet tones of the media-savvy Niall Quinn, but the Texan's influence would not have grown to the level it is today without being born of genuine commitment to the cause.
Short arrived at the perfect time for the club. The previous owners, The Drumaville Consortium, had committed to a course of what many would consider reckless spending. Difficulties in attracting players to the club - caused by geography and the stigma of the special level of Premier League failure Sunderland not only managed to achieve but also repeat – were being tackled by offering wages that were pretty much unsustainable within the club's own revenues. But when Drumaville had found their own private interests severely hit by the Irish economy crisis, fresh investment was required as a matter of urgency.
Short signalled his ambition for the club immediately, personally providing the funds to not only sustain the club's existing financial commitments but actually further them by providing the means for another busy summer of recruitment on Wearside. That he did that in the form of providing capital rather than loans was a powerful statement of both means and intent. Time was that the backing of a benefactor such as Ellis Short would immediately propel a club to the forefront of the English game but, as ever it seems, as soon as Sunderland get up to speed with the rules of the game, someone goes and changes them.
At Sunderland, the influence of Financial Fair Play is already snaking it's way through the club having a real impact on football decisions. Players such as Anton Ferdinand and Steed Malbranque were signed with the knowledge that, if all else failed, Ellis Short could effectively pay their wages himself, but he is now heavily restricted in how much he can use his own personal wealth to fund a loss-making entity. Their departures from the club were, therefore, a necessary financial exercise that had to take priority over any football decision. The expense they brought was no longer conducive to the available business model. It would not be unexpected to see Craig Gordon, another remnant of a lost era at Sunderland, suffer the same fate.
In the simplest of terms, a club's spending can no longer exceed revenue generated from TV income, gate receipts, prize money, and sponsorship with licenses to compete in European competition being denied to those who fail to adhere to the criteria. Until 2014, clubs will be permitted to record maximum total losses of £39.5m and between 2014 and 2017 that figure falls to £26.3m. Those losses can be subsidised by a club's owner, but only if they do what Short has done more than enough of already – capitalize their investments.
Given that the club's released losses of the last 2-year period alone amount to over £50m, the immediate need for stringent cost-cutting is obvious. Against this contextual backdrop, the club's decision to steadfastly refuse to try and compete with Aston Villa on the issue of Darren Bent's wages perhaps becomes a little more understandable. It also explains why transfers this summer had, for the first time in Short's time here, to be self-financed by first cashing in on an existing player.
It isn't all bad news by any means, however. Quite the opposite. What we are witnessing here doesn't seem to be a Leeds or Portsmouth style financial implosion. Indeed, it is highly likely that even without the existence of FFP the club would have sooner or later embarked on a program of throttling back spending as their ability to carve themselves a bigger slice of the Premier League pie developed. The new rules have merely heightened the urgency with which such a project must be tackled.
Last season, according to official Premier League documentation, Sunderland's combined income from TV revenue and Prize money showed a steep increase of £9m – a massive 25% of the previous season's total. Should it be possible to ally that figure with a similar decrease in wages, then Sunderland will have little trouble in meeting Financial Fair Play. What is unclear is what part, if any, the annual spate of music events at the Stadium of Light has on the club's ability to comply with the new regulations. Jean-Luc Dehanene, the chairman and 'chief enforcer' of UEFA's FFP panel insists that only 'incomes related to football' can be considered as relevant.
What would seem to be the true challenge, however, is achieving the balancing act of reducing the expenditure whilst maintaining the standards on the pitch set last year and upon which they must now rely. But, paradoxically, it may also go some way to explaining why we are still awaiting our first Premier League managerial casualty of the season and why Ellis Short has been so willing to endure the wretched 2011 that Bruce has provided. Sacking managers has become an avoidable expense, and they are a luxury the Premier League chairmen can no longer embrace on a whim. Dropping a fair few positions down the league for a season and taking it on the chin has become the cheaper option.
The long history of English football is littered with game-changing moments, legislation, and innovations. The scrapping of the maximum wage, Hillsborough, and the advent of the Premier League to name but a few. Given the influence of the Financial Fair Play regulations, and seeing how they are seeping in to every facet of what is, in truth, a fairly bog-standard Premier League club it is not inconceivable that we may have met another game-changer. FFP has become an unseen puppeteer in the game, dictating policy and changing attitudes from beneath a cloak of relative invisibility. Whether the game itself suffers or prospers remains to be seen, but it has certainly shook Sunderland out of what was becoming a dangerously comfortable over-reliance on the support of one man.