Stewart Donald and Charlie Methven were introduced to the media yesterday after completing their purchase of Sunderland AFC late in the afternoon, and, as soon as their initial press conference was over, they were kind enough to join us on the Roker Rapport Podcast.
You can listen to the entire interview on iTunes, Acast and YouTube by clicking the links provided and you can check THIS article to find out how to listen. But to whet your appetite, we have provided a few choice highlights below.
Gravy Train out of commission
First up, the poor culture at Sunderland - the so-called rotten core era - is coming to an end. Charlie Methven made it explicitly clear that there will be no continuation of the current culture that has bred nothing but failure:
Charlie Methven (CM): This isn’t going to be a free ride any more. If agents come knocking thinking they can add an extra 10-20% on what they are asking for because it’s Sunderland... then those agents will be sent packing, and they’ll have done a really crappy job for their players because they’ll have lost the chance to play for the best club ever to play at this level. We are going to have to be very hard and very clear to act in the best interests of this football club.
The reputation of Sunderland in the game is that this is a place where people have come to take the piss, and I am sorry to say but that is the truth. That has been the case for quite some time. People have come here not because they passionately want to be here, but because they’ve heard this is a place where you’ll get paid really well; not very high expectations; a pretty easy going culture, etc.
That has to change.
We asked the pair about the finances of the deal, and they were very forthright about the details of the financial side of the takeover:
RR: Can you tell us a little bit about the finances of the takeover, as people aren’t sure about the parachute payments, about transfer fees that are going to be incoming in the summer (Borini, Khazri). Can you explain if that money is going to go back into the club, or is some of it going to go to Ellis Short?
CM: Good question, and that’s a pretty panoramic way of putting it, which I think is the right way to look at it.
There are payments that are due to come into the football club, there are payments that are due to go out of the football club, and both of those two segments of revenue we effectively have no control over. These are pre-contracted payments in, and payments out. You’ve then got stuff that money is going to need to be spent on, which is still variable.
As things stand right now, there is a substantial amount of money that needs to be spent - you might call it invested - over this summer to try and get us to the blank sheet of paper which we need to be at to build this house on solid foundations. At the moment you’re in a situation where the foundations aren’t right, so it doesn’t matter how much money you pour into it, the result is not going to be right.
In terms of Premier League payments, they are somewhat aligned with the gap in the transfer business, they are similar sort of figures. You may get some transfers in - obviously we’ll be working hard to make sure they are as good as possible. If players are going to leave we want to get the right price, I’m not sure the club has always managed to achieve that.
In terms of the restructuring of the business and the squad: some money may be invested, but we want to be very sure and very careful about how that money gets spent.
People have been saying about Ellis Short taking the parachute payments - that is not the case. Ellis Short is enabling us to pay for the club over a period of time to try and ensure we’ve got enough cash flow in the meantime to actually put right some of these things that need to put right. If we had to pay him the full £40 million up front and then cover everything you need to cover in the short term, well that would be difficult for almost anyone. That’s an awful lot of cash.
He has accepted that he will need to be paid gradually. When somebody is owed money in that situation, they then need to take some security over the eventuality that we turn around one day and say “we’re not going to pay you”. The thing that is easiest to put that security against is Premier League parachute payments.
Stewart Donald (SD): To be fair to Ellis, he’s written off the debt and in that process, hopefully, the Sunderland fans will be pleased that he’s chosen our consortium. Ellis says he will let the club go debt-free, what that means is that he doesn’t want anything for the debt, but he was assuming that the new purchasers would port that debt across to themselves.
So, Sunderland football club would then owe the new purchaser that money, but we refused that because what that basically means is that although he sold it for a pound, it would then owe me and Charlie £125 million, which is no way to start a relationship with the Sunderland fans.
During the media press conference, Stewart mentioned that the club would have a sizable budget for the forthcoming League One campaign; during the podcast both both he and Charlie expanded upon that claim.
RR: Will we have the biggest League One budget?
SD: By a mile!
That doesn’t mean we want to spend it all, but we have the capability. I would imagine it’s the biggest budget ever seen in League One. It’s substantially higher than the teams who went up this year. The only issue will be how much of it goes on new players versus the players that are staying - and the players that are staying will need to give us value for money. It’s a budget that a lot of teams in the Championship would take.
I don’t think Sunderland fans need to worry about how much money is going to be spent on their team.
CM: Budget is like a capability, but unless it’s applied in the right way, it doesn’t mean anything. It could be wasted by the wrong people - as Ellis has found. So we feel that responsibility very carefully.
Stewart talked about the budget and a lot of fans that of that in terms of ‘Stewart’s giving the budget, let him allocate that budget,’ but the vast majority of that budget is the fans’ money.
If I were to enter a plea to Sunderland fans, it’s to recognise that the intravenous drip of morphine that they’ve been on, expecting owners to spend cash and that will somehow make things better, well that is partially what has brought the club to where it is because there is not enough responsibility, not enough accountability, and not enough determination to make very single penny count - and under us that is going to change.
A place for Ball
RR: Speaking of the academy, will you be looking to bring in football people? Maybe Kevin Ball?
SD: Absolutely. Without doubt we’ll look at bringing in football people. There’s no shortage of people that are willing to offer us advice. It’s going to be important that we pick the right people to help us with the structure and the organisation.
CM: I don’t knock everything that the current management have done, but I don’t understand the Kevin Ball situation. A man in the prime of his career who has achieved phenomenal things - the England captain and goalkeeper coming through his youth team - wandering around doing club dinners at the age of 51-52, that’s just not right. That guy is absolutely in the prime of his coaching career, but we’ll be sitting down with Kevin and discussing a more proactive role because we’ve had meetings with him already and we like what we see.
There were a lot of headlines after the press conference that introduced the new ownership duo to the media about Chris Coleman potentially coming back to Sunderland - Donald made it clear that he’d be considered, but that he’s not the front-runner, as well as outlining what he wants from the next Sunderland manager:
RR: We’re going to talk a little bit now about Chris Coleman. Why was he released before the takeover happened, were you part of that decision process?
SD: I think Chris was probably the highest profile decision that Ellis made, but in the process of this he had lots of things he wanted to do and he was very keen on leaving the club in a clean situation. That decision was 100% him. The only impact we’ve had is to ask Ellis to make sure that they wouldn’t deal with any transfers in or out. His view was that the club is in the position it’s in and he had a contractual agreement with Chris and he exercised that option.
RR: Do you think you’ll speak to Chris?
SD: Possibly. Obviously in the process we’ve seen who’s applied for the job, we have our own ideas as well as to who we think might be a good manager. We’ve merged those two [lists] together if you like, so we know who’s applied and who we’d like to talk to. There are two or three people we feel might be ahead of Chris.
If, for any reason, those didn’t materialise then I think he would be a serious contender. In all honesty, I think we may have one or two candidates ahead of him at this stage.
RR: What kind of manager are you looking for? Are you looking for an experienced head, someone who knows the division or are you looking to bring in someone with fresh ideas, but who might be a bit more raw?
SD: I think one of the biggest things we’ve identified is the culture in the team, and potentially within the club, is one where we need very high standards, someone to set the standards, and we need the manager to set those standards and demand that the football squad that we have is committed, is focused, is absolutely 100% professional.
We want a manager who has been successful, and we want a manager who actually wants to come here because they are excited by what we’re trying to do, and what we would say is the project of Sunderland, and we want them to buy into that. Not someone who is coming here because it’s Sunderland and they perceive that we’ll pay bigger wages and if they’re not successful that they’ll get a big pay day. We want someone who will be here to transform the football club over the longer term.
Sprucing up the Stadium of Light
RR: There’s been a lot of fans asking about logistical things about the stadium, the top tier being closed for example, when might that re-open?
SD: We have to get the fans fully engaged in the football club. Modern football has made fans feel disengaged to their club, and I don’t think that’s ever more true than at Sunderland. All I can say is that we care about their enjoyment, about the experience, we understand it’s not just the Saturday afternoon, they want to feel part of their club, they want to know what’s going on in their club. All we can do as owners is engage and give the fans the opportunity to do that.
One of two things will happen. Hopefully, either fans will take a bit of that on trust and come down and help us and get behind the lads or they will turn around and say “I’ve heard all this before, it’s been like this for 10 years,” which is fine as we need to earn their trust. To get that top tier open we need Sunderland fans behind us and all we can do is our best.
CM: One area which we understand better than most owners of significant size football clubs is the fan experience. I think between Stewart and I we have done pretty much every job that can possibly be done in a football club. Including being on the supporters trust, starting fans groups, writing for fanzines, we’ve ran the line, served in the ticket office.
So we understand what it means to want to be involved in the football club that you support. There’s a world of difference between a club and a franchise; there’s a natural instinct in the money men that get involved in big sport these days to lose the club bit - they still call it a club, but they see it as a franchise, and the franchise has paying customers.
That’s not the way Stewart and I see it at all; we see it as a club and everybody who wants to be involved in that club is a member of the club.
SD: The problem would be health and safety, but that’s how I see the club; if we could so something like that we’d all change the seats together. I’d front up the costs, the fans provide the labour, we’d provide the refreshments, and we all have a day or two or a weekend and we’d all do the ground together. That’s the type of football club I want.
That’s the type of thing we need to do to connect with the fan base, and I think the fans will want to come into the ground and say I changed that seat or I changed that seat for you. That’s how it should be and that’s how we want it to be.
Building around the younger players
We may have been relegated but the shining lights of the season just gone were our younger players - the likes of Asoro, Honeyman and McNair. We asked Stewart about the prospect of keeping them ahead of the coming League One season.
RR: I want to talk about people like Joel Asoro, George Honeyman, Paddy McNair. I would say those are the building blocks of the team - how much are you going to try and keep them on board?
SD: You can see that you want to build a team around the youngsters; we want to keep the youngsters. The issue is [will] the youngsters stay with Sunderland; will their agents try to turn their heads?
Are we interested in selling Paddy McNair? Not at all.
Is there interest in these players? Absolutely.
Do we want to let them go? Absolutely not.
The Honeymans, the McNairs, etc. they could be the building blocks for years to come. We want them to be here, but we need to talk to the players because they all have agents. If the agents can get them a move then it’s a payday for the agents. We need to check whether what the agent is telling us is true for all these youngsters.
Do we want to sell them? No.
Are they too expensive for the football club. No.
Do they want to be here? We’ll find out.
RR: Tom Beadling signed for Dunfermline, have you found that frustrating?
SD: Extremely frustrating because we didn’t follow the right protocol, and he was allowed to leave and he shouldn’t have been. We cannot effect the first team until today, and what we can say is that player shouldn’t have been allowed to leave for nothing.
Issues at the Academy of Light
During the podcast, Methven mentioned how the academy had struggled to retain it’s category one status and how they will look to keep that going forward, with the academy integral to the pair’s plans for the club.
RR: How important is it that the academy retains it’s category one status?
SD: Very important. When we came in we had a look at the grading of the academy and I don’t think that on the first visit [they passed], that they needed an additional visit to retain their status.
CM: It was a skin of the teeth job.
SD: We need to get into the nitty gritty of that and understand why it’s a skin of the teeth job because you don’t want to give up a category one academy. We will be fighting hard to ensure that we don’t need two visits to keep it. It’s a cost to the club, but it can be a huge, huge benefit to the club.
CM: One of the big advantages Sunderland does have is a very large, working-class catchment area, which drives a lot of potential recruits to the academy, and an in-built advantage Sunderland has is the infrastructure to claim to be one of the top academies. Sunderland should be aiming to be one of the top five academies in the country because that’s the size of the fan base, and the size of the infrastructure.
Despite their struggles retaining their category one status, they are still producing an awful lot of good young players. The u13s and u14s have won big international competitions, the u23s got to the final of the Premier League International Cup - this is not the sign of a sick institution. It was quite interesting walking around the club that the academy side felt quite brisk, and hadn’t been infected with the same sadness and failure that other parts of the club have been.
Donald set to return to Roker Report
Finally, Donald has promised to make his appearance on the Roker Rapport Podcast a regular occurrence:
RR: One final question, can you appear on the Roker Report podcast every month?
SD: I would say definitely yes, that shouldn’t be a problem. I think, potentially, in the short term what’s going to happen is, things will happen at the club that will raise questions, so we will try and be as available as we can to give you the answers.
These are but a few highlights, and Donald and Methven had plenty more to say on a range of topics surrounding the future of the club.
However, if you want to learn more then you will have to listen to the podcast to hear the rest!
Also, don’t forget to tune in to future episodes as we bring you more exclusive chats with our new owners.