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Is now the time for fans to act and take ownership of Sunderland AFC?

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Rich Speight compares Sunderland to an oligarch’s trophy girlfriend, and argues now is the time for fans to band together and take control of the club.

Sunderland v Birmingham City - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

The revelations about Sunderland AFC’s finances this weekend have been the final straw for many Sunderland fans.

The disclosure in The Times and elsewhere that the club has written off a debt of over £20 million, presumed to equate to the Premier League parachute payments - which was owed to the club by the holding company Madrox and its three shareholders: Steward Donald, Juan Satori, Charlie Methven - has opened the eyes of even those who have had little or no interest in the backroom goings on at the Stadium of Light.

There comes a point in a toxic relationship where the person on the receiving end comes to a realisation: we cannot go on like this and I will not let it happen to me ever again. And the choices made at that point in a relationship are crucial.

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

The trophy asset... a cautionary tale

In Putin’s Russia, small time oligarchs often keep their trophy girlfriends in apartments, stowed away from the rest of the world. The wannabe plutocrat will profess that, despite having a string of ex-wives, he cares deeply for his new flame. The girlfriends tend to be bright and attractive young women from some of the poorest post-industrial towns who move to the big cities, have some initial success in modelling or the media, and enjoy the trappings of the Moscow nightlife. But, despite their assets and talents, these women often find it hard to sustain themselves in the long term.

After an initial flush of interest, flattering words and a showering of gifts, her patron will gradually lose interest. Questions are rarely asked about the source of the money that maintains her lifestyle; she’s in no position to make moral judgements as her increasingly frustrating existence relies entirely upon the bank balance of her patron. She reasons that what is good for the man is ultimately good for her, whatever indignities she has to endure along the way.

In any case, she may tell herself, this is the way of the world there are many other girls in worse situations, and the fear of being cast aside with no other options for survival is paralysing. She knows deep down that women like her are effectively property; fun but quite expensive toys to be sold on and replaced as required.

As the oligarch tires of the constant expense and the novelty wears thin, he starts to blame his mistress for overspending her allowance and being ungrateful for that second hand Mercedes he once bought her. She enquires about why the meagre inheritance she had in her own account has disappeared, why the broken stereo hasn’t been replaced and why the lift to the roof terrace still doesn’t work, but she will be told she can’t possibly understand business and that she really doesn’t appreciate just how fortunate she is to have him in her life.

And anyway, she better not ask any more questions, he has powerful lawyers and other, more underhand, ways of snooping and keeping her in check. She no longer receives her own bank statements. The lies that would be apparent to others don’t register with her; her reality is controlled to the point that she often doubts her own senses.

Moscow in pictures Photo by Marina Lystseva\TASS via Getty Images

For many of those living in this tragic situation, it will be a catastrophic if not fatal relationship. However, for others in this situation there will be a moment before the casting out where the scales will fall away from their eyes and the nefarious motives of their sugar daddy are brought sharply into focus.

She may have heard mutterings about him; perhaps a concerned journalist at a party once whispered a cryptically worded warning about millions of rubles going missing before being escorted to the exit by security. This may pique her curiosity, leading her to open a few of his bank statements and see that, far from being super rich, the man is merely a chancer with a slick exterior living beyond his means.

Armed with the revelation, the most resilient of these women will seek to break the chains of abuse and control. She may resolve that she will not be cast out, she will not be passed on to another. As her strength and confidence grows, her anger is channelled into preparing for action.

The next move she takes will be existential - all or nothing. She realises that, if she is not to be destroyed by the system or in an act of vengeance, the oligarch will have to see it’s in his interests to set her free and ensure she can survive without him. He needs an exit strategy that doesn’t require him to lose too much face or too much money (he really can’t afford that). At the right moment, when the oligarch is at his most vulnerable, she can enact her plans.

She needs the support of others who’ve been through the same ordeal but come out the other side. She can learn from them, it will be hard but she can do it.

Future Lab: Kinetic Art in Russia exhibition in St Petersburg Photo by Peter Kovalev\TASS via Getty Images

Sunderland are at a crossroads

The mistreatment of the Sunderland fanbase by the current ownership has taken a number of forms, none of which come close to the human tragedy of the lives lived by the trophy girlfriends of Russian oligarchs.

We no longer need to couch our warnings in long-winded analogies, but we too have heard sweet flattering words about how special and beautiful and big and passionate we are, and have fallen for it - despite our better judgement. We were given some nice new seats and an overpriced, second-hand striker, and were told we should be grateful. We were shown off to their friends and it was hoped that we’d eventually turn into a money spinner in our own right.

There were always a few people whispering to fellow fans, telling us that all was not quite as it seemed and suggesting we were being taken for a ride, but the owner’s lawyers were quickly put to work to ensure that the offending articles were withdrawn and the most critical voices silenced. And, as such, many trusting fans quite understandably attacked those raising the alarm bell as counterproductive troublemakers, undermining the owners’ best efforts to get the club out of the hole of League One.

But the critics dismissed as siren voices have turned out, by good luck or good judgement, to be largely right. Sunderland fans are not going to be partying with the big clubs again on a regular basis any time soon; our small-time sugar daddies simply cannot afford it. We have, it seems, been subject to a form of collective gaslighting - a concerted attempt to manipulate our conception of reality through making us doubt our own memory and senses. The story of how it came to be that Stewart Donald, Juan Sartori and Charlie Methven financed the purchase of the club and, then failed abjectly in their attempts to to sell it on for a profit, has shifted over time.

The owners’ Johnsoneque corporate PR guff was, in my view, designed to sow seeds of doubt and allow division to grow between us as fans - an internal conflict that has now been resolved by exposure to the cold reality of our situation.

Now we all know that the promise to replace the parachute payments has been broken and that £20 million of our club’s money has written off as an “exceptional operating cost”. But with this knowledge we can, at least, reunite.

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

The choice before us

English football is in the midst of a profound crisis, the like of which has never been seen before. We do not know when and how the game will return, and when it does how many of the 91 remaining league clubs will still be in existence. Nobody should expect to enter the Stadium of Light as a paying fan this calendar year.

The current hiatus does, however, give us room to think and to plan. Donald is selling. He’s been selling the club long before the Joint Statement of 27th December, 2019. He’s just failed in that task, and it’s starting to become clear why potential buyers have done their due diligence and walked away from the deal.

We as a fanbase need to act now in order to ensure the future of our club, but we need to make the right move in the right way in order to avoid impending disaster. The stakes couldn’t be higher. This time, given our historical low as a club and the state of the game as a whole, it is existential.

We could hold out hope that a richer, more benevolent sugar daddy with clean money and a heart of gold will come along, and that his promises of wealth and success will turn us into the club we know we can be. We know that the conditions of the £10 million FPP loan to Madrox, secured against the club’s assets, will ensure that the Americans will take control of the club’s holding company if Donald defaults. In this scenario, Donald will lose money and lose face. Sunderland fans would be at the mercy of some properly rich folk who have a decent track record in looking after companies in their investment portfolio.

But there would be nothing to stop them, when they look at the parlous state of the EFL overall and the hundreds of millions required to make it to the Premier League, simply selling us on to another group of not-so-wealthy chancers.

Alternatively, we could simply allow the club to go bust, meaning we start again as a phoenix club. Darlington have had to do it. Rangers went bust and started again at the bottom. There’s nothing that makes Sunderland special in that regard.

But there is another way. We could get off the merry-go-round all together. We could offer Donald and co, a dignified way out. They could get their money back and we could take back control of the club once and for all.

Fans often forget that we are the ones who finance the club at the minute. It is our money that pays the wages. Right now that’s through our tax money, but in normal times it’s our purchase of season tickets, streaming services and shirts that brings in the majority of the club’s revenues.

TV money in League One is negligible, and there have been no parachute payment monies to rely on, it seems. We’re already funding the club, but without any control.

The opportunity is upon us. The price of football clubs is falling as the game is suspended and the wider economy tanks. It is likely that ongoing costs will be controlled through a wage cap of around £6,000 a week.

As I have written previously, it will not be easy to achieve fan ownership of Sunderland AFC. It will require a pooling of resources, contacts and expertise. It will require the involvement and authorisation of Madrox and of FPP, who have to approve the transfer of Madrox shares.

Furthermore, the project will require the commitment of Sunderland-supporting lawyers, project managers, fundraisers, technologists, marketeers, content creators and business people. It will require long-term commitment and patience from every fan. It will require us to put our hands in our pockets for membership and bonds.

And the process will, of course, require a strong democratic constitution and clear governance rules that allow football people to run the playing side of the club and experienced, yet believing, administrators to run the day-to-day operations. It may all have to be underwritten by investments or local government loans.

But it is more possible and plausible today than it ever has been.

I will, therefore, be proposing at the next Annual General Meeting of the Red & White Army that a subscription-based Supporter’s Trust is formed in order to raise the capital and ongoing funds to purchase a majority share in the club at market prices.

I call on my fellow RAWA members who want to explore this route to work with me and others to formulate a robust and realistic plan, attend the AGM to support the proposal, and join us as we, the people, rebuild our club together.