There has been a swathe of opinion across message boards and social media in the last few days calling Sunderland owner Stewart Donald all kinds of negative names, ranging from ‘charlatan’, to ‘con-man’ and ‘chancer’.
I’ve seen screenshots of electronic notes claiming Donald and Methven no longer talk, that Sartori wants out, that the current ownership have ran out of money, and the Campbell consortium have found issues within the club that mean they are now hesitant to complete their investment into Sunderland AFC.
I’ve seen various accounts of how parachute monies have been used, whilst these commentaries fail to take into account that one conversation was made a year ago about payments in the 2018/19 season and comments are now being made about those due for the 2019/20 season.
I’ve seen rumours regarding various players leaving and comments berating the fact that players linked to Sunderland by media outlets have signed elsewhere.
So, I just need to get the narrative right here.
Last summer there was a sea-change in the fortunes of Sunderland AFC. For months, Ellis Short had searched high and low for a buyer to take his pet project of a Premier League club off his hands. The club had finally succumbed to relegation and the Americanno longer wanted a club languishing in the Championship.
Short brought in Martin Bain to oversee the daily running of the club with a mandate to cut costs and make the club saleable. Those players who were worth anything were sold. Others were allowed to leave to reduce the bloated wage bill. Investment was limited to the outlay of £1m on James Vaughan and Jason Steele, £250,000 on Aiden McGeady, and a bunch of loans or free transfers. Almost £30m came into the club and a little over £1m was spent on replacing key players.
As a club, Sunderland continued to hemorrhage cash and amass unsustainable debts. The now absent owner paid only what was necessary to keep the club afloat in the hope of a sale, whilst this couldn’t-care-less attitude seeped its way into both the Chief Exec and the board room. The trickle-down effect continued into the dressing room, where performances suggested a complete lack of connection with a dying football club.
On the terraces, fans, in turn, became disillusioned. The Red and White Army tried to create a dialogue with the club whilst fan outlets such as Roker Report and ALS tried to speak up for fans across the spectrum.
Relegation was on the cards. Simon Grayson was sacked whilst leaving the pitch after a 3-3 draw with Bolton Wanderers. He had lasted 18 games and left with the side languishing in 22nd spot. Robbie Stockdale took temporary charge until Chris Coleman received a king’s ransom to try and stave off the drop into League One. The former Wales manager failed to lift the club and the inevitable happened as Burton Albion secured a 2-1 victory at the Stadium of Light, courtesy of goals from Liam Boyce and former Black Cat Darren Bent.
We ended the season in disarray. Yet a few weeks later, on May 21st 2018, Stewart Donald paid £40m for Sunderland AFC. Such was the manner in which Donald negotiated the deal that Ellis Short cleared the debts and, in a stroke, Donald had rescued the club that was existing purely on life-support.
One of the first acts as Chairman was to meet the fans. Stewart Donald appeared on the Roker Rapport Podcast whilst fellow shareholder Charlie Methven met up with ALS for a series of interviews. This transparency would become a theme of the new ownership, engaging with supporters through fan media outlets and directly on social media. Donald also appeared regularly on TalkSport, giving the national press the same information as offered locally.
On many occasions the owners articulated their business plan, their limitations and their desire to seek investment in the future in order to realise the dream of having Sunderland climb the footballing ladder once more. Sustainability was a key mantra, as was growth and development.
They articulated how the parachute monies would be used, both last season and this, and together the trio of Donald, Methven and Sartori funded a rebuilding job that included League One’s record buy when Will Grigg was signed in January.
The new ownership thus made good on their promise to rebuild a team decimated by players wishing to leave, stabilise the club, help it to break even and then start to make a small profit. They rebuilt the stadium, reinvested in off-field activities, and reunite a fanbase with its lost club.
Speaking after the Play-Off final, a visibly upset Charlie Methven was still able to look back on the achievements of that first year in charge:
In terms of the due diligence work we performed and our budgeting at the start, we were pretty much bang on. That is to say, we predicted correctly how the business would run. There’s no doubt that we were pretty optimistic in terms of the revenues we could raise and the costs we could cut.
The EFL looked at it and said we wouldn’t be able to do it. That’s why they insisted Stewart show them £50m.
Also, our business plan bore no resemblance to the club’s previous business plan, and that always makes people nervous. The EFL thought we were being naïve, as did other people inside and outside the club.
Sometimes they said it outright, sometimes it was their body language – like, you could see senior members of staff thinking ‘who are these nutjobs who think that they can do 25% more revenue in a lower league while cuttings costs?’
So whatever else happened last season, I’m proud that we got the business plan right and executed it right. It was mostly about using our experience to work out where the club, as a business, had gone wrong and throwing ourselves headlong into sorting that out as quickly as possible.
Clearly the ambition was to be promoted. The expectation was top six, but promotion was undoubtedly written into the plan. That it didn’t happen would not be the end of the world, however.
Yet other situations have appeared for the owners. Personal situations have not always helped the trio in charge. A review of investment opportunities brought one particular offer to the fore and this has duly been investigated.
Donald has consistently said it has to be the right thing for the football club, else he wouldn’t be interested. This owner will not jeopardise this football club.
Negativity has once more infiltrated our club among the fanbase. Missing out on promotion was a blow, undoubtedly. A lack of immediate transfers built on those foundations of despondency.
Attacks have been made on the financial records and questions raised over how the owners have deemed to use all the resources at their disposal to rebuild the club.
Alleged transfer targets, often reported by sources without reliable track records at getting such matters right, have gone elsewhere and the meltdown is now in full flow.
And now, the fact that investment talks have taken longer than expected, means all the conspiracy-theorists and negative soothsayers are claiming some kind of strange ‘told-you-so’ victory on the basis of increasing lies and rumour, that are no longer being closed down because the owners have backed off from their open nature and withdrawn from social media amidst recent toxicity.
Do I have that about right? Is that a fair, albeit brief, account of the past year or so?
I am at a loss to explain why some sections of our support are eager to see the club fail. I can’t fathom what they have against the owners, or why they feel justified in abusing Stewart Donald in particular.
Some of these comments border on slander, yet the anonymity of social media allows a defence of ‘everyone is entitled to an opinion’. Well, not when the stories have been put right or information is released to counter the misinformation.
Yet some still claim this is to be expected and everything is about to sink without trace.
And yet…. We’re still debt-free. We still have a core of a squad that lost a handful of games. We are still adding to that squad and have yet to embark upon pre-season training in earnest. The club stands ready to go once more.
Or have I got this wrong? Has the world imploded and we’ve been relegated to the Northern League and I failed to notice?