The death of the dream
I think above all it’s important for us as fans to consider the very real possibility that Short gave up on Sunderland AFC with the introduction of Martin Bain, little did we know then.
A veteran financier like Short couldn’t fail to recognise the morbid pattern evident in the books, and so he devised a plan to rake some money back. By the time the Glaswegian glamour model rolled in, turtleneck-clad, we were in pretty dire straits.
So it came to pass Bain was handed the crown and left languishing on the throne as de-factor ruler in the King’s self-imposed exile.
Consider for a moment that Chris Coleman by his own admission didn’t once converse with the owner in the five months he was in the dugout, and you have a clearer understanding of Ellis Shorts involvement in recent years. In fact as I recall there was a picture of Short, Bain and Moyes in a restaurant towards the end of Moyes’ whole debacle, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that was the last time Ellis really bothered with this whole Sunderland malarky.
I also recall it was in London. Couldn’t even be bothered to get a jet North. I’d like to think it’s because he despises Newcastle so much that he’d never dream of landing at the airport, but it’s more likely that he just had far less to gain from his Sunderland exploits than whatever business kept him south.
That raises an interesting question when it comes to club owners. If teams are representative of their town/city/region, what does it say about an owner that doesn’t embrace the culture? Are they anything less than frauds?
We’ve all heard the recycled platitudes of new owners and players and managers; all quick to point out how “amazing” the place is; how “fantastic” the fans are, but how many truly believe it? How many understand it?
One particular anecdote of Kevin Ball’s always come back to me at this point, about the time he was waiting for Chinese takeaway and ended up getting both barrels from a pissed off fan who happened to be in the same place. The way he speaks about that demonstrates his understanding and empathy for the local culture; he isn’t angry about it; he doesn’t claim the fan is entitled or wrong, he instead uses it as an example of how much the club means to the people. Anyone is entitled to lunge at the random who verbally abuses them in the takeaway, but when it was happening and after it happened Kevin Ball knew what it was really about. He understood then and understands now, and likely now even more so.
Am I lamenting that Kevin Ball doesn’t have the finance to fund his own takeover? In a sense, yes, because we should all aspire to have an owner - and to an equal extent employees throughout the whole of the club - who feel that way.
People that are with the program and on the same level as those who support the club. It seems like unadulterated madness and simple logic mixed together, but it’s the holy grail of club ownership: that those running the show actually want the show to go on for reasons other than hard cash. That simply isn’t the case with Short. For whatever interest and adopted love he may once have had for Wearside and the club that represents it, in recent years he couldn’t do enough to get farther away.
No, I think it’s fair to assume Short’s interest in Sunderland AFC post-Advocaat waxed briefly in the light of Sam Allardyce before waning for good. I think he was fooling himself that David Moyes was the man he wanted, and the investment he made thereafter was more of an investment in the idea of a “Manchester United” manager; a protege of Sir Alex Ferguson, rather than the realistic contingency demanded by the club’s needs and ambitions.
What makes this period of time even more catatonically depressing is the knowledge that the catalyst that gave birth to the disaster Moyes oversaw was that fleeting glimpse of stability that we had under a superior manager, and one we let slip through our fingers after a shockingly short space of time.
Enter the Allardyce.
Big Sam’s Grand Slam
Sam Allardyce is a name that must be mentioned in the annals of our recent history, and with no small amount of regret for many of us. Allardyce was arguably our last shot at any kind of effective running repairs - like the jack that props up an F1 car in the pit, the innate charisma and savvy of Big Sam offered us a chance to catch a breath while the pit team raced to change the tyres.
The things that make a manager like Allardyce divisive in the opinions of pundits are the very things that made him as suited to us as a well-worn glove: his no-nonsense attitude; an arrogance born of experience; an old school personality coupled with a modern appreciation of the physical and mental demands on the player. Most of all, though, Sam Allardyce has the gift of the gab; he’s the man to put an arm around the troubled young starlet in the dressing room, and convince him that if he gets his head down and works he can have everything under the Sun.
My oh my is that an attribute sorely missing now from the dressing room, or rather the ruins of one. It’s this talent that saw the alignment of Whabi Khazri, Jan Kirchoff and Lamine Kone, and even brought with it something Wearside hadn’t seen in years: a solid defence.
Ah, what we could have been.
Sadly, of course, events conspired to rip the jack away from underneath us before the changes could be made, and in his absence the whole machine finally collapsed into an expensive heap of broken parts.
The ever-helpful tabloid media along with the Football Association decided they absolutely must have the man they’d been slagging off for a decade, because he was going to fix old England. Being a decision made by the FA and English media, it of course went to shit a few months later, leaving us up a creek without a paddle for the good of no one whatsoever (barring perhaps Allardyce who undoubtedly managed to profit from the whole affair, the wily old fox, and more power to him).
Darker times would follow, as they inevitably do. Though Short would have had us believe that the entrance of David Moyes was some kind of great coup, the marriage was very much one of convenience. Even the petty comment Ellis made in the official club statement after Moyes’ appointment was a warning sign to precious few:
A manager I have wanted for the last 6 appointments.
Aye, course it was mate.
Back in Ellis’ homeland I believe it’s actually what’s called a “hail mary”, which basically means you haven’t got a f*cking hope in hell’s chance and if it pays off it’s a bloody miracle.
It didn’t, of course it didn’t. How could it? A cool head would have recognised a manager broken by the weight of expectation at one of the largest clubs in the world, and kept away from him, as opposed to signing him to a lucrative contract (because they historically work so well for us) and excusing his failures as simple misfortune.
Don’t get me wrong - many of us held the opinion for a time that Moyes had been handed a poisoned chalice when it came to filling the gargantuan shoes of one - if not THE - greatest manager of our time, but we can be forgiven.
The difference for us is that we needed to believe in David Moyes; we needed his failures to be the result of events conspiring against him, rather than of his own doing. We were down and we were nearly out, and we needed a winner to get our breath back.
As fans we can be allowed our misgivings and our short memory, because our entire existence is dependent on current events and the whims of others. For the owner of a club however, the obligations are far greater and require a depth of due diligence that is simply beyond the remit of anyone without seven figures riding on the decision. It was Short’s call, and he botched it.
I think of Sunderland at this time in the context of the baby in Trainspotting. It was someone’s job to feed it but everyone was too busy being a waste of space that no one got round to it, and now they’re all huddled around this macabre scene like a bunch of culpable smackheads, desperate for a life change and for someone to come save them from the jagged edges of the life they chose.
But this takes me back to my previous point: Ellis had given up by this point. I’d go one further and say that he’d given up before Allardyce came in and that it was only the insistence of a real footballing mind in Allardyce that forced his hand and convinced him to reinvest. Moyes would also manage to squeeze a few bob out of him, albeit at seemingly-far greater cost to the club in terms of contractual obligations, but throwing pennies at the tide doesn’t stop it coming in.
We’re in for a world of Bain
Martin Bain. Former semi-professional model and bartender, turned professional soccer spin doctor.
I imagine there is a standard by which wealthy men measure others that most of us aren’t familiar with. The role of CEO isn’t one that involves one particular remit; it varies by circumstance.
There is no set qualification necessary to become a CEO, but there is certainly a prerequisite: money. You have to be well-versed in the matter of money. You have to have had control over obscene amounts of money in some form or another before anyone will entrust you with more obscene amounts of money, and Martin Bain did indeed fit the bill.
Months before Short hired him he was involved with Israeli club Maccabi Tel Aviv, and before that was on the board for over a decade at Scottish powerhouse Glasgow Rangers. Bain’s influence came to an abrupt end amidst controversy and the eventual sale of the club for a staggering £1 sterling.
So, it goes without saying you’d hire this guy to fix your sinking ship (you wouldn’t).
But I have to be fair to Bain, because I’ve spent so many months slating the guy and deliberately avoiding the very real truth that - all together now - he was brought in to do a job. I didn’t like or agree with that job, and I maintain that Bain was never actually transparent about what it entailed, contrary to his claims, but it wasn’t his axe he was swinging at the end of the day.
Ellis Short empowered him to be a villain, and a villain he would be.
It’s important to appropriately proportion blame when it comes to the modern plight of Sunderland AFC. On the one hand what we experienced under Short was a culmination not only of terrible choices made by him, but also of decisions made in desperation by those that were - perhaps unfairly - expected to remedy a situation that the owner himself had lost control of.
For example: the 70 people given the push after our initial relegation. The countless that recently followed and were made redundant following another relegation. Was that Short and Bain’s fault? Yes and no. It’s not their fault because “streamlining” is an unfortunate but unavoidable part of relegation. It is their fault because their decisions led to relegation. It’s the players’ fault because they didn’t play well enough. It’s the managers fault because they didn’t force their players to play well. It’s endless.
There are likely dozens of people that deserve mention in the ultimate downfall of Sunderland, those mentioned were just some of the most influential, but we haven’t got the time or the inclination to focus on these footnotes anymore.
We’re past the point of blame now - we have a new owner, and with that our hope is renewed.
Only the future of Sunderland AFC is foremost in our thoughts, but as it enters chrysalis, and we sit and wonder what transformation will come over it, we should never forget the trials of the last few years.
The division between the fan base and the club - and even inside the fan base itself as tensions boil over - has been nothing short of toxic; a stark warning as to what can happen when something precious comes under the rule of people with more money than sense.
The exodus of legions of fans will stand forever in the minds of those that understood the tragedy of those decisions; that appreciated what a loss their voices were. The Stadium of Light hasn’t felt like a bastion to our people for more days than I care to count, and it’s with a glad heart that we can finally consign the Ellis Short saga to the annals of our history.
”Veni, vidi, victus sum.”
I came, I saw, I was conquered.