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Sunderland’s owners and their relationship with supporters - where should things go from here?

“Whilst the new owners have made great strides in the last year, I’d suggest they focus on relationships within the organisation and in turn develop the relationship with the fans in a more sustainable manner” writes Neil Graney.

Sunderland v Wycombe Wanderers - Sky Bet League One Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

When Stewart Donald and Charlie Methven rocked up to the Stadium of Light last summer it felt like a breath of fresh air. After years of inept leadership and general poor management, Sunderland AFC perhaps had a saviour - a Niall Quinn like ‘Messiah’, just this time in the shape of a successful insurance salesman and his good friend Charlie, a successful Eton-educated PR whizz. What could possibly go wrong?

The art of leadership is a vastly studied area in the academic literature, and football offers a fascinating insight into how it works. Contemporary, cutting edge approaches to leadership evidently work - think Klopp and Guardiola. Whilst others which shouldn’t work are still used and do actually work - think Warnock, Pulis, Allardyce.

One of the reasons why leadership is studied to such as an extent is context. What works in one organisation may not work in another. What works in one industry definitely will not work in others. Culture is also key and often studied in correlation with leadership.

At Sunderland, the new owners walked into one of the most challenging cultures in football. As a social scientist, I watched Netflix through a viewpoint of how the social relationships were working within and around the club. I like many picked up on the excruciating flipchart based team talk from Grayson, the sheer awkwardness of the exchange between Bain and the recruitment team (Zlatan could very well be the Messiah), and the likes of Rodwell and Ndong sitting separately away from the rest of the squad in the canteen.

What was abundantly clear was a lack of leadership and a broken culture.

Sunderland Training Session Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

The new owners came in and made a really positive impact on changing that culture. They were communicating, transparent and responsive - something Sunderland fans had longed for. As you may expect from leaders they had identities and they had a personality, and they still do. The seat change project was a masterstroke, they recognised its importance to the fans, they understood that hard working football fans who jump at the chance to be involved in a significant positive change.

However, this initial approach was never going to last. The communication, transparency and responsiveness were being lapped up, but at the time, I had a number of concerns.

To be so open, so transparent, it was never going to be sustainable. Fans don’t care about many things within their football club; they don’t really care what they are sitting on, so long as their team is successful. So long as they can be proud.

Think of the successful leaders in sport. Phil Knight, the mastermind behind Nike, was hopeless at communication, socially awkward as a leader, yet established one of the biggest and most successful brands in the world.

A more contemporary example: I am going to highlight Daniel Levy, Chairman of Spurs. How often does he talk publicly, how often does he give interviews? He’d never dream of using twitter, yet look how he has transformed his football club. He has delivered the best stadium in the world (probably), a team competing in the latter stages of the Champions League and a successful academy pathway, all based on a sound financial model (even with heavy borrowing). He has an incredible knack of committing players to long term contracts and selling them at a premium - Sunderland has seen this first hand over the years.

Ajax v Tottenham Hotspur - UEFA Champions League Semi Final: Second Leg Photo by Chris Brunskill/Fantasista/Getty Images

More recently, my work has led me towards Leader Member Exchange theory (LMX). In its simplest terms, a relationship based approach to leadership. With this approach a leader will initiate, develop and manage relationships within an organisation in order to inspire collective work to meet organisational goals. These relationships are primarily formed within the organisation.

The new owners have attempted this approach with the fan base to varying success.

Initially, the relationship between the owners and the fan base was very positive. Talk ins, Podcasts, meet and greets, Charlie’s appearances in the local boozers and so on. They are mattered, they all worked.

When the performance of the team faltered, the fan base started to ask questions. The Checkatrade trophy final was a cup-winning opportunity, which ultimately proved a distraction to the one main key organisational objective - promotion.

Since that day in late May - my seventh time watching Sunderland lose at Wembley, the relationship has continued to falter. The reason being, a football club chairman cannot be expected to constantly divulge transfer news, nor is he likely to run through the finances of the club with “Dave from Farringdon,” via twitter. The chairman simply cannot to be open about takeovers. That’s because the relationship is with other parties involved in the takeover. Not fans!

Photo by Richard Sellers/PA Images via Getty Images

Stewart Donald started taking breaks from Twitter as the season wore on thus admitting the tool which worked so well didn’t any longer, and eventually deactivated it over the summer. Since he took over as Chairman, Twitter has been integral to the relationship with his ‘followers’ (fans) – to take it away did and will cause unrest, but my point is it should have never been used in the first place. I briefly read through some of the exchanges throughout the season and was amazed he got so involved. The relationship (and his probable feelings around it) reminded me of a scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

Brian: Look you’ve got it all wrong, you don’t need to follow me, you don’t need to follow anybody. You’ve got to think of yourselves, you’re all individuals.

Crowd: (in sync) “Yes, we are all individuals!”

Brian: “You are all different!”

Crowd: (in sync) “Yes, we are all different!”

(“I’m not” says one member of the crowd)

Brian: “You all got to work it out for yourselves.”

Crowd: (in sync) “Yes, we’ve got to work it out for ourselves.”

Brian: “Exactly!”

Crowd: (in sync) “Tell us more!”

Brian: “That’s the point; don’t let anyone tell you what to do!”

Life of Brian

My point being that football fans in general should be cautious of any ‘messiah’ type relationships, and equally, football clubs owners and chairman should not see themselves as ‘messiah’ type figures.

In particular, social media allows fans the opportunity to voice opinion. A senior Professor in his field recently told me around 96% of information we find on the internet is either false, or based on opinion. Therefore, you would never want your football club to run based on what you find there, whether you’re a fan or a chairman.

Whilst the new owners have made great strides in the last year, I’d suggest they focus on relationships within the organisation and in turn develop the relationship with the fans in a more sustainable manner.

Open communication, transparency and responsiveness are all key attributes for successful leaders, but there is always a time and a place. If the current owners were here for long term I would focus more on building the relationship with fans through understanding their ‘followers’ in more explicit detail, to improve the Leader Member Exchange.

At the same time - As Brian urged the crowd - fans must have their opinions. They just need to be individuals, think for themselves and work it out themselves - partially based on the other 4% of information on the internet, but mainly based on their passion, knowledge and love for this football club.