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Bye Bye, Ellis: Looking back at what went wrong during Short’s ownership of Sunderland AFC (Pt1)

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The sun has set on the reign of Ellis Short at Sunderland AFC, so what better time to look back on the tenure of our erstwhile owner and ponder what went wrong.

Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

In 2008, when Ellis Short purchased a majority share in the club from the Drumaville Consortium, things were looking up. Heavy investment brought some degree of entertainment, and with it would come the whiff of an identity and a playing style common of clubs in a similar position - scrapping it out ugly on the lower rungs of the upper echelons of English Football; gladiators in an arena of anonymity, where the prize is mediocrity but the cost is exponentially more spectacular than that.

But the heady days wouldn’t last long, as Short’s trust in the wrong people led to one bad investment after another and, burdened by astronomical debt, Sunderland AFC eventually began to collapse under the weight of itself.

Until recently, that was the story so far.

But our hero was by no means alone in his endeavours - to get a clearer perspective of Short’s time as boss man, we take to look at the intrepid crew he brought with him on his quest.

When you step back and take stock of the firefighters brought in to perpetually correct the mistakes of those that came before them (before going on to perpetually make more themselves) two things become abundantly clear:

  • When it comes to running a football club, Ellis Short doesn’t have the foggiest about who to ask for help.
  • It takes a lot of hands to sink a ship.

From handing ultimate control of all footballing matters to a player agent, to paying another a small fortune for her services as a scapegoat - the former Sunderland owner could write an essay on how not to run a club, and let this be the last we say on the subject.

Sunderland v Liverpool - Premier League Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images

Paolo Di Canio, Roberto de Fanti & Lee Congerton

Following the departure of the legendary Niall Quinn citing his other business concerns as cause, Ellis Short enjoyed the fleeting promise of stability; the sacking of Steve Bruce paved the way for veteran manager Martin O’Neill to come in and take the helm with the full backing of the owner, and for a while we were punching within our weight class. This was a rare time in which Ellis had both keen interest in his investment and the belief that further investment would bring better results.

Of course those days were anything but worry free, but no season ever will be for a Sunderland fan. We still struggled and fought on the pitch, and we still suffered the curse of a big-but-not-quite-big-enough club when it came to our transfer dealings; Bruce’s failure to replace the irrepressible Darren Bent was a bump in the road that broke a wheel, but such things happen in football. We move on.

What happened next though was a demonstration of why you shouldn’t mix sports and politics.

Sunderland v Everton - Premier League Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images

Paolo didn’t really stand a chance when he walked through the revolving doors of the Stadium of Light. An authoritarian attitude and expectation of respect must have felt like an ice bath to a group of players that, until that point, had been running their own show. It was particularly shocking to the likes of Connor Wickham, a young man once angling for a slap from the agitative Roman by merely looking like he didn’t give a toss.

Whatever you may think of him as man or manager, he brought us some fantastic memories. Sadly, I’m firmly of the belief that politics contributed to his eventual termination as much as a poor start to the season ever could.

Though events on the pitch hardly girded him against his myriad of detractors, it’s obvious that a miserable start to the 2013/2014 season weighed him down as much as his part in the great ingress - and subsequent exodus - of no less than fourteen players. Couple that with the friction in the dressing room (even if it did include an ungodly number of prima-donnas that frankly weren’t fit to polish his boots) and the grave was dug for him.

Of course, from all accounts he was never an easy man.

Perhaps what irks me the most about Di Canio’s treatment at Sunderland AFC is the fact that most of it was at the hands of the British media.

West Bromwich Albion v Sunderland  - Premier League Photo by Tony Marshall/Getty Images

This is the same issue I have with that machine on a daily basis: the casual ease with which it chews up the personal life of an individual, metabolises it and spits it out as something else entirely, all part of the circus we’re so used to from an industry which implies a need for creative ability and personal integrity, and yet often demands none.

You and I know that politics don’t belong in football - Di Canio’s alleged political leanings (which now by the way, just a few years later in 2018, are compatible with the politics most of the tabloids openly support) have absolutely no bearing on Sunderland AFC. They didn’t then and they don’t now.

Now, can we blame Ellis Short for the British media having their way with our precious club? We can’t blame him for them trying.

But what we should consider in this review of sorts is his failure to recognise the warning signs and move in good time to prevent the feeding frenzy from occurring in the first place. Putting distance (and the media team) between himself and the problem only allowed it to grow out of control. Decisive action was required but not taken, and the media had their way. The club was between a rock and a hard place, and the fiery Italian got the axe.

Paolo Di Canio Unveiled As New Sunderland Manager Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images

With that maelstrom behind us though, we would still be dealing with the fallout of Short’s lack of investment.

Up until the 2014/2015 season, Short had green-lit an investment of a minimum £20,000,000 every season since he purchased the club. Indeed, Short’s attendance in the boardroom was immediately notable in the 2007/2008 transfer window, which saw £40,000,000 net pumped into the club on the likes of Kenwyne Jones and Craig Gordon, an astronomical leap from the £5,000,000 net spend the previous year under the much meeker financial clout of the Drumaville Consortium.

But as relegation battle after relegation battle rolled by with no discernible profit to justify his continued investment - evidenced by mounting debts and increasingly desperate great escapes - it’s no wonder that Short was reluctant to put his hand back in his pocket after De Fanti got his on the chequebook. We brought in so many new faces that summer that I doubt the coaches knew who they were speaking to for weeks afterwards, and in many cases they may never have actually figured it out since so much dross came through the doors that we had to shift half of it when the wallpapered cracks reappeared soon after, and we were again left scrambling to piece together a squad of actual footballers.

Sunderland v Burnley - Premier League Photo by Nigel Roddis/Getty Images

De Fanti though claims that he was hamstrung by the dour state of the finances when he arrived. He shed some light on his time at the club in an interview with The Guardian back in 2015:

My regret is that we were not allowed a press conference where we would have explained to the fans what a difficult season we had ahead of us because of these financial difficulties. It would have been more honest and would have lowered the expectations. Why weren’t we allowed? You should ask Sunderland’s media office. Although it’s easy to understand why.

My job was to reduce the salaries, spend as little as possible, sell the two best players who were [Simon] Mignolet and [Stéphane] Sessègnon.

The job was economics, to change the contract system; take away the guaranteed loyalties, lower the wages, introduce performance bonuses.

Make of the man’s own words (and their uncanny similarity to Bain’s remit) what you will, he is after all a man well-versed in the art of talking. De Fanti maintained that he did as good a job as he was able, but in spite of his claims that we had the lowest *net* spend of all but one club in the Premier League, ignoring the ludicrous contracts he negotiated (Palace still owe money for Wickham that won’t ever be paid) and the damage was irreparable.

What became clear after the unceremonious dismissal of Di Canio - and the existence of a wage bill that unfurled right out of the office door - was that Ellis had to be very careful when it came to his choice of employee in the future. Now lumped with an obscene amount of mediocre talent and ridiculous wages tied into questionable contracts, if we were to hold our heads above the water of the Premier League Sunderland AFC could ill afford another scandal.

Invest in Africa/AFC Sunderland Event Photo by Bethany Clarke/Getty Images

Lee Congerton, Margaret Byrne and Adam Johnson

Former Sporting Director of Chelsea, Lee Congerton, came in as the man to replace De Fanti. Ellis Short was sticking to his guns and persisting with the Director of Football role (re-branded as the Sporting Director) some might say unwisely. Traditionally a man who sticks to his guns is admirable, and you would think it’s a welcome trait in a man responsible for building a football club in the North East of England.

Unfortunately by this point it was too easy to see it for what it really was - throwing good money at bad, and with the days of big spending firmly behind us there weren’t many realistic opportunities for what little money we had to make the difference. Not that any of us really knew this at the time, with the accounts being staggered in such a way that only those at the top really knew of the financial plight we were in.

Congerton’s time at Sunderland is shrouded in the fallout of his predecessor and the scandal that followed, sandwiched between two torrid times for the club. For all of that though, this was yet another Bosman from the boardrooms come to tell tall tales of modern football and work some hitherto unseen magic on the transfer books.

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His greatest achievement was arguably the swap of Premier League flop Jozy Altidore for consummate professional Jermain Defoe. His other signings tell a far more typical story of wasted transfer fees and bargain-basement strikers with delicious names. Something of a minor footnote in the recent history of Sunderland AFC, Lee Congerton remains another short-sighted appointment based entirely on interviewing ability and the current desperation levels of the owner.

Which leads us to the role of Chief Executive Officer. The big one. God’s right hand man - or woman, in the instance Margaret Byrne.

Considering the blame heaped on Martin Bain (mostly by people like me) for whatever part he played in this Grecian tragedy, I would be remiss if I skipped over the reign of his predecessor. To be honest, it’s questionable that Byrne should have been in the position of CEO in the first place.

Sunderland AFC

For me, Byrne’s role as CEO is a fine example of the rag-tag manner in which Ellis Short conducted his football business - in stark contrast to his remarkable success as a venture capitalist. A former solicitor and then legal director for the club, a “reshuffle” saw her take a role that should be reserved for only the most endearing and knowledgeable of footballing experts. Her time spent in various jails talking to wronguns would eventually stand her in better stead than any of us could have predicted of course, as the nation turned its unspent attention on the deplorable behaviour of Adam Johnson.

I haven’t written much about Adam Johnson, and there are good reasons for that. You could even say I’ve specifically avoided mentioning the little goblin. On the one hand I don’t want scandal associated with the club I hold dear, and the farther I can place distance between the two the better. On the other I have to admit that there are key moments and individuals in this recent history of Sunderland AFC and that he is one of them.

The fact is this: Adam Johnson did play excellent football and contribute directly to our stay in the Premier League. The fact is also that this man is a convicted sex offender. I wish there were a way of escaping that, but there isn’t. Whether you believe those contributions to be an irrelevance or that his goals and achievements should be stricken from the record books, that’s your prerogative. Regardless, this particular article isn’t about the plight of society or the moral destitution of one man, but we can’t avoid the subject as much as we might like to.

Sunderland v AFC Bournemouth - Premier League Photo by Nigel Roddis/Getty Images

What we know for sure is that outside of the case, no other person bore the brunt of the consequences of his actions more than Margaret Byrne. It seems to be the consensus that she essentially fell on her sword for the club. As CEO it stands to reason that she would of course be under the spotlight at that time, but aside from a forced silence during this time period it’s clear from his actions before and after the media frenzy that Ellis was very much directly involved in the running of the club.

Of course I’m not suggesting that Short had any knowledge of this polarising event - the manager exists as the buffer between the team and the owner in most things team-related, and of course these were extenuating circumstances for everyone but Johnson himself. What a man gets up to in his own time he doesn’t often share with his boss.

Sunderland AFC

The manner in which this played out though only serves to highlight the remarkable demands made of whoever is in the role of CEO - an unenviable position for Byrne to be in, frankly. The first point of contact for any and all serious club issues, and what a horrendous time to be that point of contact.

On the 7th of March 2016 it was reported in the local news that the Supporters Association wished to speak with Byrne to clarify her knowledge of events. On the 8th of March Byrne resigned, conveniently relinquishing herself of any obligation to answer said questions. This of course came after a turnaround on her part; she was due to stand in defence of Johnson during the court case, but opted not to. Byrne walked away from the club with a reputed £750k payout - fair pay for her inability to answer the questions the Supporters deserved but never received? Radio silence was resumed.

As I said above: we can’t blame Short for the media frenzy. The issue becomes that since the owner can’t reasonably be expected to fight every fire himself, he needs to delegate to his minions, and those minions need to be capable of doing the job.

Sunderland v Chelsea - Premier League Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images

Whose job was it to control the PR narrative? Whose job was it to make sure the PR narrative was controlled? We know Short has many business concerns and that’s just part and parcel of a billionaire venture capitalist owner, but the point here is that a massive part of diligence as an owner comes in delegation of club business to responsible and capable persons in your absence.

With the Johnson scandal arguably the most prominent residual memory of Byrne’s time as Sunderland CEO, is it safe to say that her appointment was misguided? Or was she a victim of the intense media scrutiny that Short’s Sunderland were so often unable to withstand? Either way, no one looks back on her time fondly, certainly, I’d imagine, not her.

These are just some examples of my point. The tales of these temporary custodians and guardians of the club demonstrate a recurring theme within it, and a worrying one at that: rather than seeking out the best person for the job, there seemed to be too often a “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know” policy at Sunderland AFC that, frankly, could not be more dangerous for any institution, let alone one dependent entirely on the skills of talented people.

There are dozens of similar stories over the years, of people placed in roles they weren’t fit for, even roles that were created specifically because their friend had the capacity to do so. And these aren’t specifically executives I’m speaking about now, and that’s part of the overarching problem. The attitude of entitlement runs through Sunderland AFC like blood through a vein. Being complacent with high-level appointments debilitates an organisation at every meaningful level.

Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Owning a football club isn’t merely throwing money in a transfer kitty. The club is a living, breathing organism and it needs to be nurtured and maintained, it’s ebb and flow must be observed and navigated by a trusted hand. It demands equilibrium, and a huge prerequisite for that equlibrium is hiring the right people for the job.

Yes, we will doubtless be disappointed (or even betrayed) by someone pouring honey in the Kings ear, well-meaning or sinister. But the ultimate truth of ruling is that the King shouldn’t trust anyone enough to let them make mistakes that cost the realm.

Relying heavily on advisors increases the risk of a heavy turnover of changing opinions, and increases the risk that within that turnover you will find pretenders coming in to advise alongside well-meaning individuals. Long periods of absence, reckless recruitment strategy and rifts between employer/employee are all avoidable, rookie mistakes that can fester into deep-lying issues that can’t be rooted out if they aren’t spotted promptly, but they have for so long been the order of the day.

So while it’s true that Short was burdened by bad advice, it’s reasonable to say that half of the burdens put upon him were essentially put there by himself; an unfortunate cost of his own inexperience - and even hubris - when it came to the machine that is football.