A long drive through sun-drenched, winding country roads provided the perfect setting for another listen to the second coming of Stewart Donald on the Roker Rapport Podcast. Much had changed since the episode’s release, with four new acquisitions, the sale of Paddy McNair to Middlesbrough, and Jack Rodwell’s long-awaited exit. However, there was a moment in the show that caught my ear once more - it was Stewart Donald describing how his group are trying to run the club financially.
On the first podcast, fans were enamored with Donald’s claims of a stellar budget by League One standards. However, as our podcast host Connor Bromley pointed out last week - clubs in League One really don’t need to spend a huge amount of money in their search for success. Sunderland do indeed have a large budget at this level, but why blow it all when the exact same job can be done at a fraction of the cost?
Donald’s dry sense of humour really comes through well on the Podcast, and his description of the club’s prior poor dealings really do open our eyes to the absolute shambles that existed within the walls of the Stadium of Light during recent years.
His admittance that more money was lost on the Alvarez case, the fact the club were seemingly offering lower-league players double their money in order to join, and that agents’ nefarious dealings are really hindering the club’s attempts at unifying a team freshly scarred from a turbulent double relegation really opened my eyes to just how big this task really is that lies before us.
Perhaps somewhat caught up in the fresh optimism engulfing the club, or perhaps still in the grips of a nostalgic sense of superiority, pockets of the fanbase have seemed restless in recent weeks; seemingly disappointed with the club’s approach to recruitment.
However, Donald’s message on the podcast was clear, and should definitely be further examined in order to highlight the information being relayed. Essentially, Sunderland simply have to streamline their outgoings in order to ensure we can continue to grow and develop moving forward.
Player wages in our final season at the top table accounted for around 67% of the club’s entire expenditure, though the club generated record income due to broadcasting rights. In 2017 Sunderland spent a quite incredulous £84 million of their £126 million income on players’ salaries. It’s frightening and spelled out very clearly that things weren’t going well.
Summary of #SAFC in the #EPL under Ellis Short. Income £803m, player costs (wages & net transfers) £664 m, Highest paid directors took £9m Short has put in £191m plus £70m of SBC loans = £261m. By 2016/17 only 7pence in every £1 of income from ticket sales pic.twitter.com/kSIRgTuGEB— PriceOfFootball (@KieranMaguire) May 4, 2018
Of course, those numbers will have been decreased after our relegation from the Premier League, but Donald did mentioned in the podcast that the current wage budget is still too high, especially considering the enormous drop in income due to consecutive relegations:
Our income is likely to be somewhere around £17 million as a football club. You can’t have a wage bill that is £27 million. You know it’s got to be 50-55% [of wages to turnover].
We think we’ve got 27 down to about 16 with a couple of deals behind the scenes with the people that are pretty much signed and gone, so we’re well underway to getting that to a sensible level. We then sign players.
It’s a long-term plan that needs to be implemented if our club is ever to become successful. We can throw daft sums of money around if we want to... but why run the risk of another case of financial meltdown? We’ve just become debt-free - now is the time to get our ducks in a row and sort ourselves out financially, as Donald went on to note:
A really good wage in League One is £3-5k depending on your position. That should see us getting top players in each position, I would have thought. Well, if you’ve got players, and I think our highest earner costs us still £50-60k per week when you take all of their bonuses in. One player is ten.
The club does need to sell, but not necessarily in order to survive. As Donald argued on the podcast, the club could hold onto several big earners if they had to, but if getting rid of one of those players’ weekly wages equates to signing ten players for free who can do the job of getting us promoted, then why waste the money?
Of course, results will speak for themselves, but this goes beyond merely assembling a side capable of finding success on the pitch. It’s about laying the foundations for a club that lives within its means and knows how to find steady progression both on and off the pitch - after all, they go together hand-in-hand.
It’s a total change of style, and one that is much needed if we are to become self-sufficient. Sunderland simply have to learn to become savvy in terms of player recruitment. We’ve signed the likes of Jeremain Lens, Wahbi Khazri, Papy Djilibodji, Lamine Kone, and Dider Ndong in recent years for a total close to £50 million. Where did that get us?
Should the club invest wisely in acquiring cheaper players capable of bringing success to Wearside, the initial steps toward self sustainability will have been tenderly taken. Sunderland need to be smart moving forward; we need to be wily, cunning, and creative in our approach to recruitment and management.
It feels like those in charge of the club get that - it’s time we as fans did, too.