On Thursday afternoon, in a hastily arranged informal meeting at the Stadium of Light, representatives of the Red & White Army (RAWA) committee, the Sunderland Branch Liaison Committee (BLC), Supporter Liaison Group (SLG) and the Senior Supporters Group (SSG) met with Stewart Donald and club officials Jim Rodwell, Neil Fox, Angela Lowes and Tom Sloanes in what could, potentially, be a clarifying episode in the torturous recent history of Sunderland AFC.
The overarching message from the owner is that he “came here for fun, but it is not fun anymore”. He wants a mere £37.6 million for the club, and he doesn’t mind whether that comes from the fans or any private buyer who can pass the EFL’s Owners & Directors tests. Despite having been actively trying - and failing - to sell the club for over a year, Donald and his entourage have sought to place responsibility for their impeding departure solely at the feet of fans, fan groups and the criticism he’s received since last Christmas.
Having given fan groups a little over 24 hours to prepare for the meeting, Donald was also quick off the mark to attempt to control the narrative received by Sunderland supporters about what was said at the meeting and his intentions to sell the club. Immediately afterwards he gave an interview to Nick Barnes on BBC Newcastle’s Total Sport programme, before the fan groups were able to go back to their various committees and make any statement about the meeting.
In his answers to the Sunderland commentator’s probing, the Sunderland owner justified his decision making around the finances of the club and sought to exonerate himself of any wrongdoing during his tenure, apologising for any mistakes and miscommunications but claiming that he is only really guilty of not achieving promotion to the Championship.
Donald explained to Barnes that he is “desperately trying to get out” of the club, largely due to the abuse he claims that he and his family has faced from a tiny minority of fans. He told a story of how three men, purporting to be Sunderland fans, accosted his daughter at a bus stop and escorted her to the family home to get answers directly from her father about the state of the club. In this particular incident, thankfully, the police weren’t called, and Donald himself ended by saying how he’d laughed with the men when he’d explained in simple terms how he couldn’t possibly have stolen money from the club.
Nevertheless, any parent will be able to empathise with the fear and anxiety the Stewart must naturally feel about having been subjected to an incidents such as this, and 99.9 per cent of fans will rightly be horrified to hear such details alongside his description of the scale of online abuse he and his loved ones have suffered in the last 12 months.
This matter was also raised in the meeting, and the notes released by RAWA later on Thursday evening highlight, worryingly, that Donald blamed an unnamed RAWA Committee member for having incited the actions of the three men through a post on twitter. It’s unclear as to exactly which tweet from which person he was referring, but in his BBC interview he suggested that the men had confronted him about the issue of the loan to Madrox written off by the club, equivalent parachute payments of £20.5m. Donald asked at the meeting what he could do to stop fans threatening his family. Dave Rose, Vice Chair of RAWA made it clear in that social media abuse by fans is not representative of the independent supporters group and “that while it was part of RAWA’s job reflected the feeling of the fans, all such abuse is completely unacceptable”.
We met with the club today for an informal meeting. Club said each attending supporter group could feed back to fans as they see fit. This is RAWA's version (our notes were checked by the club for points of accuracy before we left the meeting). https://t.co/yeReFd6GNc— Red & White Army (@RedAndWhite2017) July 16, 2020
The Fans’ Fault?
We do have a collective responsibility, both online and in the real world, in public and private, to challenge and call out any abuse perpetrated in name of our club and our city that we see or hear. Nobody deserves to feel threatened or intimidated.
But we must not let this is a tiny, ignorant and small-minded minority of fans be taken as representative of Sunderland fans as a whole. Donald’s comments to the fan groups that the sale of the club is “being made difficult by things that are being said on social media and in the press” and that “if the abuse continues... he can just sell to anyone”, have left the overall impression that we who pay our hard-earned money into his club and expect transparency and honesty in return, are the ones responsible for his failure to attract a willing buyer for the club at his asking price.
We will be to blame if the next owner turns out to be a wrong’un too.
Donald’s singling out of one individual Sunderland fan in particular during the meeting, the campaigning accountant and Wise Men Say contributor Chris Weatherspoon, who wasn’t present to respond, has left a bad taste in the mouth in this regard. Tell him to “to shut up or check his facts”, Donald reportedly stated. Weatherspoon has tirelessly documented the financial goings on at the Stadium of Light over the last few years and his work has undoubtedly played a role in increasing supporters’ interest in and awareness of the business side of the club.
It’s not for me as a layman to make a judgement on Weatherspoon’s numbers; I am sure he can defend his own work publicly better than I ever could. However, I will defend the right of members of the press and the public to make their own inquiries and to scrutinise the goings on at the club we love and, ultimately, fund. We in the fan media will not stop asking tough questions and seeking the truth about where our money goes. Donald or any owner cannot expect to receive simply friendly criticism from supporters or their representatives.
Donald proceeded to tell RAWA what it should and should not be doing and that is has “has a responsibility to challenge... negative assumptions” amongst the fanbase. This is a novel interpretation of the proper role of a democratic independent supporters group; the majority of its members will, I am quite sure, see it as a vehicle for their voices and their interests as fans and customers rather than as an organisation that’s there to help out the owners.
Jim Rodwell asked “all groups present to ask its members to give the club some breathing space, it was important to all show some unity to help with the sale” - the message being that he expects an end to criticism and a submission by fan groups to the club’s corporate line. By conflating the unacceptable online abuse with the legitimate questioning and investigative work of fans and media organisations, and by tarnishing the reputation of RAWA whilst at the same time praising the BLC, Donald has sought to divide us. It is a classic transfer of responsibility - he’s seeking to avoid any blame by confecting a hybrid bogyman.
Thursday’s was an encounter that fan groups had long waited for, and Donald had long avoided. Pressure had been growing on the club’s majority shareholder and Chairman to provide clarification regarding the sale of the club, with widespread unrest among fans regarding CEO Jim Rodwell’s handing of season ticket refunds and renewals during the ongoing coronavirus crisis adding to existing questions regarding the club’s finances.
Two consecutive seasons finishing in our lowest ever league positions in 129 years has pushed the fanbase to the point of revolt, with some refusing to renew their season cards in protest and calling for wider a boycott of the club to force the owners to cut their losses and sell.
The invitation to the meeting came with little or no warning on Wednesday morning, a day after RAWA and the Sunderland Echo had both surveyed their respective audiences’ views on various aspects of the future of the club. The move by the club may be construed as either a sign of the off-the-cuff way the club is being run at the minute, or as a cynical ploy to ensure fans had as little time as possible to collect and analyse the data and prepare for the encounter.
The fan groups had previously held a short and ultimately underwhelming introductory meeting with Rodwell and some of the board in early June, and channels of communication have been maintained since. But this was far from the minuted “structured dialogue” meetings with larger numbers of fans that should be happening.
After initially describing the meeting as informal, the club provided the groups with a short agenda to shape the discussions. After consulting with the Red & White Army’s wider co-opted members (including me, as Roker Report’s co-opted rep) a list of questions, many of which were covered under the club’s agenda items but many more that needed to be addressed in under Any Other Business, to be put to Donald. They were targeted but not vindictive queries, and the intention of everyone involved on the fan’s side was to get answers to pressing questions rather than a providing a “gotcha” moment.
What RAWA in particular received when they entered the room was a concerted effort from the owner to blame us for the club’s problems. They clearly despise openness and accountability, with Neil Fox criticising RAWA - a democratic membership-based organisation - for telling its members about the meeting with the club in advance. We are wrong, in their eyes, for keeping the our fellow fans up to date. He claimed that threats had arrived soon after news of the meeting was released, saying “we know where you staying”, and falsely claimed that these threats were caused by Roker Report tweeting the time of the meeting.
A Reasonable Price to Pay?
The headline news from the meeting is that - despite rumours and conjecture - there is no buyer currently lined up to take control and that Donald only wants what he has paid for the club, which he says was £40m, adjusted down to £37.6m.
He wants to sell to a credible person but, incredibly given the state of English football right now, he doesn’t want to take a hit on what he payed back in 2018. Others, more qualified than I, will pour over the details of this valuation, but it doesn’t make intuitive sense and Liverpool University’s expert in football finance, Kieran Maguire, who has seen a leaked version of the club’s accounts, has ridiculed the price.
It’s a realistic price...if Will Grigg is worth £4m.— PriceOfFootball (@KieranMaguire) July 16, 2020
Other than that difficult to see how a club that has no more parachute payments, uncertainty as to when it will next be playing before a paying audience and the highest wage bill in the division can be worth £36.75m
It’s indeed logical that by paying back the parachute payments, Donald is making the club a more attractive proposition, as it should now have a substantial amount cash in the bank. But surely nobody in their right mind is going to buy a club in a league that currently has no restart date and no viable business model for how to operate safely in a world without a Covid-19 vaccine for £37.6m.
So we are probably correct in assuming that Donald is going absolutely nowhere anytime soon unless his asking price is revised significantly. He is determined to be one of the rarest of beasts in modern English football; a club owner who does not, ultimately, loose money on what he has himself admitted is little more to him than expensive hobby.
He claimed that he was close to a deal before the Covid-19 lockdown and has tried to contact everyone who has shown interest in the club. He told Barnes that he is “genuinely trying to sell” and that uncertainty around the virus is what is delaying the sale - this was a slight modification of the position he took in the meeting that the fans are the ones ultimately responsible for any hold-up.
Donald stated to Nick Barnes that he only chose to stay on at the club once FPP had made their investment in Madrox - a “supportive partner” that could “add value” - which is not entirely consistent with the course of events as I understand them. There’s little prospect, according to the club officials in the meeting, of the ‘Dell Boys’ ever taking control, but little or no explanation of why they failed to complete the purchase of the club last year was forthcoming.
It must also be reiterated that Donald told the meeting that he will now sell to anyone who can meet his price. He has claimed a that a consortium led by former Sunderland and England player, Micky Gray, may come back to the club now he knows the price. He’s waiting on ex-Hong Kong international and Birmingham City Director, Sammy Yu, to contact him about his new group of investors. But in the end, he’s now happy to abdicate responsibility and pass the the buck to EFL regarding the propriety of any buyer.
We, as fans, have to rely on the Owners & Directors test to keep our club safe from any nefarious predators. That can’t fill anyone with much confidence.
Donald said in his teatime foray onto the airwaves that he would give clarity regarding a potential renewed big takeover by Mark Campbell, and to a certain extent he has.
Previously, it was claimed that Campbell, who was introduced to club staff as the new owner last summer before the deal fell through over the price, does not have the financial clout to take the club forward. Donald stated that no proof of funds or letters of intent has been forthcoming from Campbell in this current period.
Yet, Donald didn’t rule out selling to the controversial property developer in the end. Perhaps, Donald suggested, Campbell may emerge with the money he’s asking for, and that then (only due to the fans’ negativity, of course) he would not quibble over his track record.
The current owner seemed to use Campbell’s presence in the background as a means to suggest that things could be worse - and I suspect he might be right in that particular judgement. But it is all a very long way from the assurances Donald gave in interviews at the beginning of the year that he would only sell to someone who he was sure would be good for the future of the club.
Donald now claims that one of his biggest mistakes may have been that he was too open with fans about the finances at the club at the outset. He wishes he’d kept it all private. He reportedly told the supporters’ groups that “the attitude of the fans is putting off investors”, a claim also made by Non-Executive Director Tom Sloans.
On the issue of how much money Donald has invested personally, yesterday he was coy.
The RAWA notes from the meeting read as follows:.
DR [Dave Rose] asked SD [Stewart Donald] how much have he had put into the club.
SD replied that is was irrelevant. Madrox agreed to pay £40 million, reduced to £37.5 million, which is now the asking price and the club will be debt free.
DR questioned whether SD has put in £37.5m as it has been reported that a large part of this was club parachute payments.
SD stated Madrox will have put in £37.6 million into the club by the time it is sold. Most of the £20 million has already been repaid and will continue being repaid. All monies will be repaid before it is sold.
According to RAWA, Donald pressed home the message at the meeting that “the club is safe and is not obstructive to potential buyers”. This is at least one bit of reassurance. Unless he’s telling bare-faced lies, we are not going into administration any time soon.
He has instructed the club’s Financial Director to give a full update on the club’s finances on, 31st July, at the same time as the 2018-19 accounts will eventually be released.
We have been assured, then, that the immediate future of the club is secure. Donald’s promise to reinvest the parachute payments into the football club will surely mean bills can be paid and some cash is available for Parkinson and Reay to rebuild threadbare our senior playing squads in the coming weeks. We will keep a close eye on what’s in those accounts, and there’s so much more to be analysed from yesterday’s meeting that is not covered here, including the Academy and the club’s position on the EFL’s proposed salary cap.
And whilst the call for “unity” is little more than a way of silencing criticism, we all must also look to move forward now; the fans, the club, the owners. Vitriol and anger have got us nowhere so far, and are only likely to make the situation even more fraught and difficult as the footballing side of club looks to rebuild its over the summer.
The transfer window is soon to open, and a date for the restart of EFL football should be agreed in the coming weeks. We need recruitment and investment in all parts of the club, including the Ladies and youth set ups, and we all desperately want to see success on the pitch no matter who is in charge behind the scenes.
Despite the circumstances surrounding the meeting, and the attitude towards the fans displayed within it, demonstrating the power imbalance between the millionaire owners and the volunteer fan groups, the window has opened for fan ownership has also opened up.
“What do you want me to do?” asked Donald on the Total Sport interview. He’s very open to the idea of selling the club to the proposed Supporters’ Trust, and in the meeting he said “fans can buy the club on the same deal as he paid for the club”. He claims that he will help us to do this with flexible and stretched out repayment plans. Dave Rose had to explain to Donald that the intention of the move to convert RAWA into a Trust is not to buy the club, but this didn’t seem to register with the owner.
Now, he may be a passionate believer in the successful Socio model of member ownership of clubs that operates in Spain and Germany, but many will suspect that this is a coded way of him saying “you lot think it’s so easy, you try doing it and see how you like it!”.
He sought to call our bluff, yet we can indeed do it if we choose, or more likely if we’re left with no other option due to his determination not to make a loss on the deal.
And Donald has done the maths for us; “RAWA can buy the club, 37,000 fans at £1,000 each, a payment instalment plan can be arranged”, he’s reported as having said to the fan groups.
So let’s indulge Donald’s valuation of the club for a moment, and say that the club is indeed worth £37.6m. If payments were spread this out over a ten year period, that might allow 18,500 members to invest an average of £200 a year each to buy the club outright.
Sunderland AFC might be worth half that amount at the most, and in that case the number of payments or the annual fee would be halved too. But we would want our own independent valuation of the club to be done before agreeing to any deal.
But, first and foremost, we need to get this Trust up and running. The vote is to be held at RAWA’s Emergency General Meeting on Tuesday 23rd July, and then we can - if we choose - seriously explore what’s possible in terms of fan ownership.
We are the constant. We are the club.