Rick Boland is an American tree trimmer who gained the oddest of fame from a bizarre freak of meteorological nature. He was lucky enough to survive being trapped in the eye of a tornado. He was lifted about a hundred yards in the air by a twister that levelled his Missouri home. On the sheer intense madness of this experience he described:
I couldn’t keep my balance… then all hell broke loose... It was like being hit by a big tidal wave and being inside a giant vacuum cleaner at the same time... There was nothing I could do stop the spinning.
This week I’ve felt a little like the football fan equivalent of Mr. Boland. The whirlwind of new Sunderland owner Stewart Donald span relentlessly into the city and the impact has all but flattened the house that Ellis built - and left us all dizzy in its tail spin.
From Monday alone, Donald has been passed by the EFL, taken over the club, held a national press conference, participated in the Roker Report podcast (which was frankly an incredible coup by the unbelievably dedicated major players behind this merry little band - 40,000+ listens to a footballing podcast is astounding and all deserve credit for the event), has fired Martin Bain, has prioritised a rejuvenated academy with Kevin Ball increasing his duties, has found our new manager in Jack Ross, talked candidly about meeting potential investors in Monaco this weekend - and IT’S ONLY THURSDAY!
Donald has discussed a multitude of issues regarding the club and has been more open with the fans in his first five minutes at the club than our previous owner was in five years.
Likewise, his partner Charlie Methven, who is equally as expressive and convincing. The speed with which they have hit their footballing investment has been nothing short of startling and it’s no surprise that Sunderland fans are being left breathless on an hour-to-hour basis.
He’s even planning on inviting us to a free BBQ - albeit we’ll have to move a few pink seats if we want a burger!
This weekend he heads to the Monaco Grand Prix with the great and the good. While supermodels chill on yachts and billionaires are served expensive champagne from the balconies of their sea-front penthouses, Stewart Donald is there to discuss the future - in particular, the future of Sunderland AFC and how potential investors in his international consortium can invest with confidence in a sporting institution that is pulling itself back from the brink.
Donald admitted in Monday’s podcast that, to speed up the process of the takeover, he purchased the club himself as it would have taken much longer to ratify the sale if the EFL had to perform their due diligence on a group of overseas investors with a myriad of global business portfolios.
This delay would have eaten into the transfer window and severely impacted our search for a manager. Donald - true to the energetic fury of his dealings thus far - could not afford to wait any longer. But he is very keen to remind Sunderland fans that the international investors who sparked his own involvement in the Sunderland takeover are still very much in the game, albeit observing from the stands right now.
Consequently, questions still hover ominously over the identities of the potential investors who wait in the background, watching carefully for an opportunity to invest their money in the club while the combined choppy waters of new ownership and League One have settled tranquilly, and the economic opportunities seems more apparent and clear.
One potential investor could be the Russian Billionaire, Dmitry Rybolovlev. According to the Forbes billionaires list for 2015, Rybolovlev was ranked the 156th richest person in the world with a net worth of £6.8 billion. Once infamous for being one half of what was billed by the Daily Telegraph as ‘the most expensive divorce in history,” Rybolovlev has survived his marital split and still maintains a healthy bank balance.
Rybolovlev’s fortune comes from Uralkali, Russia’s largest producer of potassium fertiliser. He set the company up as a young man in 1990 after going into business with his scientist father, who held the scientific knowledge while the youthful Dmitry had the drive and will to succeed. To put his wealth into context, his Monaco apartment set him back a cool £300 million, which is almost the same price as my gaff, give or take a few hundred million. He’s also the owner of AS Monaco and maintains an obsessive interest in football.
A billionaire football investor who lives in Monaco and happens to be an associate of none other than Stewart Donald? Where is Stewart Donald going this weekend to discuss football investment with a business associate? That’s right. Monaco. Interesting.
While Donald held his interests with Oxford United, he invited another potential Sunderland investor - Uruguayan Billionaire Juan Sartori - to watch a few games from his executive box with a view to potentially investing in the U’s. Sartori also happens to be Dmitry Rybolovlev’s son-in-law, and Donald has had business associations with them in the past.
As a consequence, it’s not difficult to connect the dots and presume it is likely that both men could be associated with an international consortium that once again has Stewart Donald heavily involved.
Sartori is the president and founder of Union Group, a privately-owned conglomerate which holds significant interests in businesses in multiple sectors in Latin America.
After graduating in 2002 with a degree in Business and Economics, the young Juan began his career as an entrepreneur and founded the Union Capital Group, and did so by the age of 22. When I was 22 I was driving a rusty, second-hand Ford Fiesta and living at my mother’s house, so in many ways we’re like brothers. Sartori skillfully grew the business and transformed it into a billion-dollar institution with global economic reach, and by 2008 sold his majority share for an estimated $1bn. He was 28.
Now related by marriage, Satori and his father-in-law have multiple business interests together, and Rybolovlev was also rumoured to be keen to invest in Oxford United and still maintains an interest in investing some of his impressive wealth into English football.
At this stage it’s difficult to identify for certain every potential player in what Stewart Donald himself describes as a significant ‘international consortium,’ but Donald has an undeniable association with these men and a business relationship that, at one stage in the past, had been close to purchasing an English football team - with Donald’s support and encouragement.
This should be reassuring for Sunderland supporters regardless of which international financiers eventually form the overall investment team of Sunderland AFC.
It’s reassuring that Donald genuinely has links to more prosperous and globally influential economic strategists who maintain an interest in sports investment - people that have an eye on the potential profit to be sourced from successful Premier League campaigns once their investment proves successful.
These men play for the long game and, unlike Ellis Short, Rybolvlev has a history of football involvement and knowledge. He comes from a country with an identifiable, cultural link with the game itself, as does Sartori, whose Uruguayan heritage is more than familiar with the beautiful game, with his home nation competing in the World Cup successfully for many decades.
Unlike Ellis, they understand the culture and expectations of football and football supporters. And crucially, they both made billions from businesses that began in reasonably humble circumstances and worked tirelessly to turn them into international success stories. Right now, there are fewer clubs who have been humbled at such an alarming rate as Sunderland.
So as the tornado of Stewart Donald continues to burst forward, Sunderland fans - for the first time in a long time - can perhaps take a chance. We can watch from the side-lines as his twister passes, or we can jump right into the eye of the storm and enjoy the ride.
So far the ride has been relentless, but for many Sunderland fans we can begin to see the blue sky of hope through the blustery force of Donald’s take over - and it’s so good to finally see it.