It goes without saying that during the first half of Stewart Donald’s ownership, fans were genuinely excited at the prospect of the club’s owners being so communicative - the whole situation was a breath of fresh air when contrasted to the previous anonymity of Ellis Short and Martin Bain.
Stewart Donald was present on Twitter offering his input on an array of topics, while both he and Charlie Methven were open to interviews with the press as well as appearing on local podcasts and offering interviews in print.
However, hindsight is, as they say, always 20/20 and looking back it feels like perhaps this intense, scatter gun approach to communication was a large part of the reason why today the fanbase is fractured and in need of repair.
Before the arrival of Donald and co., Sunderland arrived in League One with squad unfit for purpose as the entire club had been battered by a double relegation that left a pall of uncertainty lingering over Wearside. Whispers of administration had been floating through the ether, and the club were perched on the precipice, so to speak. As such, Donald and Methven’s acquisition of the club was greeted with real relief and hope.
However, the issue of miscommunication began to become apparent over the following months, and the ongoing debate over the use of last season’s £25 million parachute payment is perhaps the biggest issue that fans have been unhappy with.
During a podcast with Roker Rapport published on May 21st, 2018 - Charlie Methven argued that:
People have been saying earlier on about Ellis Short taking the parachute payments going forward - that’s not the case. What’s happening is that Ellis Short is enabling us and allowing us to pay for the club over a period of time to try and ensure that we’ve got enough cash flow in the meantime - working capital is the phrase - to actually put right some of these things that need to be put right. If one had to pay him the full forty-million up front and then have to cover everything that you need to pay for in the short term, that would be difficult for almost anyone to do - that’s an awful lot of cash. So, he has accepted that he will need to be paid out gradually.
Now, what then happens is that when somebody is owed money effectively in that situation, by us, they then need to take some security over the eventuality that we then turn around one day and say, ‘we’re not going to pay you.’ And the thing that is most easy to put that security against: the Premier League parachute payments. So, it’s security for Ellis to make sure that he does get paid out his forty-million pounds, but it’s not like he’s going to be turning up here on the day the Premier League parachute payments arrive, with a big sack over his back and waiting to take it back to Florida. That’s not the way it’s going to be.
Donald then went on to talk about Ellis Short’s decision to leave the club debt free, thanks in part to Donald and co’s decision not to “port” the debt over to the new ownership group. Fans were relieved, the new owners had refused the chance for the club to owe them over £100 million, and, subsequently, it seemed as though the £25 million of parachute money would be used by the club directly.
This was a sentiment Donald had already noted during the opening press conference where he told reporters in attendance that:
We’ve given Ellis £40 million, so that’s the deal, and in return Ellis has tidied up his debt and that’s now gone from the football club.
However, months later it was disclosed that this wasn’t the case. Recently, Donald has cleared up the issue, noting that:
Madrox agreed a deal worth £40 million with Ellis Short. This was £15 million plus last summer’s parachute payment of £25 million – which came in just after we took over and was ring-fenced to pay off the last bit of bank debt.
The argument since has been that the £25 million was already set aside to pay debts owed by the club, but to the average person listening to the interviews highlighted above, that really isn’t made abundantly clear.
As such, the discussions surrounding the parachute payments have effectively highlighted this issue of a communication paradox, or some weird duality in which the club’s owners offer conflicting reports almost simultaneously. And to many fans, this has created a warped sense of trust - whether the ownership know it or not.
Subsequently, Sunderland’s owners have since encountered similar instances where wires have crossed in terms of communications.
For example, In an interview with Charlie Methven published on Friday November 1st, 2019, Phil Smith of the Sunderland Echo noted that, “Donald has not attended recent league games, which Methven says is due to the abuse he has suffered online.”
Methven did go on to make a fair point, however:
So to the people who spout bile and abuse, if you’re really interested in the answer to questions, why not join the Red & White Army and get yourself in the supporter collective meetings, or go to talk-ins and ask your questions live. Of course, all that only makes sense if you are actually interested in what is happening.
That being said, by November 14th, 2019, a different perspective had been given. Again speaking with the Sunderland Echo, Donald this time spoke about his absence from the club, but denied that it was due to abuse received from fans:
Charlie made a comment about us being part-time, it’s 70 hours a week easy. What I said to the guys was, we’ve changed the manager, we’ve got the investment, I need to work if I can at home for six weeks or so. Unfortunately I’m now an only child as my sister has passed away, my mum and dad are ill and are relying on me, my children had not really had me around for quite a long period of time.
So I said to the guys, just give me a break for a month or so, I’ll still do the work but in Oxford.
Now, the results on the pitch haven’t been so good, I saw Grant Leadbitter say on Tuesday night, we need to be one club top to bottom, and that starts with me. So I thought, well, I needed a break but I’ve said to the family, I need to get back up there for a couple of games.
The fans have been top drawer, but when you’ve had that level of work, I just needed a short rebalance.
There are a host of other instances whereby the owners have offered contrasting viewpoints almost simultaneously - the sale/investment saga is one example along with a list of others, but I won’t go into detail on those.
In all honesty, the communications have an unsettling air of groupthink about them - where people make poor decisions due to dissent or a need to try and please/conform.
This might not seem a major issue, and in all honesty I’m not trying to make a mountain out of a molehill, but this lack of clarity and cohesiveness has genuinely hurt the club, in my opinion.
The reason I want to highlight these instances of conflicting statements, is because it should act as a lesson for the club moving forward.
I once read a quote by a former presidential speechwriter, James Humes, that has stuck with me ever since:
The art of communication is the language of leadership.
Sunderland’s predominant issue, in my opinion, is that conflicting communications have hindered our club’s hierarchy from effectively leading.
As Donald said in his interview with the Echo back in November, “we need to be one club top to bottom, and that starts with me.” But if Sunderland are one club from top to bottom - a multibiotic being that relies on the entirety of the hive to thrive - then the communication from the top needs to be cohesive and streamlined, and unfortunately it isn’t.
It is well-documented that a lack of clear communication in business can lead to a host of issues including: a fall in productivity, damaged relationships, poor morale and developing a breeding ground for suspicion and whispers.
Arguably, that is evident at Sunderland AFC as results on the pitch this season have been indifferent, fans seem torn on nearly every issue that arises, and whispers permeate throughout the media about the club’s future.
The solution for Sunderland, I think, is threefold: Explain the identity the club is trying to build. Streamline and improve communications. Use the appointment of Jim Rodwell to realise the aforementioned points.
Although, Donald and Methven highlighted Dortmund as the exemplar club they would look to for inspiration, it’s difficult to find many similarities between the two sides, if truth be told.
As such, the appointment of Jim Rodwell as CEO - regardless of his past positions - could well have come at a good time for the club because Rodwell enters the fray with no prior role in Sunderland’s communication with the outside world.
Rodwell, at present, is as impartial a leadership figure as Sunderland can manage in terms of someone to use as a conduit for future communication. If he can find a way to effectively communicate with the fans and help them understand the bigger picture, then he might well be able to heal a divided club with a partially disenfranchised fanbase.
If Rodwell is able to adequately explain where Sunderland currently sit in terms of a potential sale or lack thereof, the ownership’s expectations, the club’s financial position, and preferred strategies moving forward (both on and off the pitch) among other topics, then fans could potentially be united under one common goal, so to speak.
It is, of course, a big ask, but it is by no means an impossibility - provided the club isn’t set to be sold immediately with Rodwell departing.
As such, ising Jim Rodwell and the club’s media team as the medium by which information is shared with fans - for example as a bi-weekly or monthly club vlog/podcast along with minor media obligations - then the club could subsequently provide fans with a singular source of information. Gone would be the disparity in information shared by the owners, in its place would be a single narrative by which to judge the club’s progress.
Furthermore, it would be great to see Rodwell interact with the RAWA and lean on them for insight into where he can be a good addition for the club. A professional, courteous working relationship with the fans’ representatives is necessary to both understand the current situation and how it can be enhanced. The sooner Jim Rodwell can do that, the better.
Scrutiny from the fans should always remain though - provided it is reasoned and fair- because constructive criticism and open dialogue are the cornerstones of continued improvement. Furthermore, the ability to track one unified train of thought also allows fans to better judge the situation. The single entity of Jim Rodwell should act as a barometer of success - or indeed failure - at Sunderland AFC.
Simply put: Sunderland’s ownership need to organize their thoughts through one medium alone in order to give fans a chance to honestly and accurately judge the progress being made/not made.
Jim Rodwell might have the most important role in Sunderland’s search for success, at present... whether he knows it yet, or not.