The Roker Report Podcast last week with Sunderland owner Stuart Donald was quite remarkable. Here we had the new owner spending almost two hours answering questions from Sunderland fans. He did this in an incredibly open and honest manner, which in itself suggests that we have an owner of a special kind.
Interestingly, throughout the interview he referred to himself not only as the owner, but also as a fan. This also sounded genuine (Mike Ashley’s gestures did not) - reflected, for example, in fact that he felt anxious about the transfer situation. Here Stewart can join a long queue, and was seeking daily reassurance from Jack Ross that everything was okay.
Jack’s view apparently is that everyone should calm down. Wise words from the manager.
I don’t often listen to podcasts - and certainly not ones that are upward of two hours in length - but I was transfixed.
Here were some of the stand-out parts for me.
First, that the new Sunderland business model is one fifth of the size of last seasons, and how much this challenge will preoccupy the new leadership in 2018/19. We need to know much more about the economy of Sunderland AFC because it will determine much of what happens in the coming season.
Second, how much he thinks success will depend on the attitude of the new and existing players and their willingness to grow under the coaching style of Jack Ross. But he also recognises that, despite the new positivity in the squad (and evident talent), there will have to be additions to offer the team physicality and height.
He’s worried about transfers - we are all worried about transfers, despite Jack’s assurances.
Third, the importance of the Academy and its nurturing of young players. Here he wants to see the same mentality and attitude that is being instilled into the first-team.
Clearly the constraints of working in League One will offer new opportunities to younger players, and Stewart wants the youngsters to identify their futures with the club, rather than seeing it simply as a place to play football to enhance their personal careers.
Finally, I was shocked by his description of the distorting role of agents. He gave examples whereby an agent might not inform the player of all the options in front of them because uppermost in their minds is their commission. He also had some interesting ideas as to how the agent system could be reformed, involving FA mediators for example. I think the first step should be the club educating players as to their rights and how to have an ‘equal’ relationship with an agent.
Towards the end, however, some the questions had my teeth on edge - questions like “do you intend making any money out of the club and when are you going to sell it?” My view was “stop the podcast right now, because he’s hardly got his foot in the door!”
Stewart neatly side-stepped these questions, restating a long-term view to his time at Sunderland - all to my relief.
While this season is going to be far from straightforward, I think we’ve been extremely fortunate to find ourselves where we are. Having fallen on the dark times, by some miracle Sunderland AFC is re-emerging into the Light.
All the signs point to a new era, but the question now is the kind of football club we are trying to rebuild; how swiftly we can do it and how a ‘New Model Sunderland’ will translate onto the pitch.