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Sunderland’s new owner can learn from what has gone on in the past to ensure a brighter future

“My personal message to the new Board once the Kyril Louis-Dreyfus acquisition has taken place: make a long-term plan in collaboration with the club’s executive management, especially Kristjaan Speakman and Lee Johnson, and stick to it” writes Lars Knutsen.

Olympique de Marseille v Olympique Lyonnais - Ligue 1 Photo by Dave Winter/Icon Sport via Getty Images

Provided the EFL ticks the right boxes on the proposed new ownership deal, which is highly likely, then in my opinion Sunderland AFC have pulled off a major coup in selling the majority shareholding in the club to 23-year-old Kyril Louis-Dreyfus, reputedly with access to trust fund billions, in the middle of a worldwide pandemic during which the club’s finances have been compromised. In my view, despite our unbeaten away record in the league, the team’s performances have been negatively affected by the lack of fans at games this season.

This is at a time when Wigan’s latest takeover has been rejected, and although our deal is not yet “in the bag”, so to speak, there appear to have been alternatives, apparently including Matthew Pauls from the USA. For reasons I will explain later, I am happy that the club will likely not have a North America-based owner.

The prospective takeover deal says something about the worldwide standing of the club, its amazing fan base and the facilities both at the Stadium of Light and at the Cleadon Academy of Light training facility.

When the club enjoyed two successive top seven Premiership finishes under chairman Bob Murray and manager Peter Reid in 1999-2000 and 2000-2001, average home crowds were 41,375 and 46,780. Even in the season when Sam Allardyce guided us away from relegation, 2015-2016, we averaged 43,071. So, although most fans are fed up with hearing it, we have great potential as a club, and are too often called a “sleeping giant”.

Sunderland v Wycombe Wanderers - Sky Bet League One - Stadium of Light Photo by Richard Sellers/PA Images via Getty Images

If current owner Stewart Donald’s gamble had paid off to get The Black Cats promoted in 2019, he would have been hailed as a hero, and the whole rather dubious funding issue that later emerged would have been buried in a deal to attract funds and transition us into a competitive Championship outfit.

We are currently in the COVID-19-driven gloom of our third successive League One season and have had to learn live with the anticipated promotions just not happening. Although it will be an unpopular view with many fans, Donald does deserve some credit if the slated takeover does take place, given our current position in the league. Obviously with a decent winning run under Lee Johnson this current situation could all change, and soon.

It is only relatively recently in the history of Sunderland AFC that owners and the Board have been under strong media focus. From what I gather, in the early history of the club, it was run by a committee that selected the manager, but I presume this had all changed by the time we became the “Bank of England” club in the immediate post-war period. In 1949-50 we finished third in the top league, just one point behind champions Portsmouth, and I am happy to say that the Black Cats were top of the league in the week I was born early in 1955.

Certainly, by time the club’s hierarchy was involved in some financial scandals in the late 1950s, being found guilty of making payments in excess of the maximum wage to players, they were fined £5,000 (£121,000 today) and the chairman and three directors were suspended. So, by then the structure was fairly familiar.

I was eighteen when we won the FA Cup in 1973, but although attending every round except the final, the talk on the terraces was never about who owned the club. All I remember on that front when attending home games from 1968 onwards was that if we played badly there were occasional chants of “Sack the Board”, a common sound at Newcastle games.

Sunderland FC Champions Photo by Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

As mentioned in my previous piece, Tom Cowie made his money in the world of transport and was a friend of my father’s, but by the time he became chairman in 1980 I was working away from Wearside down in Hertfordshire.

The Cowie years were difficult for the club and if he had been at the helm in this modern era dominated by social media, I sense that rather like Steward Donald and Charlie Methven now, he would have been hounded in these forums and struggled to win any popularity competitions. Cowie was regularly at loggerheads with his incumbent team managers Alan Durban, Len Ashurst and Lawrie McMenemy but held on until Bob Murray became chairman in 1987 following our first relegation to the old Third Division.

The following two decades of Murray’s leadership brought immense change and some notable success during the Peter Reid era. Sir Bob, as he is now known, was clearly a different character to Cowie; much gentler in nature and a gifted strategic thinker. He was behind the move to the Stadium of Light and the visionary hiring of Reid in the spring of 1995.

Murray also stuck by Reid in the yo-yo years following the 1996 promotion, achieved mainly on the basis of a strong defence with just 33 goals conceded, and the subsequent relegation in 1997 on 40 points.

Howard Wilkinson New Manager Photo by PA Images via Getty Images

Most chairmen these days will sack the manager if there is even a hint of relegation from the Premiership; note for example the goings-on at Watford in the past 8 years under the ownership of the Pozzo family. Billy McKinlay was once sacked after just 8 days in charge at Vicarage Road despite the team getting 4 points out of a possible 6; in a single month the Hornets had three head coaches. They seem to hire and fire at least a couple of managers each season, making Silvio Berlusconi appear like a stable leader. They treated Nigel Pearson shabbily just before their relegation from the Premiership last spring.

Bob Murray in my view should have kept Peter Reid on in the Sunderland hotseat in the 2002-3 season, even after his unpromising start and his failed attempt to replace Niall Quinn as the “target man” with the £6.75m signing of Tore Andre Flo, who by any analysis flopped at the Stadium of Light.

But in the end Reid was sacked in October 2002. As supporters we never really know what actually goes on behind the scenes but one thing is clear: Howard Wilkinson was a disastrous appointment following Reid’s departure. He was a hire which Murray was talked into when “calling Wilkinson for advice” about who to bring on board after the former Evertonian’s era. Everyone makes mistakes, which after his departure Wilkinson accused Sir Bob of, but overall, the two-decade long Murray chairmanship is generally remembered for its successes.

I do not recall Bob Murray being hounded in the media even after Howard Wilkinson’s disastrous tenure with that terrible subsequent 19-point relegation to the Championship. But that was again before the days of the current all-powerful voices of social media. The groundswell on that medium over the past year or two which changed current SAFC owner Stewart Donald from an open an interactive leader to a guarded and cagy individual, was not a factor in Murray’s time.

Fulham v Sunderland - Premier League Photo by Phil Cole/Getty Images

The altogether wonderful and charismatic Niall Quinn returned as a favourite son, displaying a passion for the club, connecting really well with the supporters and was the driver behind the sale of Murray’s shares to the Irish Drumaville consortium in 2006.

Quinn served briefly as manager when Roy Keane was approached for the Stadium of Light hotseat. Keane was at the club for just 15 months but brought us a rapid promotion back into the Premiership where we survived the crucial first season, the first of a ten-year stay in the world’s top league.

I have read the autobiographies penned by Peter Reid, Niall Quinn and Roy Keane. I could write at greater length about these great figures who influenced Sunderland in the modern era, but I will leave that for another opportunity. In 2009, Ellis Short took on the majority shareholding at the Stadium of Light.

I have previously elaborated in these pages about the terrible mistakes made at the club under Short’s leadership, the constant revolving door of both managers and players, how short-term, bullying American corporate thinking affected the way our beloved Sunderland AFC was run. He was essentially an absentee who paid the bills, as accurately observed by Stewart Donald in the excellent Netflix documentary “Sunderland ‘Til I Die”.

Becoming a US citizen in 2015 after residing in that country for a decade and having worked in the Biotech/Pharma industry in the USA, I know only too well from personal experience that the “hire and fire” culture is not a solution, but a symptom of poor and cowardly management. My personal view is that the influence of American corporate management styles has had a negative effect on working life in the UK. It certainly did for Sunderland AFC’s managers.

Sunderland Owner Ellis Short Visits Team Training Session Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Short fired perfectly decent, well respected managers such as Steve Bruce and Martin O’Neill. Even though the former cashed in on Jordan Henderson and Simon Mignolet, these were experienced men who could even have taken the club down a division and brought us back up the next season, following e.g. the current Burnley, Norwich or Watford model. I strangely even miss Gus Poyet who was definitely a passionate guy, capable of inspiring the team to some amazing performances.

I have mentioned the “hire and fire” in the current context of Watford. This notion is very common in top level football but does not build anything worthwhile in the longer term. A fan posted the following on the BBC website when the Saints went top of the league at one point this season: “Southampton are the perfect example of what happens when you give a manager time to implement their plans, ideas and tactics and don’t panic when you don’t see immediate results. Patience is a virtue.” This is in essence why Short failed as Sunderland’s owner; there was no long-term planning. Paolo Di Canio was a bizarre appointment in 2013 – need I say more.

We have a history of wanting to change the manager at this football club. We have had 18 come through the door, including caretakers, since Steve Bruce departed just nine years ago. The list is so extensive that the topic of our managers has its own Wikipedia page: - even without the caretakers we have had 12 managers in that time. There is no evidence of long-term planning at the club; this needs to change under the proposed new owners.

The issues involving the current ownership, i.e. the Stewart/ Methven era have been discussed in detail on Roker Report’s pages and in the associated podcasts. There is no doubting this fact: most fans feel let down; we are now a League One outfit and unless changes are made in the playing staff in the current transfer window, we will struggle to get promoted to the Championship this year.

New Sunderland Owner Stewart Donald Press Conference Photo by Sunderland AFC/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

To me the main strategic errors have been illustrated in the handling of strikers, as in the case of Josh Maja. Two years ago he left us for Bordeaux, after contributing 15 goals in half a season, to be replaced by… Will Grigg.

The first season in League One did have many distractions for the club’s leadership; a new manager, a new Board that was getting to grips with running the club and reforming finances, aiming for promotion while trimming expenditure which meant that some high earners were forced out. But to many fans there seemed to be one core agenda: cutting costs.

This has left us with a playing squad that appears impoverished. Despite having fans who believe that we should be easily winning this division, the team has been so deeply emaciated by the current owners that almost all players of value have left. There are some signs of hope: a new manager who delivered a 4-0 win at League One leaders Lincoln City, the team being undefeated away from home this season, and some decent signings last summer such as Bailey Wright.

My personal message to the new Board once the Kyril Louis-Dreyfus acquisition has taken place: make a long-term plan in collaboration with the club’s executive management, especially Kristjaan Speakman and Lee Johnson, and stick to it.

Manchester City, Wolves, Southampton, Sheffield United and Leeds United have all been at this level for a few seasons in the not-too-distant past; they formulated and executed solid plans which came to fruition. We have great fans who will stay loyal if the club is moving in the right direction.

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