Back in 1990, the Gates and Gabbadini force were slaying the Mags in the playoff semi-finals. In true Sunderland fashion, we were beaten by Swindon Town in the final, but still gained promoted, as Swindon Town was found guilty of financial irregularities. We will come back to financial irregularities in football!
Also in 1990, a book by Danny Miller hit all good book shops. Miller was trying to determine why previously successful businesses fail. The result? The Icarus Paradox, a book and the phenomenon of the same name, a neologism to add some understanding about business failure. Still as relevant now, as it was then. Miller coined the phrase based Icarus Paradox from Greek mythology – Icarus escaped imprisonment after soaring through the skies, only to drown after flying too close to the sun. What makes you successful leads to your failure?
On the back of Thursday’s meeting, where the theme of fan abuse seemed to be the main reason for any successful sale or general progression within the club, I feel it important to outline the issues within the club from a fan perspective.
Now I could make numerous analogies about mythical creatures and those who own Sunderland Association Football Club, but it is never the time for pointless name-calling or blame culture, and my knowledge of Greek mythology is somewhat limited. More importantly, I would rather apply the key learning from Miller’s seminal text to Sunderland in an attempt to highlight was is really going on at the club, with the key messages of Miller’s work at the core.
There are no two ways about it, Sunderland AFC are failing, and much of this is down to the owners, not the fans. Strap yourselves in - here is why.
Humans have a natural tendency to exaggerate their own talents, so successful business people build their own belief that they are above average in their abilities and their positive traits. In their own minds, what they do well is amplified. Importantly, even those at the top of organisations need to be ‘brought back in line’. Without the presence of critical friends, nepotism sets in around the key processes, activities and key decision-making.
Importantly, organisational leaders should consider the level of their previous success. To be successful in a lesser organisation does not mean you will be successful at a better, bigger organisation. A successful corner shop owner does not automatically become a front-runner for the CEO role at Waitrose. The off the field recruitment of board members and the football recruitment team stinks of cronyism – Thursday’s meeting notes talks about how businesses recruit people they know and value. I’d argue its nepotism and recruiting safe bets is narrow-minded and isn’t the process successful businesses follow.
Illusion of control – the management of risk and uncertainty should not be underestimated within football. Miller talks about how CEO’s believe their natural tendency leads them to the false economy of being able to manage any risks, due to their personal skills. Now, show me a more uncertain industry than football, where management of risk and reward go hand in hand; where successful management of risk does not always mean overall success. Risk management is showing an awareness of risk in the first instance, and then identifying how risk can be eliminated, reduced or simply managed as a constant within the organisation. At present, every time the owners or CEO talks risk is heightened, control is lost. From Thursday’s meeting notes, it seems this loss of control is apparent; Donald in particular cannot help to lash out and blame fans, whilst others present call for unity.
Next, overconfidence and complacency – The plan is set (in this case a 5-year plan we know very little about). This was redundant by the failure to achieve promotion in the first season. It has become clear; the owner’s view of success was how quickly they could flip the club at a profit. Let us be clear - Stewart Donald was hawking the club about well before he asked fans whether he should sell. Early boasts of playing budget handed power to competitors and other clubs when it came to player recruitment - the Will Grigg scenario and fee is the finest example. Charlie’s 100 point target is the perhaps the biggest show of ignorance and overconfidence to date. All based on complacency about the task in hand - none of them have really got to grips with it.
Anchoring – initial plans are drawn, only to quickly run into precarious pitfalls. This is where the management of the club, but also the suitability of the EFL ‘fit and proper persons test’ comes into question. Donald states he wants he money back, but stated that what he has paid into the club is irrelevant. I would suggest it is very relevant. The financial anchoring in regards to how they paid for the club, how they scrambled for investment and the sudden £20million plus financial hole, all serious pitfalls, and the lack of transparency has resulted in a breakdown of trust with fans. In fairness, Donald expressed from day one that investment would be needed to achieve Premier League status, but it’s abundantly clear he shouldn’t have passed the test - he simply does not have the funds, networks, knowledge or experience to run such a large organisation.
In all industries, competitor neglect can lead to critical failure. Learning from competitors is crucial to success. Coventry have suffered for years, Rotherham have yo-yo’ed and Wycombe are comparative minnows. However, all three have found a formula to get out of this league. All on much smaller playing budgets, all on clever retaining or recruitment of players, all will an element of togetherness both on and off the field of play. All on proper football club management. Coventry’s achievement despite their off the field troubles is remarkable - they found themselves homeless, in a much more dire position than Sunderland, yet effective management of playing staff and resources is proved the difference.
All football clubs have huge amounts of pressure around them. Let us be honest, the industry is flawed - the majority of clubs at a operating loss, generally living beyond their means. Added to the pressure of satisfying key stakeholders, such as sponsors, fans, and it quickly becomes a melting pot. However, Miller suggests organisational pressure results in failure when those leading the club create even more pressure, leading to the breakdowns in key relationships. Over-optimism and worth of key projects affects forecasting in line with organisational ambition. Again, boasts about playing budget, attendances, loyalty of fans and 100-point targets have all added unnecessary pressures. It’s also damaged the reputation of the club amongst the general football community.
Lavallo and Kahneman’s work in 2003 found that senior figures in failed organisations had ‘cooked forecasts’ in order to get ventures started. In other words, the individual(s) and their personalities take over and optimism becomes fallacy, particularly for those who are inexperienced in such ventures. The Machiavelli factor in football is alive and well. The personality traits in all club owners are likely to be similar. It’s why they own football clubs. At its core, Machiavellianism is a trait where indifference to morality in decision-making and leadership is central, where manipulation of interpersonal relationships and a general lack of emotional awareness reigns. Netflix showed us that such traits exist within individuals within the football club. I could go on, but following the meeting, I will leave you with this thought; research consistently finds that failed leaders create so much pressure, that they have little incentive to accept an outside view, when they do, they adopt a blame culture for their own failings.
The overarching element of the Icarus paradox is the dogma, ritual and specialisation – an overreliance on what makes you successful, ultimately leads to your downfall. The meeting ended with a brief discussion about the appointment of a new club secretary. The informal minutes state the individual (who is irrelevant to this point) was appointed on merit closely followed a club board member stating businesses appoint those who they know and value. There is a clear contradiction there - was he appointed on merit or nepotism? I say nepotism, as we know the current owners have filled most senior positions at the club with individuals they already knew, or came to know at some point in their time at other clubs.
I would challenge the idea that businesses appoint on whom they know and value. Miller found a narrow-minded approach to such decision-making results in failure. Entrepreneurial, forward thinking organisations cast their net wide, making sure the most suitable appointment is made, not the most convenient one. To an extent, the fan cynicism of the appointment was unnecessary, but is due to a recognised pattern in terms of failed recruitment with an Eastleigh link. The club had an opportunity to clarify the reason for why Paul Reid left the club. The Eastleigh based player recruitment team has failed (and gone), particularly when compared to Coventry or Wycombe. Methven worked his way into an untenable position, and now Donald is asking fans if he should stand down as Chairman. So yes, excuse the scepticism on the appointment of another ex-Eastleigh employee.
Finally, and perhaps most relevant and important to the position of the club - Relationships become shackles – in this case fans, but also employees and allies. Based on insight from Netflix, working at the club seems grim, particularly if you cannot gather attendance numbers in a nano second or enjoy the EDM, for example.
For some time, Donald has cited abuse from fans as his main reason for wanting to sell the club. We know he was actively selling the club when the relationship with fans was rosy, so that is not true. I take this opportunity to condemn any personal threat of the club owner, his family and employees.
On Thursday, the theme of the meeting was that Donald felt fans were abusive and inhibiting his efforts to sell the club. Going to the extent of saying investors were put off any takeover due to the behaviour of fans and fan groups. As a fan, I find this outrageous. Charlie once said there would always be a vocal minority you cannot do anything about. Anyone worthy of investing in the club will find the real reasons why they may not. MSD conducted their due diligence and performed a very quick U-turn.
The club’s inability to explain consistently how they funded their purchase and subsequent investment in the club, ensuing in a £20million plus black hole, along with their failure to progress the club, is why the relationship is with fans is now irreconcilable - not the behaviour of fans.
I would suggest Stewart focuses his attentions on how the fans are the most valuable asset to the club to help negotiate any sale instead of publicly blaming the fan base based on the actions of a very small minority, which he often cites, but never evidences.
So there you have it, the downfall of SAFC in the last two years, evidenced by decades of research by those educated in business terms - not just a fan opinion piece.