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Black Cats Analects: Ellis $hort - Part One

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Are you reading, are you reading, are you reading, Ellis Short? Are you reading, Ellis Short?

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". . . for that amount of money spent, we should be better than we are and no one knows that more than me . . . has money been spent effectively? No – that much is clear and ultimately that is my fault, but it is not a result of a lack of ambition or commitment . . ."

Ambitionless cheapskate.  Reluctant financer.  Idle owner.  #ShortOut.  Et cetera.

Any bad result or underwhelming transfer is another reason the blame game buck stops at the door of Sunderland AFC Chairman, Ellis Short.  Such is the life of football club ownership.

And that’s okay.  Ultimately, achievement and failure in the English Premier League is dependent on its own monopolised nature.  This is a league to be bought, not won.  And when you follow the money at Sunderland, the Chairman is always the name at the top.

So whenever the billionaire Missouri native leaves an underfunded trail of bosman signings, seasonal loanees and bit-part purchases, it rightfully ruffles even the ardent supporters of this great club.  After all, Sunderland is not a business to the supporter.  Transfer fees and wage bills are all we need to know, and we surmise the aspirations of our club and of others from these numbers.

That our Chairman has attempted to hold back a tide of club debt with revenue built on the commercialisation of Sunderland AFC means little to the casual fan.  His morally commendable yet financially detrimental decision to give the fifth lowest costing EPL season tickets for the sixth highest average stadia attendance means even less.

However, this difficulty in balancing the want of the supporter with the need of the club – his business – has in-part contributed to an inconvenient truth: Ellis Short has been operating on financial loss at Sunderland since the day he arrived.  A loss that has lasted a decade.  A loss that is rising.  A loss he alone is personally covering.

And yet, despite this, our Chairman has accomplished the remarkable feat of both navigating the club through a colossal nine-figure debt whilst also generating £101 million in club revenue last year.  That is the twenty-fifth highest club revenue.  In.  The.  World.

Much of how this is possible comes from one source: the English Premier League.  Make no mistake, there is a reason billionaires like Short are here.  This league is the holy grail of football.  This is the most profitable league on the planet.  This is the Promised Land.

This is the league where Sunderland can earn £101 million and struggle to remain, while Leicester City can earn £104 million and be crowned champions.  And that – right there – is the crux of where fans have their doubts about the Sunderland Chairman.

Because, in his seven years of sole financing at Sunderland, Ellis Short has taken the club through a point of momentary minor competitiveness to a crushing half-decade of retrogression; and has reached this sorry state where we make competing in this league look painfully difficult.  How this club has lasted so long in a league that is akin to an exercise in suffocation is remarkable.

And, yeah, that is troubling.  And you can understand why some out there question the commitment our Chairman has to operating this club in the competitive interests of the supporters.  That’s a fair reaction.

But then, there is the other side of understanding; when simply questioning turns to all-out condemnation, and . . . aye.  Right, look, before anybody gets carried away with short memories and high-demanding ignorance, you might want to think about this:

If a club gains £4 million in gate receipts for reaching the final of a domestic cup competition, only to miss out on that revenue again for not being competitive enough, that is detrimental to the club.  And if that same club also loses out on £3 million for finishing two league positions lower than in the previous season due to not being competitive enough, that is detrimental to the club!

You get where this is going.  Both of these scenarios have happened at Sunderland, the latter more than once; but to identify this lack of on-field competitiveness, and subsequent financial loss, as being the sole architectural error of Ellis Short is – sorry, folks – a lazy response.

There is absolutely no way that our Chairman would ignore the operating intent for competitiveness.  Not in this sport and not in this league; where EPL clubs are mostly dependent on 70% of their revenue from distribution rights; where competitiveness can and will literally provide between £92 million and £151 million between now and 2019.  After all, that is why we are still in this league.  This is the endgame for Short and the clubs lingering debt.

No, Ellis Short has not moderated over some short-sighted view on the value of competitiveness here at Sunderland AFC.

What he has done, however, is presided over a cluster-f**k-filled cornucopia of the uninspiring, the misguided, the egomaniacal and apathetic list of managers, head coaches, sporting directors and players.

If there is any one thing that Ellis Short is at fault for here, it is that he has only done what every supporter of this club has done at some point in our lives.  He kept the faith.  And from 2009 up to 11pm last night, that faith is worth £248.9 million.

Again, that is £248,900,000.

Again! That is two hundred! Forty eight million! Nine hundred thousand pounds! Faith kept, yes.  Regrettably though, that is also a frightening scale of financial risk to place in the butterfingered hands of unreliable management.

Just break it down.  Steve Bruce: £87.9 million for three years of managerial ineptness.  Martin O’Neill: £32.5 million for fifteen months of squad stagnation.  Paolo Di Canio: £22.6 million for two months of short-lived popularity turned to utter disorder.  Gustavo Poyet: £22.5 million for a damaging counter-cultured quest for ‘playing identity’.  Dick Advocaat: £29.6 million for a fraud.  Sam Allardyce: £17.6 million only to lose the man to his brutally-timed dream job.  And now David Moyes: £27.1 million for, hands down, the most deflating transfer window in recent memory.

And that’s just transfer fees.  The wage bill, in comparison, is apocalyptic.

Many of us don’t need reminding, but Sunderland has one of the most turbulent wages-to-turnover rates in the country.  Two seasons ago it towered at £77 million; that is a top ten wage bill for a bottom four club – the sort of wage bill blueprint that relegated Queens Park Rangers twice.

And when that £1.6 million per week wage budget isn’t already paying high-hyped and low-standard players, it is also propping up personalities who have been lacklustre, indifferent, insubordinate or – in one instance – later convicted.  Not too often is still too many times that our club – and Short’s brand – has been publicly humiliated by the select few of its own overpaid employees.

And yes, there are some who believe the Chairman is to blame for that too.  So, too, is he so apparently to blame for the prior and recent dramatics concerning a players wage demands.  But just think about that, and think on that bloated overflow of a wage structure.

It is an unfortunate necessity for Sunderland to reduce its wage budget at this most inconvenient time.  Admittedly, we are in a climate where the new money is turning parasitic agents into full-throttle financial predators, desperately clawing at the fortune of the EPL and prostituting their clients for the highest bidder.  And by operating under weak financial clout, Sunderland will never be that highest bidder.  For now.  No contract release of the Fletchers or Grahams can change that yet.

And if you’re wondering why not, go ask Steve Bruce and Martin O’Neill.  These were the two esteemed managers who should have built upon the £120 million foundation set by Ellis Short between them.  Ideally, and perhaps realistically, their management was intended to take Sunderland into gradual stability as a top ten club.  Had that happened, later funding could have gone toward fewer and better players, for higher fees, and higher wages, to build a stronger squad.

It’s reasonable to suggest that these earlier years of funding were Ellis Short’s attempt at establishing Sunderland as a credible contender for European competition.  And the fact that over half of the quarter-billion pound investment provided by the Chairman was given before the 2013–2016 TV rights deal was implemented (or, when EPL clubs started generating serious broadcasting revenue) should tell you a hell of a lot about just how ambitious Ellis Short’s vision for Sunderland is.

As it stands today, Short has funded in excess of £24 million in seven of the eight seasons he has backed this club; two of those seven seasons tallied amounts over £32 million; while last season – the most funded to date – totalled a whopping £56 million.  That, you’d think, is enough money over seven summer and six winter transfer windows to competently compete for a top half finish in this league.

That said; it’s still only half the story here.  None of this accounts for the argument against selling our best players, or how other clubs seemingly always spend more money than us, or why Ellis Short was tempted into testing the poorly-worked "Udinese Model" at Sunderland.  And, oh, we will get to that.  In part two.