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Behind the scenes work will be key to success for Sunderland AFC’s potential new owners

We may have a new owner soon, if reports are to be believed. What needs to be done in football and business terms to improve who and what we are, and track the progress we make? Here are Malcolm Dugdale’s thoughts...

Olympique de Marseille v Paris Saint-Germain - Ligue 1
Prospective Sunderland owner Kyril Louis-Dreyfus talks to owner of Olympique de Marseille, Frank McCourt
Photo by Jean Catuffe/Getty Images

Is a new owner really on the way?

As many Sunderland fans will have seen in recent articles, and from press agencies of some repute - The Guardian, The Sunday Times - journalists have suggested a take over of the club could be very close. Optimists are saying such a move could be completed in as little as a couple of weeks, though they are possibly over optimistic given the social situation we are in.

As an exile now living in the East Midlands, I’m pretty sure I could just about hear the cheers from Wearside as this was published and consumed in the Sunday papers last weekend, despite the result against MK Dons.

Clearly the red and white masses in “Gods Wonderful North East” are hoping that we may be able to change owners again very soon. Will that enable us to reset and kick onwards and upwards from our present unacceptable league position? Can we soon say farewell to Parky and his dour football performances?

We can but hope...

As a life long fan, I have had premature excitement dashed across the Seaburn rocks many times over the years. Like many others, I am rightly apprehensive to get too carried away until this takeover is formally communicated by the club, the present owners and the owners to be, and ratified by the authorities.

Autumn weather Oct 10th Photo by Owen Humphreys/PA Images via Getty Images

We have seen how such joy can be snatched from the hands of fans from the fortunes of our black and white brethren up the road, with their club’s sale collapsing recently, which is now the source of several legal actions.

As our nearest and longest established rivals, I have to admit there was a little grin on my face when hearing of their disappointment earlier this year, especially after many weeks of said monochrome fans repeatedly claiming they would soon be the “Man City of the North East”.

In truth, I was also a bit disappointed for a number of mates who are fans of the “dark side”. Interestingly, from the black and white lads I know, a good number didn’t feel the ethics of that deal/the potential owners were acceptable, for them or any club in a modern world.

Loyalties aside, and no matter what your team colours, the worst thing for any football fan is having to support a cause that you don’t fully believe in. Fans across Tyne and Wear are more than disappointed with our clubs owners right now, whether that’s our Bar Code buddies and Mike Ashley, or us Sunderland fans and Stuart Donald and Charlie Methven.

This is not a place that football clubs should be in, especially not our football mad region.

If this sale does come off for we Sunderland supporters, there is at least a reason for half of the region to have some optimism that Mr Louis-Dreyfus and his mate Juan can take our club in a positive direction.

Putting the the risks of the takeover not happening to one side, we in the Roker Report team were wondering... if we wind the clock forward a couple of weeks, what needs to improve from a structure and business sense if the club does change hands, and we are to take a real step up to really push on?

What has been missing that we would want to see from the new owners and their approach to running our once great club as a solid business? What will make the most difference to SAFC as a business and a football club, both now and over time?

This isn’t rocket science, as anyone with a few years in successful business knows. [Famous last words, Ed]

Step One - Define Sunderland AFC’s Vision & Core Values

It goes without saying the basics need to be there first, and many fans have grumbled for some months that despite the efforts of Chas and Stu, a lot is still missing.

To give Methven and Donald some credit, where it is arguably due, they have (allegedly) made a start with some of those basics in the area of finances. The club is purportedly now running as efficiently as it can and “within its means”, as a club in league one. Yes, we are losing money right now, all clubs are... and in addition, to get where we are a chunk of money was taken out of the club and likely will never return.

While fans in the can’t pay for tickets to get to games, it is basic maths that we will be running at a loss. But with the recently confirmed financial support package on the way, that should sort itself out over time, and the current owners suggest that when fans return we will be running at break even or better.

Beyond finances, in my view, there are a number of fundamentals of any modern business, and they need to start from the top down, with a vision or mission statement, and some core values.

Sunderland v Accrington Stanley - Sky Bet League One Photo by Mark Fletcher/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

So what is in place already?

I recently looked up the corporate vision of SAFC online to see what that was. This is the crux of the issue - I wasn’t able to find any reference the club website of what should be the life and breath of the business.

All I could find by doing a more general search was the vision for the Foundation of Light and the Academy... oh, and similar for another “SAFC”, that being the South Australia Film Corporation!

Whilst I am very proud of our club for everything that the its Foundation does for the region, and I’m ok with the odd Aussie b-movie, my findings forced the question, why on earth is it the case that no club vision or values are publicly available and reference-able in these times?

Most reputable businesses (small or large) and public sector organisations have a corporate vision, even down to nursery school level. My searches revealed visions and core values for the city council, and for numerous large businesses and services in the area.

While some may suggest these things are of limited benefit, what they can do is define what we are about, and what we are striving to ultimately achieve, as a business and as a club/a football institution. For me this is one aspect of our club that has been missing for too long; nobody knows who or what we are any more.

I’d really like to see the new owners discuss what the vision of the club is with the board and with all interested parties (including supporter representation from Red & White Army, Branch Liaison Committee, etc) to get this down on paper, and to get us all aiming at something we understand.

By confirming our business and football identity, we can start to work towards it with all parties pulling in one direction. Without any vision and/or key values, we are just another football club in league one, bumbling along and hoping we do well enough to get up the leagues.

Why not define what we are and what we aim to be, surely that will help?

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

Step Two - Define Sunderland’s overall strategy, mid and long term plans, and immediate targets

With a vision and core values in place, the next step would be to define the strategy and tactics which we will follow, in both business and football terms if needed, to achieve the strategy across time.

Football is a complex beast these days, and without a strategy and tactics to achieve the short, medium and long term aims and outcomes, we will again just stutter along, and maybe do OK if we are lucky.

I strongly feel that we should define some outcomes that we want the gaffer (whether that is Phil or someone else) and the team to achieve this season, as well as say across the next 2-3 years, and maybe some to hit 5-10 years from now. We should also define outcomes that we expect the business side of the club to achieve across similar time lines, as that side is far from perfect too.

Why not decide what type of business we want to be seen as, and what type of football we want to identify as being our philosophy? Are we a team (for example) with a strong academy that is aiming to develop players to utilise in our squad, or is the academy there to sell players for profit that we can plough back where it came from?

Over recent years, none of this has been clear, and with a lack of clarity comes a pile of disappointment. The constant churn of managers we have seen could, arguably, have had a better chance of achieving what fan base want if this was clearly defined and understood, no matter who is at the helm.

Sunderland v Milton Keynes Dons - Sky Bet League One Photo by Ian Horrocks/Getty Images

Step Three - Establish an environment of progress based on recognised accountability

Once the vision and values are in place, and we agree football and business strategies, targets and tactics to deliver those over time, we can then move on to the area where we really get rubber on the road.

One of the biggest issues businesses have in the modern, challenging, corporate world is around accountability.

If you are not able to define required outcomes with owners and track progress, to recognise achievements and identify those who have got things over the line, you also cannot hold accountable the people charged with things that did not quite come off, or those who fell way short.

Without a vision and values, a strategy and tactics, and outcomes which are agreed and allocated to stakeholders of the club and the board, things can very easily go wrong and it is very difficult to recognise why. In the face of such difficulty, it is virtually impossible to adjust to avoid the same thing happening again.

Many a downward spiral has resulted from this catch 22-type issue in business, and football is no different.

To be clear, this doesn’t need to be about sacking people based on not doing what we wanted fast enough; strategies can and do actually prevent short term knee jerk reactions, as the big picture is known, and if we are moving towards that big picture then irrational reactions can be calmed.

In a modern business world, risk taking is acknowledged as something which can reap huge reward, but which can go wrong, acceptably so at times. With a strategy, tactics and accountability assigned for outcomes, if the risks don’t come off we can review, learn and improve over time.

Sunderland v Carlisle United - Checkatrade Trophy Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

What we have currently at Sunderland is, in my view, highly likely to be an unclear set of aims aligned to no real football or business strategy or goals, with an unclear set of accountabilities, or maybe none at all.

These situations generally lead to a blame culture when things go wrong, as even those close to the situation cannot see what went well and not so well across the whole environment. This can lead to players underperforming, and manager treadmills, as we have seen.

Even if the manager isn’t actually the problem, if you cannot put a finger on the accountability for an issue, then you cannot react appropriately. The buck has to stop somewhere, so it generally stops with the head coach.

So, what next?

In my opinion, none of this exist at Sunderland AFC right now. Or, if they do, they are so far from the focus of the key people, they may as well not exist.

Even if the potential change of ownership does not mature, these fundamental business needs are more relevant in the football today than ever before. The longer we ignore the fundamentals of running a successful business, the longer we won’t be one.

Let’s hope this changing of guard comes off, and this can be the start of a journey can all enjoy. That is no more than any fan deserves, especially us long-suffering Sunderland supporters.

What are your thoughts about the identity and ethos of our club? We would love to hear from you at Roker Report, why not get in touch and share your views?

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