". . . of course you could be a profitable club and sell your best players, but it’s a relegation model . . . we want to keep our assets and not sell them . . . some clubs [are] profitable, but they’re not playing in this league now . . ."
Ex-Sunderland AFC CEO, Margaret Byrne, said that in 2013. She was, is, and will be proven wrong.
In examining Chairman, Ellis Short, and his work conducted at this grand, old club; perhaps no time is more microcosmically exemplary of his tenure than that of his well-intended but ill-fated 2013 project: ‘the Udinese model’.
If you were a Sunderland fan around April 2013, you may recall an episode of sheer pessimism. Under Short’s ownership, the club had dismissed its second acclaimed manager in four years; Steve Bruce and Martin O’Neill had been bankrolled £120.4 million only to utterly and devastatingly tank.
What remained, for Ellis Short, was a club that could not compete beyond its tenth-placed finish two years prior, and now made a loss near-enough everywhere that mattered. Transfer fee profits had stopped. A questionable player culture was turning degenerative. The contract system, wages and bonus scheme needed salvaging. The academy suffered from ignorance. It wasn’t awful, but still.
Change was needed. That much was certain. Step forward, one Italian agent.
Roberto De Fanti would work with our Chairman on an inspired concept. In Serie A, Udinese was – and still is – renowned for its revolutionary recruitment strategy: set up an intensive global scouting system, find and develop potential on small wages with high sell-on value, all for the benefit of affording excessive transfer sums and, most importantly, commence and retain self-sufficiency.
It is a remarkable two-decade long success story that Udinese makes look easy. And all Sunderland had to do was copy and paste. Copy and paste. But of course, this is Sunderland; and instead of copy and paste, it became copy and drop your computer down a flight of stairs. Then s**t yourself.
So what happened was the club, under De Fanti, networked to recruit players from the Eredivisie, Serie A, Primeira Liga, Allsvenskan, Ligue 1, Swiss Super League, Super League Greece and Süper Lig. Super Duper. And, yeah, most of the players brought in had commendable records. On paper.
But where Udinese had the occasional dud buy few and far between, we at Sunderland had all ours at once. Roberto De Fanti, for all intent and purpose, botched it. Because the variables were just . . .
Only three of the inductees epitomised the point of this recruitment programme: Charalampos Mavrias, David Moberg Karlsson and El-Hadji Ba. All had promising records. All had great fanfare in their short careers. Now tell me everything about the chances they were given. The system failed.
Ki Seung-Yung, Fabio Borini and Marcos Alonso each efficiently contributed to the squad in ways that supporters had not seen in a generation, with the 2014 Capital One Cup Final. None had buy options in their loan deals. The system failed.
Modibo Diakité and Cabral offered all the experience of a twenty-something professional footballer but little hope for sell-on value; and their lack of Premier League understanding was enough for Paolo Di Canio to berate the recruitment process altogether. The system failed.
Emanuele Giaccherini . . . man, there’s an argument somewhere on all the ways managers and head coaches here spat all over the talent and work rate he had to offer this club. The system failed. Jozy Altidore was awesome for AZ Alkmaar when his team-mates played to his strengths, but Gus Poyet coached tactics a world away from all that. The striker was always doomed. The system failed.
If Sunderland was the Udinese of the Premier League, then Jermain Defoe was eventually the Antonio Di Natale. Shame he arrived twenty months too late. Having a newly-blooded squad adapt as one without the constant of a proven league goal-scorer to bail them out of their failures was as foolish a decision as any. The system failed.
And so the whole strategy itself fell apart like chaos theory.
By the 14/15 season, Chairman Ellis Short ditched the ‘project’ moniker of this jinxed blueprint and settled on a Sporting Director to accommodate for a season of inevitable minor investment. Lee Congerton became that role and worked with the clubs finances to the tune of £10.1 million net. It remains the lowest seasonal net expenditure to date in Ellis Short’s ownership.
But all that made sense. Lee Congerton made sense. He became that logical choice for this position after the stats-heralding Welshmen worked a minor miracle at SV Hamburger in 2012; staving the club off Bundesliga relegation on just €5.48 million net spending.
That said, any Sporting Director hired to manage spending who sanctions £10.7 million on Jack Rodwell has surely got the base line fundamentals sincerely f**ked up in itself. Lee Congerton, and the words ‘Sporting Director’, were made redundant after Dick Advocaat’s leave in 2015. The end.
With consideration, Ellis Short opting for this approach to enlisting players was reasonable at the time. Sporting and Technical Director, Dan Ashworth, had performed heroics as West Bromwich Albion secured consecutive top-ten finishes on nearly a profit. And the consequences were never supposed to grow as nauseatingly as they did.
With apology to Roberto De Fanti, the Italian bombed in his responsibilities. His intent was sound enough. But the insular approach to comprehending the longer term implications of his decisions and influence still linger today. Meanwhile, other clubs have made us look right chumps in their own efforts at selling players whilst still achieving.
Between 2014 and 2016, Southampton sold £150 million worth of players. That's more than we've sold in the last seven years! And while Sunderland has scraped to even make back £9 million over the last two seasons, the Saints have made a profit of £21 million. And it has taken Southampton three fewer years and £23.9 million less to accomplish league finishes that Sunderland still fails to reach now. Think about that.
Now, it isn’t as if Sunderland hasn’t had offers. Lamine Koné is still here despite a reported £17 million bid from Everton. And, recently, Ellis Short hasn’t been all too eager to sanction the sale of any of our better players. But while there is credit deserved there, make no mistake, had the Udinese model of 2013 succeeded, Sunderland could now be a very profitable selling club.
If only Ellis Short hadn’t recruited the wrong people to make those successes happen.
And there it is! That is why the strategies involved in 2013 are so reflective of the Chairman’s tenure here from 2009 to now: the frequency of errors from poorly recruited staff. Roberto De Fanti made short-sighted errors. Paolo Di Canio made horrendously tyrannical managerial errors. Gustavo Poyet made ego-driven culture-clashing errors. The players involved have made errors that border across the entire spectrum of bad publicity. Ask Lee Congerton how the Ricky Álvarez legal battle with Internazionale was allowed to happen. And there’s a very good reason why Martin Bain is the current CEO and not Margaret Byrne.
And that is the core truth of it all. Ellis Short is blameless for intent. His expenditure has been proven throughout this analysis – he’s committed. But his decision making in regards to the personnel brought in has led to a manic pendulum of disastrous ideologies. That is not sustainable.
Fortunately, a change came a little under a year ago with the managerial appointment of Sam Allardyce. That day marked the removal of all mistakes over the last three years. Literally, we are amidst the whitewash of the Sporting Director approach. It is as if, right now, Ellis Short is undoing everything that had gone wrong under the Udinese model.
Part of that is making recruitment the epicentre of this revival. If recruitment was the problem before, it is surely the answer now. Sam Allardyce was well-suited to this club. David Moyes will likely prove to be cast in the same mould. 2013, 2014 and 2015 never happened. That is how things should be looked at, in a way, if the club is to move forward.
There is something to be said of Ellis Short’s ambition that he has been able to convince Sam Allardyce and David Moyes to manage at this club in such succession. These are two of the most seasoned coaches in football, with league records only bettered by Sir Alex Ferguson, Arsène Wenger and Harry Redknapp. That the Chairman has been head-hunting Moyes since 2011 is telling.
However, David Moyes is no one-season wonder. His approach will take some time to flourish, as it was at Everton. And though, historically, the Scot has cared little for significant transfer budgets, it is nonetheless important that the Chairman cram every penny available down Moyes’ transfer kitty throat. The financial caution of 2013 and 2014 goes extinct relatively quickly in this league.
It was reluctant investment that caught up with Newcastle United last season. Yes, Mike Ashley sanctioned £92 million in transfer fees. But that was 46% of his clubs entire transfer expenditure over the previous six seasons. Aston Villa, conversely, would spend only a quarter of our own expenditure over the last three seasons. This kind of hesitant buying relegates clubs. It’s proven.
And the reason for this call for Ellis Short to continue his appreciative bankrolling of Sunderland is because, as mentioned, he is the difference. Sunderland AFC is a club that takes annual anxiety-riddled journeys to the cliff edge under the Chairman’s ownership, but it is still the Chairman who prevents the club from ultimately tumbling over the edge.
The disgruntlement with supporters, of course, is that our standards for success don’t appear to be matched by the man in charge. But we have explored that already. We know, from this analysis; that our net expenditure has been phenomenal at times, yet this club is brutally underachieving. What we have left is this regular struggle to merely exist in the Premier League; something that we as supporters often wonder whether Ellis Short is content with.
As you can probably guess, based off his investment, he ain’t.
And why would he? Right now, we are one of the very few clubs in the EPL that has not achieved either continental competition qualification or a domestic trophy in the last decade. We have invested as much money since 2009 as West Ham United, a club that has gone from the Championship to the UEFA Europe League since Short first funded Steve Bruce.
Then again, it is reasonable to believe that the season’s television distribution model for club payments is the endgame Ellis Short has worked toward; if not from 2009, but likely since 2013. Margaret Byrne herself alluded to this, three years ago.
Remember here; the financing for television rights has been revamped a few times over already. It is what allowed Sunderland to earn £37 million for finishing thirteenth in 2010, to snagging £71 million just four years later for finishing lower! Hell, and this season, finishing seventh will pump the club with £98 million! Complacency and satisfaction with merely existing in the Premier League is still going to be the biggest payday in the history of the club.
And yes, that is £98 million that will wipe away a lot of debt. That is when transfer business gets serious and Sunderland returns to monetary competitiveness. If we get there.
But, it is important to remind supporters that, as happy as Ellis Short will obviously be to see his business net £98 million, this is not what he wanted for Sunderland. Remember, the American has handed out over £200 million to see this club compete, and the Black Cats were gifted over half of that up until 2013 as the foundation for cementing top-ten longevity.
Ideally, should Sunderland have become a regular tenth-placed finisher, then this season the club could hope to snap up £115 million. That could still happen, but it’s unlikely.
No matter what happens to Sunderland this season – whether it be relegation, an early assurance of league safety, or even an unexpected high finish – supporters owe a lot of gratitude to the Chairman, Ellis Short.
The American has not had that ideal immediate success he had hoped for on Wearside, despite bankrolling a significant amount of money to see it happen. Were it not for some ineptness on the part of his earlier managerial appointments, in Steve Bruce and Martin O’Neill, perhaps Short would not have been so influenced to test new recruitment methods. And though the Director of Football experiment failed, with lasting consequences persisting through later seasons, it feels as if the Chairman has learnt from these mistakes.
For now, the appointment of David Moyes is the latest decision made by our club’s owner. And if it is true that this is the one decision he wanted to make, while he was contributing to so many detrimental alternatives in the meantime, then that should give some hope to the supporter.
Because today there is no influence from a Sporting Director, no ideas from agents, no chances provided to rookie head coaches. Right now, Sunderland AFC has an experienced Chairman working with an experienced manager.
This time, it looks like Ellis Short has made the right decision.