Just over a year ago, Wearside was in euphoria as Stewart Donald and Charlie Methven took over the club and proved to be a breath of fresh air, engaging with the fans in a humble, sincere and open manner which broken the gloomy spell of the painful Ellis Short years.
If one can remember, they participated in a number of Podcasts for this very website where they spelled out their vision and aspirations for the club.
In doing so, Stewart carefully explained the situation concerning the club’s finances. He noted that although Short had pardoned the excessive debt which would have all but destroyed the club if lingered; there was nevertheless a significant burden to be resolved on the matter of running costs.
Such included a stack of legacy transfer fees to be settled, particularly for players who had been expensive yet failed to deliver both on the pitch and in terms of a return sale, the hefty wages of certain players who remained on the clubs books, his own installments in buying the club and other excessive running costs assigned to the general incompetence of the previous owners.
Noting these circumstances, the chairman set out to the fans that eradicating these excess costs had to made be a priority to stabilise the club.
He noted that whilst Sunderland AFC had the investment capital of Juan Satori in reserve, it would be unwise to squander such in the situation of League One for a short term incentive, thus he would be “involved later”. These efforts had mixed results, some but not all, of the high earners were shifted. The club also had to rely on some loans.
Whilst the Don’s gameplan was intelligent from a business perspective, as the above suggests it feels to me as though he had nevertheless predicated it all on a specific gamble: that Sunderland could get out of the third tier at the first time of asking and therefore, leaping above the running costs issue through the added benefits of promotion.
In addition, he further gambled that such could be done without significant investment in transfers. The club didn’t spend a great deal and whilst he gambled on a hefty fee for Will Grigg in January, as Stewart pointed out the majority of the £4 million was vested in promotion clauses which went all the way up the Premier League itself.
However, the gamble failed. We didn’t get promoted and with parachute payments now halving, the financial situation is not quite as clear. The events of recent weeks indicate to me at least that this outcome has placed some pressure on his decision making.
Still faced with burdensome running costs of which RTG’s “Grumpy Old Man” describes as a “regular overdraft” and the un-lucrative reality of the third tier, It does feel to me as though Stewart may have panicked knowing that his personal investment ability to take the club forwards from his situation is now limited.
Undoubtedly, the club needs investment to get out of League One and the squad as it stands is not up to that challenge. But from who? And where?
Juan Sartori’s position as a silent partner is notable, and as a result it is coincidence on that note that we were dogged with speculation pertaining to a takeover, which for whatever reason has not materialised. This quickly followed with Stewart’s exit from Twitter owing to the reactions of some restless fans.
This begs the question: what exactly is the strategy now?
One can praise the fact that the management of the team itself remains stable and Jack Ross has the opportunity to evaluate and learn from his mistakes, however on the financial and recruitment side things appear to be vague and lacking direction.
You can see the consequences of it emerging it already - the sudden departure of Cattermole (a high earner, but nevertheless a key player) having came to a mutual agreement on the cancellation of his contract, to me, shows the financial strain behind the scenes. He will be a big loss and is perhaps irreplaceable.
Thus, it is certainly not unreasonable to suggest that the ownership did not expect Sunderland to remain in this position and had predicated their entire strategy upon successful promotion at the first attempt.
Given this, there don’t seem - from my perspective as a fan outside of the bubble - to be many contingency plans. Thus, whilst it all remains to be seen what happens transfer wise over the few weeks, this is a saga which is sharply cutting into the desperately needed optimism required to recover from the playoff heart-break in May.
Stewart’s retreat from public view isn’t sending out the most confident signal, either.