“Beware of the clever, sharp men who are creeping into the game”
William McGregor, founder of the Football League, 1909.
Way back on the 21st May 2018, after what seemed like a long drawn out process, Stewart Donald and Charlie Methven sat down and announced to the press that he’d finally taken over the club from Ellis Short.
We’re now six months down the line and it’s fair to say the club we look at now is almost unrecognisable to the one coming to terms with the shock of relegation to the third tier. So what’s been the story so far and how’s he done it?
From the beginning this has been the great Sunderland communication experiment. It could be argued that what they have done on the communication front has been the catalyst for the speed of the change within the club. It’s fair to say we have never seen anything like the style and frequency of communication from the boardroom in the club’s history.
Donald’s response to why he bought the club in his first press conference was blunt:
Well, it’s Sunderland. It’s as simple as that.
It was obvious from the beginning how pleased Methven and Donald were to have done the deal and to be sat in those seats in front of the press that day. They went on to be surprisingly open and honest in that initial chat with the media, talking about the £40m price tag and details on the deal regarding the debt with Ellis Short.
Stewart Donald went one further regarding the subject of communicating with the fans:
Yes, the football club is for the fans. They want to know what is going on at the football club, so if I don’t tell them what is going on, they are not going to know.
I would imagine that, especially in the early period, there are going to be lots of questions about why we make the decisions we are going to make over the next few weeks and the fans will want to know the answers.
They will have to ask me the questions and I will have to answer them, so I would imagine that very regularly – whether it is forums or meetings – I will be available to tell the fans what they want to know.
The press conference eventually came to a natural conclusion, and where most people would consider the job done, incredibly Stewart Donald and Charlie Methven jumped in a car and headed off to the Roker Rapport Podcast studio to continue the message.
Looking back, coming from a position of the club cancelling talk-ins with the manager and supporters groups and the mainstream media not even attempting to speak to the owner, this was, and continues to be ground breaking in how the club communicates to the fans.
On paper this isn’t a big deal - for example, they spent an hour with Roker Report back on that day in May, but the impact this has had is impossible to measure. It immediately started to bridge the gap that had developed between club and fans.
It was on this platform that the first mention of the fans replacing the seats - which is now complete - arose, and the now-transformed Stadium of Light looks as good as new whilst the initiative brought together fans, players and owners in getting the job done. Apart from the odd comment, this has gone down amazingly well and, most importantly, it has brought some pride back to the club.
One area where it’s fair to say that there was maybe an element of trepidation came from comments that the owners wanted to join the fans in the stands to watch games. We saw this happen initially with our good friends up the road, and we all know where it has gone since. We hoped that those early fears were misplaced.
In the games they have attended it has been clear that the reasons for the owners wanting to join the fans to watch the games appear to be honest and innocent. They’ve stated it’s not for the attention and publicity, it’s because they regard that to be the best experience of watching the game - and for those of us in the stand who pay for this experience every other week, who can blame them?
There’s been one blip to date where the honest style of communicating came close to crossing a line in some supporters’ eyes. Charlie Methven using the term parasite to describe fans who are viewing illegal streams instead of attending the game itself drew an almost wholly negative reaction from fans and supporter groups.
The real test for this experiment will be if results start going wrong on the pitch and/or decisions are being made in the boardroom that the fans don’t agree with. The hope will be that the communication will still be as open and honest as it has been to date.
As we get used to just how open and honest they are, it could be a case that the reaction to this sort of terminology will become more relaxed, or these instances continue to happen and contribute to a healthy open dialogue between the club and the fans.
If the 21st May was a date to communicate to the fans - via press conferences and interviews - about the new direction of the club, the next day demonstrated the new direction via the owner’s first decision on personnel. On the 22nd of May, Martin Bain’s time at Sunderland as Chief Executive was brought to an end.
This seems like a no brainer now as we look back, but it was all part of creating a new feeling and identity for the club. The removal of what was understood to be our highest paid director, earning a reported £1.24m according to the most recent accounts, was the first move to reengage the fans.
Two days later and after wide ranging speculation, Jack Ross was appointed as Sunderland’s new manager. It’s still early days under his management but from day one it seemed a sensible appointment.
It was almost a relief that we didn’t go for what was perceived to be the biggest name available on the market. It looked like an appointment of someone who was naturally stepping up to the challenge of managing Sunderland.
Tough decisions were needed behind the scenes and stories of redundancies of good people who had provided long and dedicated service to the club have surfaced. We’d all hope they were taken for the right reasons and carried out in the right way, but in terms of reported finances it looks difficult to argue from the outside that cuts weren’t needed.
Looking ahead to the future, it’s refreshing to hear an owner say publicly that it’s possible he can only take the club so far. This may be where Juan Sartori plays a more prominent role at the club and generates the extra support we need - time will tell if we get there.
Considering the situation they inherited it’s been an impressive first six months at the helm. Giant strides have been made, mainly out of necessity due to the mess they inherited, and the next six months are vital to how quickly the club fully recovers from the Short regime.
In short, results have been impressive, we’re proud of our team, the stadium is looking good, we have faith in the owners and we’re enjoying it. The tanker is turning.