This season is the 31st I have seen as a Sunderland fan, and if it has taught me anything it is that football is ultimately circular. My first season was spent watching third division football, the same as this season – the only two occasions, in fact, that Sunderland AFC have spent outside of the top two divisions in English football. I’m back to where I started.
Ellis Short’s mistakes in playing a pivotal role in placing the club back at this level are not contested. ”He said I’ve really screwed up,” Charlie Methven recently told A Love Supreme about the initial discussions with Short to transfer ownership of the club. It wasn’t just words either - in clearing the club of debt before moving it on, that can only be interpreted as an open acceptance of responsibility for the decisions that created it.
Last week, one of Short’s predecessors, Sir Bob Murray, spoke exclusively to Roker Report and one of the topics of discussion was the recently departed Sunderland owner:
I feel scarred by Short. I feel deeply scarred. I feel really hurt.
I couldn’t believe it - the hypocrisy was deafening, so deafening and outrageous that I feel that he seems to be actually getting away with it. I remember the days under Murray - I remember big mistakes made, easily as big as the ones he now condemns others for making. I remember feeling completely scarred by him as a supporter, and I remember feeling that he was running the club into the ground, making horrendous managerial decisions, presiding over redundancies, taking the club into a “vicious” (his own words) financial position, and then handed the club off to a group who he knew didn’t really have the money to deal with the position he left.
Murray makes, in my own opinion, a nonsense claim:
If you said to somebody, ‘Take that great club and get them relegated’ – it’s impossible. It’s impossible to take this club into the league it has (dropped into, League One).
The first thing that makes it such nonsense is that it is knowingly false. Murray should know fine well that it is not “impossible,” because that same scenario played out whilst he was the owner of this club. He was at the helm when Sunderland were relegated to the third tier in 1987. True story.
Granted, Murray had only had control of the club for a year when that happened, and he had a lot of existing problems to fix, not least of which was a demand from the bank for the injection of a seven-figure sum from Murray to stave off receivership.
However, it’s also just as true to point out that, by that time, Murray had been on the club’s board for nearly two years. He wasn’t the one making the decisions, but he was a witness to the disaster and part of the board that appointed Lawrie McMenemy.
The Premier League has been won by just six clubs, and three of them have played in League One in the last 20 years. Then you can add clubs such as Nottingham Forest, Leeds United, Wolves, and Sheffield Wednesday to the list and it’s clear that big clubs dropping to that level is certainly not impossible. In fact, it’s not even rare. Indeed, Murray himself came dangerously close to repeating his own trick – twice – long before Short did.
In 1992-93, a 3-1 final day defeat to Notts County left Murray’s Sunderland’s fate in the hands of others. Just a point for either Brentford or Cambridge United on the final day would’ve seen Sunderland once again relegated to the third tier. Both lost.
Just two years later, the club’s fate was in the hands of the FA after on-loan Dominic Matteo was fielded in a 2-0 defeat to Barnsley in late March. Murray tells the tale himself, including how close it nearly resulted in another relegation.
In a piece on Murray’s website, he says:
The Dominic Matteo mix up was a case of Sunderland having to get out of jail.
I didn’t find out until after the match what had happened, and until the Matteo case there had never been an example of a club not getting fined and docked points for fielding an illegible player in a competitive match.
We couldn’t afford to get docked any points at the time as a reduction could have resulted in relegation, which would have disastrous.
I can’t help but feel that Murray may just want to avoid passing judgement on relegation in general. He oversaw five in total as Sunderland owner. As well as the ‘impossible’ relegation to the third tier, his Sunderland were also relegated from the Premier League twice with record low points totals - evidence, I’d suggest, that he didn’t learn the lessons of his failures.
He’s been oddly quiet on that. Funny that, because he apparently loves to talk about things that should be impossible - and breaking your own record for lowest ever points total within three years is certainly one of those. Thank goodness Derby County came along and took that record from us. That’s not a trivia question you want to be the answer to. And yet, that’s the position in which Murray left Sunderland.
No matter how tough the last couple of years have been to be a Sunderland fan under Short’s ownership, it simply cannot, and should not, be forgotten how bleak those years were under Bob Murray. He allowed it to happen, not once, but twice, and speaking purely as a fan, nothing scarred or hurt me as deeply following my club than those years did.
In many ways, it’s actually quite difficult to directly compare the two owners, mainly due to how much football changed in the 22 years between Murray gaining control of the club and Short doing the same.
However, what is inarguable, is that in 20 years at Sunderland, Murray’s Sunderland spent fewer seasons (seven) in the top division (with over half of them resulting in relegation from it) than the eight that we experienced under Ellis Short. Additionally, only two of those seven seasons were during Murray’s first ten years at the club, and both of those ended in relegation.
Both Short and Murray delivered a cup final and great moments in the derby against Newcastle, although we probably shouldn’t forget that Sunderland failed to beat Newcastle on home soil in the twenty years that Murray was in charge of the club. Murray’s derby record as Sunderland owner alongside that of Short’s makes for an interesting comparison, with just three wins (15%) to Short’s eight (57%), and nine defeats (45%) to Short’s two (14%).
Managerial appointments is something else that Murray has been very critical of Short over, particularly his record of sacking them.
Who can say Martin O’Neill’s no good. How is he no good? Steve Bruce is a bit like Mick (McCarthy), he’s got a job for life. He’ll always gets a club, Stevie. How’s he no good? How are all these people no good?
Well, firstly, let’s not forget that Murray sacked Mick McCarthy. So you tell me, Bob. How is Mick no good? How was Denis Smith no good, for that matter? How was Peter Reid no good? Murray is the man, after all, who hired Howard Wilkinson - something to digest when listening to his thoughts on managerial appointments.
Ellis Short and Bob Murray won’t be the only football club owners scratching their heads wondering why managers end up needing the sack when they look great on paper, but one thing it does do is again highlight how just about everything Murray criticised Short for are also criticisms that can be directed at himself too, and that makes Murray’s words difficult to swallow.
Murray went on to say:
Who would give (Paolo) Di Canio a job like that?
Short could argue that Di Canio did indeed keep Sunderland up and he has admitted himself that he should have replaced him after survival was assured. There was a lot of backing from supporters for Di Canio that summer, especially after the dirty knees derby.
Whilst Murray gave the impression that he’d never fall into the same trap, evidence again suggests he made similar mistakes to the ones Short made in sticking by Paolo in 2013.
In 1992, Sunderland were in the crazy situation of going to an FA Cup final with a caretaker manager. Malcolm Crosby had taken the reigns on a temporary basis from Denis Smith and started winning cup games. As the cup run went on, and despite having Neil Warnock lined up to replace him, Murray felt he had to keep him on - despite knowing it was a mistake.
He recalled to the Roker Rapport Podcast:
Here I am with a caretaker manager and, nice lad that Malcolm [Crosby] is, Malcolm isn’t a manager of a club like Sunderland - and I know that, and I’m having to make him the manager [because he’d taken the club to Wembley].
In other words, placed in an incredibly similar position, Murray did exactly the same thing.
Murray said, when talking about some recent transfer business, that huge mistakes were made with regards to the transfers of goalkeepers in and out of the club:
It’s like a death wish to sell a keeper (Jordan Pickford) for £30m and spend £1m.
For all the ills in the world, if there is one thing that Bob Murray should not be criticising Ellis Short for it is a lack of investment. Short’s money was wasted, but there was never a shortage of it. Even when it wasn’t being wasted by managers in the transfer market, it was being injected to keep the club afloat.
But while Short came under criticism in his later years at the club for not investing enough directly into the team, I remember that was a regular complaint under Murray.
In 1990, when Sunderland had the opportunity to get in on the Premier League ground floor, I recall that Murray oversaw a summer of chronic under-investment. It was to be the start of a recurring pattern. Veterans Eric Gates and John McPhail left and only Peter Davenport and Kevin Ball were bought to replace them, so the side was maintained rather than specifically strengthened.
“He’s hard work at times,” Denis Smith said about Murray referencing that era. “He wanted a new stadium, I wanted a new team.”
Again, in 1997 and with Peter Reid in charge and fighting for Premier League survival, a cash injection to provide a crucial extra dab of quality never materialised. Relegation ensued. Nor did it materialise in 2000, when European football was genuinely well within the club’s grasp, or again a year later. I’m still waiting to see Sunderland play in European competition.
Murray’s unwillingness to invest in the team at crucial times was so infuriating to fans it twice provoked strong protests against him, once in the dark days of the 90s and again in 2006, when 400 supporters held a strong protest outside the Stadium of Light chanting “Murray out!” Murray did, of course, deliver Sunderland a new stadium.
The Stadium of Light was funded in a variety of ways, and not via one sole benefactor. A share issue diluted Murray’s ownership of the club and raised £13m of the £22m it cost to build the Stadium, with grants from the European Union accounting for much of the rest, and debt started to accrue.
In his own words from back in 2005:
You can’t build a stadium like this and a training ground like that without getting into debt.
Murray, therefore, is certainly not in a position to criticise Short for running up the debt at the club in my opinion. He started it, passed it on to a consortium who were ill-equipped to deal with it, which necessitated Short buying the club in the first place, and then Short ultimately paid it off. Indeed, by the summer of 2003 following relegation, Sunderland had an enormous (for the time) debt of £26m and the seventh-highest wage bill in the country. Administration was a real possibility.
When asked at the time about going into administration, Murray said:
I can’t guarantee it. We are doing everything within our powers and taking every decision to ensure that isn’t a possibility. We have to achieve a wage-bill reduction.
The enormity of the failure is immeasurable. Sunderland will implement its financial plan and will do what it has to do to secure its future.
Running up the debt and overseeing a relegation that forced the club to make massive cutbacks and force tough financial plans to be put into place… quite honestly, I don’t know how Murray even has the nerve to raise the topic, never mind openly criticise anyone else.
Let’s also not forget that stack of debt was passed on to Drumaville, and they passed it on to Ellis Short - who then paid them off.
Short’s mistakes are fresh in the memory and, as I said earlier, are not contested. We all know what they are, and so does he. But, for me, Bob Murray should not be allowed to lay down judgement without proper examination, and both his eagerness to do it and the method with which he has done it have really got under my skin.
Although it has started to heal, there is still an open wound at Sunderland, and Murray appears to be trying to take advantage of that by poking at it and with a holier-than-thou condescension that his track record can ill-afford.
While the rest of us can swear blind Short’s mistakes would never have happened on our watch knowing those convictions could never be tested, Murray is the one Sunderland fan who has been in Short’s shoes. And, in truth, he did absolutely no better. In fact, it’s very easy to argue that he did worse and made bigger mistakes.
Not only do I believe that his claims border on the ridiculous, but they openly and brazenly blag and bluster their way through passport control. In my opinion, Murray delivered greater on-pitch failures than Short, similar financial troubles, significantly less investment, and less top-flight football, before leaving a debt-ridden and broken club in the hands of people financially ill-equipped to deal with it.
I recall that he led the club to not one but two record-breaking relegations that scarred thousands of supporters, disconnecting them from the club. Some of them still haven’t found the heart to return.
Time has been kind to Murray, and perhaps it will be to Short too - who knows - but if there is one person who absolutely should not be condemning Short for his mistakes at Sunderland, I believe that it’s Bob Murray. History simply doesn’t allow it.
Sunderland’s modern history is a tale of two owners - Bob Murray and Ellis Short. But for all Short’s failings, struggles, and mistakes, one thing should never be forgotten - Short inherited a cycle of failure from Murray – a 20 year-cycle of failure.
“Who would give (Paolo) Di Canio a job like that?” Murray asks. “Who would appoint Di Canio and not ring me and say, ‘What do you think, Bob?’”
Well, in my opinion the more pertinent question would surely be: ‘Who in their right mind would ask Bob Murray for advice on anything regarding the running of a football club?’
I know I certainly wouldn’t.