clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

What do we want from prospective new owners of Sunderland AFC?

“Football is indeed ‘just a game’, but our club is the single most important cultural institution in our city and our part of the region. It’s not a plaything. We require long-term, sustainable growth and stability.”

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

If Twitter is anything to go by, our neighbours up the road are having a tough old time of it right now.

Their dreams of being taken over by the investment arm of the despotic Saudi Arabian regime - whose wealth, like that of the Qatari owners of Manchester City or the Emirati owners of PSG, is built on the backs of environmental destruction and indentured labour - have fallen through, and the meltdown is quite something to behold.

I will admit that my own levels of schadenfreude have peaked in recent days as I’ve caught up on all the news following a week out of the loop.

The English Premier League - supposedly under the control of the Saudi’s strategic adversary, Qatar - has been the focus of Newcastle fans’ opprobrium. Despite the state-sponsored murder of Jamal Khashoggi and the well-documented human rights abuses both at home and and abroad, the prospective owners of the St James’ Park club would probably have passed the infamous Owners & Directors test (see page 125-130 of the Premier League Handbook) that assesses the suitability of new proprietors of EPL and EFL clubs. It seems, rather, that a combination of commercial disputes and geo-political manoeuvring have trumped ethics, and as a result the natives are revolting.

Black and White fans claim, with some justification, that EPL club owners intimately linked to the states of Qatar, Russia, and China have, rather hypocritically, deemed Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the league to be beyond the pale. But they wilfully ignore the World Trade Organisation’s ruling on piracy that sits at the heart of the difficulties that plagued the Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF) attempt to take a controlling state in the Magpies. And it also ignores that fact that it was PIF that has pulled the plug in the end, albeit in the face of intractable opposition from the current cadre entrenched at the top of English football.

We too have recently tasted the disappointment of a drawn-out and ultimately unsuccessful takeover bid by multi-billionaire suitors - for more mundane but no less frustrating reasons. Our current owners have made it apparent that, because of the level of abuse they’ve received since their failure to achieve promotion and to sell the club to FPP, they don’t really care who they sell the club to so long as they’ve got the cash and they meet the EFL’s requirements - essentially the lack of a criminal conviction or disqualification as a company director.

As a result of Donald’s, quite frankly, petty attitude towards the attributes of the person or group who takes his place at the helm of Sunderland AFC, some very colourful characters have emerged as potential new owners. Some of these people and groups have set the “spidey-senses” tingling in those of us who follow the behind the scenes dramas at the club quite closely, so this is my attempt to set out the moral, financial and ideal requirements of any person or persons interested in buying Sunderland AFC.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) meets with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (R)

Are you a human rights abuser?

If so, then you’re simply not welcome here. You can promise us the earth - or simply to “invest billions in the region” - but our club is not here to sportswash your reputation or provide a safe landing space from your ill-gotten wealth.

If we were to be presented with a letter from the grieving fiancé of a murdered journalist, for example, urging us to resist the blood-stained petrodollars, I would hope that our response as Sunderland fans wouldn't be to put our fingers in our ears and try to drown out the with calls of “Yas Divvent Undastand!”

But we as fans should not be put in such positions of having to choose between our love for our clubs and our concern for our universal human rights and our shared global environment. And I am also not naive; I’m acutely aware that this sentiment will not be shared by many Sunderland fans who simply yearn for on-the-field success at all costs.

Whether it would come from China (all major foreign investments by Chinese businesses require state approve, and that state is currently imprisoning over a million Uyghurs in Xinjiang), Russia (where Abramovic is Vladimir Putin’s favourite oligarch) or from the rulers or sovereign wealth funds of any of the Gulf states, I firmly believe money linked to despotic and repressive regimes (or indeed, to any state entity so as not to put football authorities in the position of defining a dictatorship) should be excluded from European football altogether.

Is this too high-minded a stance to take, and is it sustainable? Back in 2008, The Guardian’s Simon Hattenstone wrote a now infamous opinion piece where he announced his one-man boycott of Manchester City in response to the ownership of former Thai Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, who had been accused of corruption and human rights abuses:

I want out. I know that in filing for divorce, I’m not simply splitting up with a football club. There’s family and friends. And that might well be the most painful thing. My daughters could reject me forever - they are always telling me that we are bigger than Thaksin, that he is an imposter and that to leave them now would be an act of betrayal.

He’s since had to eat humble pie as he’s returned to the stadium, now renamed the Etihad by the City Football Group’s Qatari owners, and gave up his sports column instead. But he’s also still acutely aware of the painful moral dichotomy of being a lifelong supporter of a traditional club that comes to be owned by a human rights-abusing foreign government, in this case one that is explicitly using sport in order to improve its global image and reputation.

Let’s cut to the chase here; I simply wouldn’t be able sit back and watch my beloved club rise through the leagues on the back of money originating in states built on indentured labour (which is akin to modern slavery), have little or no democracy, or whose wealth is based on the destruction of our planet’s ecosystems.

I wouldn't go to home games or buy SAFC merchandise. The club wouldn't see a penny of my money. It would, nevertheless, be a highly personal ethical decision and I can understand why most City fans, or most Mags, would say that they’re not responsible for their owners and don’t get to choose who buys their club and so they’ll happily take the glory - even as passive yet fortunate beneficiaries of tainted money.

What’s required is action from the very top of the game. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have called for a human rights clause to be included in any with Amnesty stating that:

...there needs to be a rule change to ensure the Premier League’s Owners’ and Directors’ test provides proper scrutiny of the human rights records of those trying to buy into English football, not least when the buyers are governments or government representatives. We’ll be watching developments at St James’ Park with interest and meanwhile we wish Newcastle United and its fans well.

The Owners & Directors test, as it stands, allows the perception to arise that those clubs at the top will use their vetos to prevent new money coming in and challenging their elevated positions. Newcastle fans feel singled out and persecuted because of the obvious double standards at play, but I suspect their energies might be better focused at ensuring that the forces of global politics operating within the game were removed entirely rather than crowing about the injustice of it all - especially when gross injustice sits at the very heart of the Saudi autocracy.

Premier League Chief Executive Richard Masters Media Briefing
Richard Masters, Chief Executive of Premier League, is being urged to bring human rights into the centre of the EPL’s Owners & Directors test
Photo by Alex Morton/Getty Images for Premier League

Long-term Financial Capacity

Even if Sunderland’s new owner isn’t a state or someone linked directly to exploitation and human suffering, as George Harrison once sang, “it is going to take money; a whole lot of spending money”.

Plenty of money will certainly be required to do it right and get Sunderland back to where we as fans expect the club to be: in the Premier League or at the least challenging at the top of the Championship.

The Championship, where we hope to be playing in season 2021-22, is generally regarded as a financial basket-case, with the £7 million increase in TV revenues being dwarfed by the massive jump in operating costs in a division that looks unlikely to adopt a wage cap any time soon.

That doesn't bode well for Sunderland, unless the next owners have extraordinarily deep pockets and are willing to write cheques to cover the losses if and when we escape League One. A break-even model simply isn’t viable in the second tier as it stands. This means we will need to be assured not only that the new owners can cover the purchase price of the club and the running costs in the short term, but that they have the resources to keep ploughing the required money in to fund massive losses over the next five years or so.

However, such assurances will be very hard to achieve unless the new owner is conspicuously and independently wealthy, and even then they’re not obliged to cover the club’s debts.

The self-regulation of football club ownership in England - the rules being set by current club owners for new club owners - have failed miserably to guarantee the financial futures of a growing number of clubs. This failure is both because it doesn’t screen-out the owners with shoddy plans or phantom bank-balances, let alone human rights violations.

Wigan Athletic fans have reacted to their club’s demise by calling for statutory regulation of football club ownership, with a new Owners & Directors test being enshrined in law.

We as Sunderland fans, and as stakeholders in the health of the national game overall, should support the petition created by the Wigan Supporters Club calling on action to be taken by the government. All three major English political parties pledged to overhaul football governance at the 2019 General Election and it’s time we as citizens held them to their word on this.

Others, such as former Latics manager Roberto Martinez, have suggested a mandatory bond scheme whereby “the owner has to have a bond in the bank that, when something goes wrong, that bond responds and maintains the near-future of that football club, that institution, with repercussions for the owner, but it doesn’t leave the club exposed.” This idea, which would make owners true custodians of clubs and recognise that they’re assets with a life that extends before and after a single owner’s tenure, has, I feel, the greatest transformative potential.

Intentions: Sunderland AFC is not your plaything

Like bored, frustrated and spoilt children who have discovered that their favourite new toy is more difficult to use than they’d expected, our current owner says he’s selling up as it’s “no longer fun” running a football club.

Steward Donald now knows, without a shadow of a doubt, that we Sunderland fans take our club extraordinarily seriously. We will detect the faintest whiff of short-termism, of an intention to flip the club for a quick profit on our return to the Championship, or to sell-off the club’s assets in a bid to compete at that level. And we are looking for an owner-as-trusted-custodian, not an owner-as-flashy-saviour.

If a prospective owner comes along saying they’ll stake their whole fortune on the thrill of being involved in professional sport, they need to be gently told that Sunderland AFC is not that kind of high-risk, high-return investment. Football is indeed “just a game”, but our club is the single most important cultural institution in our city and our part of the region. It’s not a plaything. We require long-term, sustainable growth and stability. The same, I am sure, can be said about Newcastle United and other clubs around Europe that are considered status symbols that provide the real super rich with immunity (and a willing band of ordinary fans who will jump to their defence should awkward questions ever be asked) and the wannabe super rich with the superficial trappings to that world.

Whoever it may, they should go into this investment with wide open eyes; given what we have been through over the last four years, our trust will be very hard to gain and very easy to lose. We, as a fanbase, expect an owner who understands this and embraces the harsh realities of the challenge of reestablishing the club in its historical position in the upper-echelons of English football.

We are highly vigilant. We are getting organised. We have the skills, intelligence and collective will to hold our future owners to account.

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

A Plan and an Ethos

With this in mind, we will expect new owners to have a thorough and comprehensive plan for how they will take the club forward. They will get a honeymoon, no doubt, but communicating a plan at the outset, and executing it, will be crucial to establishing and maintaining trust and confidence amongst supporters. We will not be taken in by PR spiel about Sunderland being a “massive club”, warm words about the passion of the fans being key, or lofty rhetoric about putting the club at the core of the community; we have heard it all before and had our hands burned as a result.

The plan should embed an ethos of excellence, professionalism and development across the entirety of the club’s operations; from the men’s senior squad to the girls’ U10 programme, right through the catering and the corporate services. It should set the expectations and goals that club’s players, staff and supporters understand and can unite around, and this plan will have to focus on success both in the present and in the future.

Yes, we want to see Sunderland storm League One in 2020-21, but as a fanbase we’re as focused on squad and player development as much as the results on the pitch. We may well demand a manager is sacked after a string of poor results or a marquee signing is made in the closing minutes of a transfer window - that is our prerogative - the role of the owners-as-custodian will be to make sober judgements in the light of the public pressure, and to explain and communicate honestly with the fans when our natural urges towards synthetically earned glory might put the longer-term sustainability of the club and the plan in jeopardy.

First and foremost, Sunderland supporters expect the club to be at the nexus of a web of grassroots football in the North East, identifying, developing and bringing through young footballers who can light up our playing squads, push us towards the promotions we crave and be saleable assets if and when the move on. Whether it’s Steph Houghton, Lucy Bronze or Jordan Henderson, our success as a club and as a region in producing the finest footballers in England have been immense.

As much as the Academy make us proud based on its status and previous success, the current state of our U23s and U18s is a huge worry for most fans. The loss of young talent for nominal fees cannot continue. With squad and salary caps being imposed on the club by the EFL, new and innovative plans will have to be employed in order to identify and attract the best young players released from EPL and Championship clubs, and emerging talent from the EFL and beyond.

And with money freed-up from the wage bill, more resources should be available for the implementation of data-driven recruitment and internal selection, an increased scouting network and a bumping-up of the amount and quality of coaching staff across the club. The £8-£10 million a year required to keep a Category 1 Academy going should be amongst the top spending priorities of any would-be custodian of the club’s future.

Beyond the playing side of the club, the club’s ticketing, commercial and marketing operations desperately need an injection of new thinking and professionalism, which again should reflect the overarching ethos of the plan. Our wonderful 21-year-old stadium is still in need of a bit of TLC - a knackered old PA system blasting inaudible EDM for an hour before kick-off becomes more intolerable as every game goes by.

We’re still not sure when and how we’ll be allowed back into the ground in any numbers, but a new regime will surely want to do everything they can to make the matchday experience as attractive as possible for fans who may be wary about the risks of, or who have simply found other things to do with their weekends while they’ve been locked out of the SOL.

England v USA: Semi Final - 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup France
Some of the game’s top players, such as Steph Houghton and Lucy Brozne, are products of Sunderland’s youth development
Photo by Alex Grimm/Getty Images

Supporter Involvement & Transparency

The renewed ethos, as communicated in a comprehensive plan, needs to be rooted in the involvement of and transparency with us - the people who ultimately pay the bills on a day-to-day basis.

The new owners need to treat us with respect at all times; as loyal and caring fans, as football people who know the game well, as customers who have rights and legitimate expectations, and as intelligent people and capable citizens with valuable knowledge and experience about our club and our city.

Supporters’ groups have been at the forefront of actions to improve in the matchday experience and renovation of the Stadium over the last couple of years. The Red & White Army (RAWA) and Branch Liaison Committee have led efforts to communicate the collective voice of the fans to the Board, whether in official structured dialogue meetings or in the informal forums that the club have favoured since the collapse of trust between fans and owners last autumn.

As RAWA’s Emergency General Meeting last month voted unanimously in favour of converting to a Community Interest Company and affiliate to the Football Supporters Association as a Supporters’ Trust, we as a fanbase are now in the process of creating the structures that would allow us to take a more formal and long-term role in overseeing the governance of the club.

The ideal, I guess, would be for a new owner to offer to gift the new Trust shares and a seat on the board as a gesture of good will as they enter the club. The next-best scenario might involve the Trust being given the option to raise the money to purchase a meaningful stake in the club at the market rate, as determined by the sale price that Donald is able to secure. Both options would allow the Trust an enhanced capacity for oversight and accountability, and would also ensure that we would have a voice the next time the club is sold.

Even if the Supporters Trust is not given or isn’t able to take up the option of a share or place at the top table at the Stadium of Light, in all circumstances as full transparency about how the club was bought and will be financed going forward as possible will be required to assuage our doubts as to the intentions and capability of the new regime.

And as a practical means of an owner ensuring that fans’ trust and support is maintained, honesty and transparency is a useful strategy. Madrox Partners still maintain that we, as a fanbase, have been misled or misinformed about the financial goings on at Sunderland over the last two years - particularly with regards the club’s writing-off of the £20.5 million loan to the holding company. If fans were part of the ownership structure, if they could sit around the table as shareholders this situation would be very different.

But we should also be highly aware that Supporters Trusts with their democratic, member-led natures, can be used cynically by prospective new owners promising the moon-on-a-stick. The presence of fans on boards can be used as public relations cover for the actions and inaction of more powerful and better resourced owners and directors.

As we’ve seen at Falkirk, Newcastle United and the remnants of Bury FC, in their understandable desperation to advance the position of the clubs they’ve been formed to support, and in communicating the expressed desires of their members tempted by lofty promises, Supporters’ Trusts can become advocates for the interests of nefarious current or prospective owners. This one is, ultimately, down to us; if we pull together to share our not inconsiderable knowledge, skills and experience with the new Trust we can protect ourselves as a fanbase and the Trust can be more than simply a critical friend to the club in the future.

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

Connections to the Club and the Region

The traditional model of football club ownership - or stewardship - is for the local boy or girl made good who invests their well-earned profits in their beloved football club, transforming its fortunes and leaving a legacy in their will that means that they’re financially secured for decades to come.

Sunderland’s people are not incredibly uneducated in terms of business; they’re innovative and enterprising people who have been at the forefront of technology and engineering for centuries, often travelling the world as ‘exiles’ to develop their careers and build their fortunes. And, oh, how we would love it to be the case that the group currently in “a period of exclusivity” with Madrox over a proposed takeover fitted that description.

But we also know that this is far from likely and that, although there are also many adopted Mackems who have made their homes in our fair city as well as those beautiful people who have supported the club from afar, sometimes with little or no prior connection to the club, for many a year, the prospects of being owned by a filthy rich yet benevolent fan or group of fans is pretty remote.

Perhaps more likely is a consortium headed by a former Sunderland player who is the public face of a group consisting of variety of private investors. Some have sniffed at the efforts of Michael Gray, for example, to put such a group together, but I am less opposed to this model than many. We all remember that the Drumaville group, headed by club legend and all round top bloke Niall Quinn, was responsible for a resurgence of the club with Roy Keane at the helm in the mid-naughties.

But whoever it is, we would ideally have owners who know, understand, appreciate and - yes - even choose to live in our fantastic region. Culturally, we’re different. We need someone who really gets us from the start, not someone who expresses their shock at discovering that the all-encompassing passion of our fans is the reality, not just a myth peddled on a slick TV docudrama. We are done with absentee owners. We need and should demand their commitment and connection to the community they will serve.

Soccer - Barclays Premier League - Chelsea v Sunderland - Stamford Bridge Photo by Rebecca Naden/PA Images via Getty Images

Leadership and Management

Beyond the obvious requirement for the new owners to have deep pockets and sound commercial and footballing plans, there is also the need for those in charge of Sunderland AFC in the future to embody professionalism and have experience in running a large institution where media scrutiny and public interest is high.

They should live and breathe the ethos they profess through their plans, and be able to communicate effectively both internally and externally.

The world has witnessed the old-school management techniques employed by Charlie Methven during his time as the man running the club’s commercial operations, and how these both alienated long-standing members of staff at the club and have proven a source of various memes focused on pumping rave music, demands for beer and attendance figures and unfavourable comparisons with David Brent.

Though its clear that some of the entrenched attitudes and established ways of working at the club that had developed under Ellis Short’s regime had to be transformed, as a trade unionist I must admit to having been thoroughly disappointed by the snippets (edited for increased drama, of course) of meetings and pep-talks that appeared on our screens after the release of Season 2 of Sunderland ‘Til I Die this spring.

But my overarching concern has always been that Charlie Methven and Stewart Donald have little or no background or experience in running a football club on this scale, or any institution subject to this level of scrutiny. And while it’s clear that, over the lockdown period, they’ve sought to correct some of their initial errors in terms of management structures and player recruitment, the changes have been far too little and have come far too late.

We need owners and executives who will lead by example, trust the people who know the club best, and who can handle the heat that will inevitably come when results on the pitch are not going our way.

Sunderland v Accrington Stanley - Sky Bet League One Photo by Mark Fletcher/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Personal Character

I’m no puritan and, to a certain extent, we all have things in our past that we might look back on with regret. The Owners & Directors test should protect us from those with unspent criminal convictions and disqualifications as company directors, and I am not so green as to expect people who have made a shed-load of money in the capitalist system to be pure as the driven snow.

That said, we cannot escape the fact that the personal and professional morality of football club owners really matters.

Do we want someone at the helm of our club who has a track record of accusations of sexual misconduct, or someone on record as urging people to ignore scientific advice and refuse to wear face coverings out of an ideological attachment to “freedom”? Do we want someone whose chequered personal, political or professional reputation brings the club’s good name into disrepute?

We have had our fair share of controversies over the last decade with the low points being employing a self-confessed fascist as manager and continuing to play a man who was up on charges of sexual activity with a minor. Thankfully, Sunderland’s current owners have been relatively unscathed by accusations of personal impropriety, human rights abuses or corruption.

Methven’s long-standing links to Boris Johnson and the unending horror-show that is the modern Tory Party, and Juan Sartori’s populist insurgency within the right-wing National Party in Uruguay, are hardly grounds for exclusion from the world of football club ownership. Both the UK and Uruguay remain comparatively open and democratic societies where the rule-of-law ultimately prevails. Stewart Donald might be naive, small-time, spiky and completely out of his depth; but I don’t believe he’s a crook or even a bad person.

In the end it’s for you as a Sunderland fan and a citizen, when assessing the merits of anyone who emerges to buy the club over the next few weeks, to first ask whether they are good people with a good track record, good intentions and a good plan.

If they’re not, we need to be ready to raise our voices, work with and through RAWA and the new Supporters Trust and take the opposite route to the Newcastle United fans.

We as fans will need to do all we can to safeguard our club for the future.

Otherwise we, like our barcoded cousins down the green Metro line, are at risk of being swept up in the momentary joy of ridding ourselves of an unloved ownership only to find ourselves in an even deeper hole a few months down the line.

The pre-candidate for the National Party of Uruguay, Juan...
Uruguayan Senator and 20 per cent owner of Sunderland AFC, Juan Sartori, on the campaign trail in 2019
Photo by Mauricio Zina/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for the Roker Report Daily Roundup newsletter!

A daily roundup of Sunderland news from Roker Report