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Evaluating Sunderland’s owners - finances, recruitment, academy & results under the microscope

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Tom Middleton puts Stewart Donald’s chairmanship of Sunderland AFC under the microscope and evaluates the job done so far.

Sunderland Press Conference - Stadium of Light Photo by Owen Humphreys/PA Images via Getty Images

As I mentioned in my debut article, since our horror fall from grace I have evaluated, analysed and reflected upon many various aspects of both our club and our role as fans. As part of this process, one of the things I have considered is whether our passion for the club doesn’t sometimes tip beyond a football obsession and into something altogether darker.

This ‘something’ is akin to the teenager that is in love for the first time and believes that single minded, controlling, obsession is positive behaviour. A type of love that causes its owner to be completely irrational, paranoid and lash out angrily as they struggle to reconcile their feelings with reality.

It is a state of mind that no word or phrase accurately articulates. But regardless of what ‘it’ is, the symptoms are easy to describe: a complete loss of the ability to seek a sense of balance, the loss of reasoned judgement, and a total inability to see that not everything is clear cut. ‘It’, put simply, is a collective tendency to make knee-jerk conclusions in emotional circumstances, and then express them too vehemently.


Jumping to mistaken conclusions

A case in point is the recent apologies made by national media outlets to our club’s owners. First, the Sun was forced to publish yet another apology to Stewart Donald, following a malicious article supplied by “sources in Sunderland”.

Then football business site Offthepitch had to carry an apology to both Donald and Charlie Methven for “poor editorial judgement” after running an article, written by an anti-Donald campaigner familiar to many of us on social media. An article that they admitted included “mistakes and things taken out of context”.

Both these articles largely concerned speculation about financial detail. The cause of much of this negative noise is that we don’t know a great deal about Stewart Donald’s, or the club’s, finances. After all, both are private entities, financially-speaking.


Confusing gaps, facts and fiction

Yet in the absence of hard fact, sections of the fan base have speculated to fill the knowledge gaps that exist in what is known about our majority shareholders wealth – and the sources of it. This was particularly true when things on the pitch were not going well.

During our poor form in the run up to Christmas, a section of the fanbase was eerily reminiscent of Private Fraser, as they loudly stood shouting ‘we’re doomed’ while simultaneously spraying half-baked speculation around like it was top grade Pollyfilla.

And after what has happened at Bury and Bolton it is easy to see why the usual lack of hard information has given birth to flutters of panic. But that panicky suspicion, at least in my view, doesn’t help us as a club achieve our goals. And nor does it lead to balanced assessments or reasoned appraisals of the club’s owners.

The truth of this assessment can be seen in the recent apologies issued to Donald and Methven. These don’t just highlight that fans very quickly reached conclusions but also that they jumped to the wrong ones.


Bad form, an occupational hazard

The reasons behind the ongoing campaign to remove Donald seem to be based mostly on a poor start to the season. But poor runs of form are an occupational hazard of football. As a justification for making judgement they tend to lack balance and overlook many other considerations.

It is all too common in the sport for people at all levels, from fans to owners, to lack the strength required to weather the storm of a bad run of form. Yet there are plenty enough examples to show that this approach often leads nowhere - especially when it comes to the hiring and firing of managers. The need for balanced assessments of owners during bad form is just as acute. After all, few vessels make it through a storm when the crew has mutinied against the captain of the ship.


No hero, no villain

For the record, I never hero-worshipped Donald. I have always assumed that he was here to make a return on his money. Unless you are a fan, what other motive could you have? And in all honesty, I’m of the opinion that what’s good for Donald’s bank account is good for the club because the two things, in this scenario, are inextricably linked.

Setting Donald’s motives aside, however, a more balanced critique of his tenure is needed than has been provided to date. Rather than either worshipping him or destroying him, surely it is more productive for us to attempt a calm appraisal of the salient facts of his ownership.

So, based on what I believe to be the proper assessment metrics, how would I judge the current ownership? What would their ‘scores on the doors’ be if I were to rate them out of 10 in the same way Roker Report assesses players performance following a game?

Sunderland v Wycombe Wanderers - Sky Bet League One - Stadium of Light Photo by Richard Sellers/PA Images via Getty Images

Performance on the pitch

When they took over, the consensus among fans – I recall that ALS did a big poll pre 2018/2019 - was that we would finish in the play-offs the first season and then get automatic promotion the second season. This was also what Donald said. I’ve checked back his words, which were “finishing in the play-offs would be par for the course in our first season, but then we’d expect to go up after that.”

Block out the noise, and look at the hard evidence: play-offs first season and second season; we are in the middle of a League One promotion battle, mostly against other former Premier League clubs like Coventry, Portsmouth and Ipswich. What they said was the aim is still very much a possibility. But failing to replace Jack Ross after he fumbled the end of the last campaign has left us, marginally, playing catch-up.

So, on that basis, given what happened last year (par for the course) and our competitive position this year (3 points off automatic with 13 games to go), I’m going to give the owners a 6/10. It is pretty much exactly what we, and they, predicted. If they had fired Ross in May and appointed Parkinson then, allowing him a pre-season to get the players properly fit, the evidence suggests that we would be top of the league at this point.

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

Recruitment

The recruitment picture is gradually getting clearer, albeit clearing to reveal mixed results. When they’ve brought in players in for nothing or small sums, as is the norm at this level, they’ve done reasonably well. The likes of Maguire, Jon McLaughlin, Luke O’Nien, Willis and Dobson have been productive and good value.

In contrast, when they’ve paid big money for this league, spending sums north of £500k for individual players, those players simply haven’t made enough of a difference to warrant spending those kinds of numbers at this level. Especially when the vast majority of clubs spend nothing at all.

Recruitment is never perfect, but I believe that the high-profile failures are probably a symptom of not having a qualified football expert heading up this crucial area.

If, as we are told, Richard Hill is responsible for having moved on the unwanted, highly-paid players who threatened to bankrupt us then he deserves our thanks for that. But there is nothing on his CV to suggest that he is qualified to run the football side of a large football club. So, for all the successes outlined above, it’s a 5/10 for Donald and co on this one, given that upwards of £5 million has been spent. If that money had been spent even half competently, then the first team would be clearly the best in the league.

Oxford United v Sunderland AFC - Carabao Cup Round of 16 Photo by Alex Davidson/Getty Images

Financials

In terms of the financial stuff, and looking coldly and unemotionally at the more neutral sources of information available, I think that Donald and Methven have done better than we could have hoped for.

The figures speak for themselves. The week before Donald took over, we were relegated to the third tier for only the second time in our history. At the time, according to a quick look on Google, we had debts of over £150 million, including £70 million to a bank. On top of that, we had net “football debts” (money owing to other clubs) of circa £20 million. In addition, the club was losing an average of £25 million a year, while the playing wage bill was £36 million, the fourth highest in the Championship.

Fast forward nearly two years, and we are, from what I can research factually rather than speculate, debt free. According to the local media and Donald himself, we have a playing wage bill of £9 million per annum – the highest in the division (as Donald promised), but within the realm of break even for a club with revenues of about £20 million. While rumours fly around about the state of many other EFL clubs, I have not seen even a whisper that suggests that SAFC’s finances are now a risk to the club.

So, what many interested parties that opted against purchasing us from Ellis Short deemed impossible, Donald and Methven have managed to achieve. A cost base cut by at least £20 million per annum while staying competitive is no mean feat. On this front I rate the current ownership 9/10, with one mark dropped for – by Donald’s own admission – cutting too far into the scouting budget, which has probably cost money elsewhere.

New Sunderland Owner Stewart Donald Press Conference Photo by Sunderland AFC/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

The Academy

Being honest, this is perhaps the area that I struggle the most with to set aside my own emotions and judge Donald and co based upon actual results.

So, what do the demonstrable results say? Well, we nearly lost Cat 1 status by failing the last inspection under Short and Bain, yet this time around we retained it. This in itself demonstrates improvement and is reason for praise.

While the U21s and U18s struggle for form, it’s worth noting that these players were recruited prior to Donald and co taking over. In contrast, at the lower levels (16 and under) we are seeing a lot of success, with our academy teams winning a bunch of national titles at junior level.

Furthermore, it’s a matter of fact that the Academy has reintegrated the Lasses into the organisation/structure. Even the harshest critic would struggle to say that this won’t have played a key role in their current success.

Yet, even-handed analysis suggests that the appointment of Paul Reid to manage the Academy was the wrong one. It’s not his fault, but the guy has no real track record that suggests he is capable of successfully filling such a critical role. And under his watch, a number of high-achieving youngsters have voluntarily left his Academy.

Yes, we have retained England Youth internationals Bali Mumba, Elliot Embleton and Andrew Richardson but we have also lost a plethora of promising young talent. Maybe the allure of the Premier League was simply too much. But I can’t help but think that the loss of these players might also have something to do with the academy leadership, and its (lack of) experience in dealing with young players and their families’ aspirations.

Boosted by the retention of Cat 1 status here the current ownership scrapes a 5/10 but that should not gloss over the fact that the current lack of promising players coming through is a major concern.

It’s worth also noting here that perhaps Donald would have done more with the academy using the FPP investment that would have enhanced this rating. Had the campaign to remove him not started before he had spent the investment in the manner which he had promised, this rating could potentially have been one or two marks higher. But, being fair, why would the bloke spend this money, that he is ultimately on the hook for, after it had been made clear he was no longer wanted by a chunk of the fan base. That though is an article for another day!

Photo by MI News | NurPhoto via Getty Images

Attempting to pass reasoned judgement

So, in the areas that actually matter the total on my scorecard is 25/40, giving an average of just over 6/10. If we go up this season, doubtless the performance and recruitment scores will increase. If we fail to achieve this, then they will drop.

I fully accept that the scores awarded above are my subjective judgement. Others may feel I’ve been a bit harsh in some areas or generous in others. But that aside, is there anything I’ve said which is contentious? Anything of real substance that I have missed? Because these are actual demonstrable facts – all of which are in the public domain – and are the correct metrics on which a club owner should be judged.

As with player ratings, an overall 6/10, in my book, is simply a ‘par for the course’ result over a two -year period. They have got some things right and some things wrong. But, given the litany of terrible judgments, decisions and performances over the previous five years that is a refreshing dose of normality and relative competence. Factually speaking, it looks as though the club has been stabilised, after a decade of mis-management, and readied for an owner with deeper pockets to push forward.


Moving forward

I appreciate that asking fellow fans to take any course of action on this subjective attempt at balance is unrealistic.

However, I would first urge them to consider, as we enter the final quarter of the season in the middle of a promotion race, if now is really the time to pursue a vilification campaign against Donald and co that is, at best, questionable and at worst embarrassing given the decent results they have achieved (see above).

Yes, the #DonaldOut campaign has already quietened down but the vocal faction that has sought to vilify the ownership for some time still continues to peddle fictional stories to the media and paint Donald out as a villain. Even if we set aside the fact that it isn’t nice, or decent, behaviour, it is hardly “supportive” of the club at a critical juncture. It is an attempt at further destabilisation, just when we need to be focussed and unified.

Second, as we prepare to welcome a new owner, maybe it is time for us to regain a bit of dignity as we wave goodbye to the current lot and wait to see what the new people DO. Not what they say - or what somebody we met in a bar thought his cousin’s neighbour might have heard them say – but what they actually do. No need for hero worship. No need for vilification.

Because, if next time we save our passion for the terraces and encourage stability and calm questioning around the club as a whole, it’s us fans who’ll be the ultimate beneficiaries.