Chairman and owner Ellis Short is a figure that divides opinion among the Sunderland faithful. Some people view him as a well-meaning, yet misguided chairman; others view him as an ignorant moron who is guiding our club to the brink of financial oblivion.
It’s hard to judge the impact of a man who is such a private figure. On one hand he has personally written-off debt from the club with his own money, and provided interest free loans to help secure the club at times of great need. Yet a cursory glance at our finances paints a very bleak picture with mounting debts and falling turnover. In short, Ellis remains an enigma, and with very little communication from the man himself, the fans will be left to speculate about his intentions.
There are shades of last season’s Aston Villa to be found in Sunderland this season. Villa sat bottom after eleven games with 4 points last year, whereas we have managed 5 so far after the same amount of games this season (though we had managed at least one more point this time last year). Furthermore, the off field issues surrounding Villa’s ownership were a well-documented fiasco; tumbling finances and poor performances were a toxic mixture that ultimately led the Midlands club to their Premier League demise.
We spoke recently with Aston Villa Blog 7500 to Holte about their former American at the helm in an effort at perhaps better understanding the issues surrounding their ownership, and whether Randy Lerner’s leadership was a major factor in their lacklustre showing last season.
RR: Could you give us a brief summary of life under Lerner?
7500: It was like the first two acts of a good three act movie. Things started out all gloriously. There was friendship, there were smiles, there was fun. Lerner pumped money into the club and seemed determined to see them playing in the Champions League. And under Martin O'Neill, they very nearly made it. But after successive campaigns in which the club fell just short, MON wanted more money and Lerner said "nope." So MON, like a petulant child, quit. And Lerner, like a man burned by a fire, shied away and hid. After that it was never the same. He gave some money here and there, but never enough to be a corrective to the club's woes, and always with an eye on correcting the over-spending on wages that had occurred under MON. By the end of his tenure, he rarely showed his face at the club and was generally loathed by all. That's where you'd expect the third-act comeback, but he just sold us off and skittered away.
RR: Many Sunderland fans, myself included, initially saw Ellis Short as some kind of saviour who rescued us from potential oblivion. How soon after that initial buzz with Randy Lerner did it take for the honeymoon period to finally wane?
7500: I'd say it was right around the time that he hired Alex McLeish from Birmingham City. Things weren't great in the 2010-11 season, but under Gerard Houllier, the club looked like it had a plan. Then Houllier had heart issues and needed replacing so Lerner went with a man who was generally hated by most. Now, McLeish wasn't great, but he also wasn't the worst ever. But fans never took to him, and that soured the relationship.
RR: One of the major focal points surrounding Short's ownership of the club has been the manner in which he has appeared to have fallen out with a plethora of former staff, including a very public spat with Roy Keane. Was Randy Lerner an abrasive character, and could this be an American approach that perhaps doesn't quite work in the UK?
7500: No, Lerner was a very hands-off character. In fact it seemed as if he took pains NOT to be abrasive at times. I'm not sure that abrasiveness would be a uniquely American trait. I mean, look at Roman Abramovich.
RR: Just how tough was last season under Lerner? Do you hold him responsible for your relegation?
7500: It was really tough. He wanted to sell. We wanted him to sell. No one wanted to buy. But as for holding him responsible for our relegation, that's a bit tough. Maybe it was his decision to provide literally zero funds in the January window, but it always felt like that came from the idiots who actually ran the club on a day to day basis. So was he responsible? Sure? But let's say 50%.
RR: Much like Villa of last season, Sunderland look like a dead team walking at times; yet the fans haven't fully turned against Ellis Short quite yet, and last weekend’s victory against Bournemouth has certainly eased immediate fears. At what point did the Villa faithful identify Lerner as their prime concern, and do you see echoes of that same process with Sunderland this year?
7500: I'm not sure if we ever did quite turn that hard. There were "Lerner Out" signs and chants, to be sure, but the real anger was directed more at people like Tom Fox, who was basically running the club and was also a giant tit. Lerner had one thing going that seemed to buffer him from some hatred: he actually seemed to like the club and really want the best for it, but he had no idea how to do that. He was an oddly sympathetic character. Not an idiot, by any means, but an idiot when it came to fixing Aston Villa. So that deep hatred wasn't quite there as much as I'd have expected.
RR: Has the change in ownership had a profound effect on the atmosphere at the club this season? You've had somewhat of a bumpy start, yet boast an consistently impressive away following. Would this be the same case if Lerner was still in control?
7500: It's had a HUGE effect. Tony Xia interacts with fans on twitter, goes to matches when he can, and seems to have loads of energy for the club. The results aren't there yet, and after more than half a decade of incompetence fans are twitchy, but overall there's a bit of trust right now. Maybe this season ends up being a wash, but it's clear that Xia wants to make the investment we need so desperately, and even if he doesn't do everything right the first time, he's committed to getting it right eventually (see: sacking RDM for Steve Bruce).
If Lerner were still in control, I think the one thing that would be the same would be the away following. That, no matter what, has been one of the things about which we Villa fans are proudest. Those folks go to every match and sing louder than most of the home crowds. It's incredible, and it's the one thing that makes me think "Yeah, maybe the club do owe at least them something."
And so there you have it, while Lerner and Short may not be the most heinous of villains, they certainly seem to have their shortcomings. The lack of interaction with the fans - subsequently leaving them anxious about the club’s future - certainly seems to be the major issue that both owners suffer(ed) from.
If Sunderland are to turn this season around, then there needs to be a clarity to their plan. What is the end goal? How are we going to save ourselves financially? Is Ellis Short in this for the long term? Questions that all need solid answers. We’re riding high on the back of our first win of the season, now is the time to embrace this newfound optimism and lay out a clear plan for the club’s survival. If we are left to mull over our shortcomings, then it won’t take long for the terraces to demand answers.