There has been a lot of criticism of the owners over the last few days, much of it borne of frustration and - I will be brave here - for some, irrational thought processes. Is now not a time to take a breath, to take a step back and rationally and logically remember what has happened over the last 18 months and then consider what needs to happen next?
Just like the global economic crisis of eleven years ago, Sunderland suffered their own economic crisis in 2018 following catastrophic back-to-back relegations. Any crisis of the magnitude of 2008 or 2018 will lead to all sorts of repercussions for economic policy, whether that is for a country or for a football club. Our memories should not be short enough to forget what Stewart Donald had to contend with 16 months ago.
Back in 2008 and the economic crisis which impacted on the national economy; the debate was all about whether the government should borrow to invest or whether to undertake a series of broad cuts to expenditure with tax increases, or whether they should they cut deep and cut fast with reductions in taxation. Ask three experts and you would have received three different answers, so who knows what was right?
Probably none of them.
When Sunderland AFC suffered their own economic crisis a mere year and a bit ago we were not blessed with such choices.
Borrowing to invest was not possible - who would lend? Who would gift the club millions? Increasing revenue after relegation was a pipe dream - broad cuts were necessary but would they be enough? The new owners were left with the only option and that was to cut fast and to cut deep. Austerity is a dirty word but a period of austerity was needed, a level of austerity which would make George Osborne wince.
So here we are entering the latter stages of 2019 and to me it is staggering that the owners are being labelled as “chancers” and that they “don’t have two pennies to rub together”. It is probably just as staggering that certain former players disappointingly seem to be encouraging such chatter on social media.
The fact is that Donald and Methven have said from the outset that they would not chuck money at the club’s problems. We have been there and we have seen that strategy fail. Getting the club to be self-sufficient was always the plan. It was right in the summer of 2018 and it is right now.
We have not seen any recent accounts to know what the current financial position is but it doesn’t take a genius to guess that it will still be difficult. We are League One after all but the message from the club is that, from a purely financial standpoint those deep cuts are working; the club is stable and approaching break-even.
Clearly we only have Stewart Donald’s word for that as there is nothing to support or contradict it. Anybody who says they know it is true or otherwise is guessing. We have no choice but to believe that message, and whilst there are many cynics around we have no real reason to doubt that this is true.
The much hoped for on-field bounce didn’t happen last season and there is little sign of it to date this season. On and off the pitch we seem to have flat-lined. From the outside the cuts appear to have levelled but since the end of last season, as reality bites, our new status is not just a one season adventure so the impact of those cuts are being noticed and they are stark.
It also seems that the, at least public, energy which Donald and Methven brought the club has waned - this energy boost was always going to be a temporary hit, and a club can’t rely on the buzz of a podcast or a call to attend the game to prosper.
The energy of a club clearly comes from the performance of the first team.
That first team is now very League One, yet despite not paying fees for players I don’t think the club can be accused of under-investment in the first team squad for this level, or from the finances available. We still have a huge squad which has a very expensive payroll for this division. There are huge questions to be answered around the recruitment policies and staffing, but those are for a different article.
To me austerity is evident in the experience: the look and feel of the place (despite the new seats); the performance of the academy teams; the lack of quality of the strips; the inadequate catering; the tatty merchandise; the reduction in quality of corporate facilities, all of this feels League One.
All of it has been cut to the bone and this reflects our status. This is really hard to take given the previous high standards of the football club in these areas.
I worry about the long-term impact on the academy, of these cuts. It took years to build but in a few short years it has diminished. This was probably inevitable, but how long will it take to get the confidence back? How long will it be until the rebuild will start giving kids and parents confidence that the Sunderland academy is the place to be and we stop losing kids at too young an age?
When will the club look and behave like a big club again? Remember Roy Keane’s attitude to the cheap kit when he arrived? Standards - standards were raised in all areas, little things lead to bigger things, austerity whether necessary or not leads to falling standards in everything.
The attitude, the swagger of a club with our history and standing has gone - everything feels small time now. Standards in all areas must improve and we need to see an improvement soon as to my mind we are reducing, we are reducing in style and status and ambition. That must be reversed before it becomes irreversible.
These thoughts should not be seen to be a dig at the current owners. They have lead us, necessarily and without choice, into a period of austerity but there can be no more if we are to hope to return. The owners have, it would seem, achieved stage one of their plan. They have plugged a lot of the holes, but there are still leaks and we wont recover until new money, new drive and new ambition is found to end the period of austerity and begin the period of rebuild.
I may be wrong but I believe Stewart Donald has laid out his plans from the outset and we are where he said we would be. I don’t see a chancer, just a bloke trying his best. Let’s just hope that the investment and new energy arrives soon, before it is too late.