Prior to the arrival of Stewart Donald, Sunderland was in freefall under an absent owner who had clearly given up any hope of getting a return from his investments in our club and its fans. This is all well documented.
We had all (as far as I’m aware) attempted to get Ellis Short, Martin Bain, Mags Byrne et al to openly discuss what was wrong with the club and what their plans were regarding its future. Most of what we received from the outset from the club officially and unofficially were knockbacks, dismissive behavior and a general sense of disgust from them towards us as being nothing more than vocal fans who just can’t begin to understand the complexities of running a club such as ours.
Despite meetings between fan outlets and the club held in private, we were denied access to the people we wanted to ask questions of. The idea they’d appear on a Podcast at all was too much, as nobody had tried it before, and the mighty Ellis was far too busy for such an inconvenience. Getting them to respond to queries was like trying to get blood out of a stone and nobody had any answers beyond standard pressers and watered down and carefully checked official statements.
So we argued amongst ourselves as to how to affect change at the club, how to show our displeasure and outrage at what we were witnessing; the complete collapse of that which we all hold dear. Our beloved club had been through more upheaval than the average Premier League outfit, largely due to the short sighted decision making of Ellis and those he trusted to advise him.
A few managers had managed to perform miracles in the past decade - alas Davey Moyes wasn’t up to the task, and we attempted to point out how unlikely this was early on in his reign yet as individuals, as a fanbase, as fan outlets, we were ignored. The media failed to hold him or the owners to account as predicted, and it all went to sh*t.
While in this decline we thought long and hard about what we would want from an owner beyond simply the money to buy good players. Despite us poor northerners having nothing but the minds of simpletons and serfs, we managed to establish a set of rules - a rough guideline for what we expect from a modern and forward-thinking football club owner.
First on the agenda were the basics: fix the broken and worn SoL; replace the pink seats that were symbolic of the shoddy nature in which the club was being run; address the immediate concerns of fans regarding access to facilities and so on.
Then the real stuff: Full and active fan engagement, honesty in their released statements, no more leaving us poor souls in the dark as to why this, that, and everything inbetwixt. A plan of action we could all get behind, that made sense not only to us but the wider footballing community, and to get to the bottom of what was truly wrong “behind the scenes” before quite simply… fixing it.
Managerial appointments we expected to be made regardless of the above, our concerns over players, the academy and the recruitment policy would be something we’d assume would be in the forefront of a new owners mind upon arrival. It’d be just a case of seeing what would happen there.
Then Stewart arrived with Charlie in tow and after being contacted regarding a simple request of information from Gav, he suggested he could appear on the Podcast itself to be interviewed in his view by the fans themselves. A masterstroke we didn’t expect, but one that excited us as it hadn’t been tried before, and although we’d requested such interviews from club hierarchy we didn’t expect it, owners speak to the press, not the fans.
They’re interviewed by qualified and experienced journalists as standard. We know how this stuff usually works, and this caught us off guard.
So then we established a set of rules as to how to approach this first Podcast… the only logical and right path we could see going forward was to ask what the fans themselves wanted to know. So we asked through social media and predictably had a huge response, we compiled these and prepared to go ahead with it all.
Now all of these Podcasts are available for anyone to listen to at any time, and many did. We asked fans’ questions, and our new owners answered. They clearly had statements to make and naturally we allowed them to do so - it was an intriguing and exciting time and the possibilities were endless. The future was bright, the future was Donald. Anyone who has followed our pods know how often we spoke to Stewart and that the questions we asked were those put to us by the listeners themselves and again, as no money ever exchanges hands when it comes to our interviews and the like, the willing participants giving up their time were allowed to make statements and their personal views and opinions.
Everything seemed to be running smoothly, as far as we were aware, despite some ridiculous statements from Charlie regarding fans and the such - but he is Etonian. They’re not exactly renowned for their grip on reality.
We got to hear all kinds from Stewart regarding the state of the club when he’d taken over, the ridiculous player contracts, the bloodsucking agents, and all kinds of issues that he assured us he was dealing with.
Meanwhile on the pitch, prior to that January, we were making great progress - we had momentum on our side and it looked like it may all end like some fairytale story with a club reborn, a fanbase united and a Netflix season full of smiley happy people holding hands... but then cracks started to appear and we started to show concern.
But we were assured publicly and privately that everything was in hand and the situations were fixable. By the end of that season we had partied in Trafalgar Square twice, had the highest ever League One attendance on record, yet crucially we failed to succeed in our attempt to get out of League One. The signing of Will Grigg was and still is an absolute disaster. The failure to secure promotion was again an absolute disaster and that’s largely due to the fact that we replaced a player on form with a player that, even if dropped from a building, would likely struggle to hit the floor. The decision making of Jack Ross was called into question and everyone was looking for someone to blame.
Now following the post-playoff final podcast, where we were both praised and criticised for a slightly altered approach to questioning the ownership, it looked like that era of free information was starting to slip away until news reached us of a takeover. Not investment, not a ten million quid loan... a takeover. Not just any takeover either, one that could well prove to be beyond our wildest dreams.
At first we debated how realistic this all was, we studied those allegedly getting involved and we were absolutely staggered by the fact that not only was it possible, but it looked extremely likely. Sunderland were about to have some of the richest owners on the planet - a rags to riches story that rivals Manchester City, but on steroids due to the remarkably fast turnaround in fortune. We were all beyond excited at the prospect.
Then something strange happened - something changed. As well as the sudden drop from takeover to investment, the fanbase also started to learn more about the fractures behind the scenes, and the messages coming out of the club were often contradictory and mixed.
There is obviously no real structure at the club, and seemingly no direction beyond surviving hand to mouth as it were. The ownership was deeply hurt by what it saw as attacks on certain figures at the club, and the original plan has not been kept to, as the owner appears to believe he can make this work without the necessary professionals required. The club has clearly been run on a shoestring budget, with staffing levels cut to the bone. The situation Jack Ross was in was not ideal in any way shape or form, and likely significantly impaired his ability to perform his duties as well as other duties that were not in his job description.
The ownership and key figures at the club had and have no fixed residence in Sunderland - and this obviously impacts their ability to run said club and their respective departments.
In short, it was all starting to become crystal clear that they had failed us significantly. Not through a lack of ambition; not because they wanted to fail, as that in itself is insane and doesn’t benefit them as owners. But all because despite their intentions, promises and the like, they are deeply over their heads.
This on its own is no crime, nor is it anything to be ashamed of, as we’re all only human. But the denial of their inability to run the club to the highest possible standard is ridiculous and insanely arrogant. The ignorance is unreal from certain figures.
Then the last podcast we did with club figures came about, a show I didn’t want to do personally as I’d had enough of it all. Enough of being shot for delivering the owners opinions to the fanbase. Enough of them kicking off over ridiculous things and bitching like spoilt children over what they saw as unnecessary questions. But, we went ahead regardless. After all this is all information, this is part of what we wanted to begin with.
Unfortunately Charlie and Paul proved unconvincing to the fans.
The general feeling amongst the group of people who take part in the podcast was that we no longer wished to take part in podcasts with the owners. I released a Twitter statement regarding this as a response to a question about future appearances, which was noted in a recent article by George Caulkin for the Athletic.
Then following a common drive by all outlets to increase communication with each other, and to share information regarding the owners and how they were conducting themselves as well as a wish to heal the division that had emerged since the end of last season amongst sets of fans (online at least), we decided to conduct a podcast where some of our major fan outlets were all represented. This was for the most part well received and galvanized further the opinion that to help save this club from itself we had to work together.
Then suddenly a request appears from Stewart to do a show on Boxing Day. Knowing that WMS had been attempting to secure a podcast with the owners, we decided to contact them to see what was occurring their end and inform them of Stewart’s sudden contact and request to do a show. As noted on their twitter timeline this past weekend, they were rightly outraged as they had been told that Podcasts were off the table, and that future communication would be done through RAWA.
As our listeners will know, we recently contacted Stewart Donald regarding an appearance on the Wise Men Say podcast to discuss the current direction of the club #SAFC— Wise Men Say Podcast (@WiseMenSayPod) December 21, 2019
In our own group we discussed the situation at length, and we shared the opinion that the only way we’d be willing to go ahead with it after stating publicly our wish not to, was to involve other fan outlets in the podcast. We would ask these questions from the fans as one, instead of separately. This could clear up a great deal of things we still don’t know, and move to healing divisions and towards a more well-rounded approach from the club itself to fan engagement. As of writing, no show has been pencilled in for Boxing Day.
To end this rather lengthy summary of events over the last few years I’d like to ask a question. It's actually a group of questions I’ve been asking myself for some time now and it’s driven me quite insane:
- Have the podcasts with our owners helped anyone?
- Are they in fact damaging to the club and it’s position on certain things?
- Is it advisable to be as honest as the owners have been on certain players, agents, contracts and opinions?
- Does it put us (as a club) at a disadvantage in the transfer market?
- Are they, ultimately, worth the hassle?
I know my answer to these questions. I’ll leave you all to make up your own minds.
All we’ve ever wanted is what’s best for the club - not as a business, but as a community. As a family. I fear that our approach no matter how well intentioned has thus far been flawed. Hopefully the club itself and those that run it will take their own advice and that of ourselves and our fellow outlets and fans, and that is to rethink their strategy when it comes to fan interaction in the future If they want to move forward at all.