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Derby County - Pride Park Stadium

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‘There but for the grace of God go we...’

As financial issues take a grip of several clubs in English football, it leads us to reflect on our own situation - and how things could have been different.

Photo by Joe Giddens/PA Images via Getty Images

As fans of Sunderland AFC, we understand and feel empathy with the worries and anxieties of fans of clubs who are suffering financial distress. Recent events at Derby County - and the impending financial meltdown of that excellent football club - really does feel like a “there but for the grace of God” moment for us.

As we approach the anniversary of the Kyril Louis-Dreyfus takeover of Sunderland then, the stresses felt in the latter years of the Ellis Short regime and for the majority of the Madrox period feels like ancient history.

It is early days in this bright new era – and yes, we have been fooled before by owners building a club on a fantasy. To an extent, Drumaville did it with wild overspending before the pre-2008 crash – despite our happy memories of that consortium, they and the club were saved by Ellis Short.

Then Short – not learning any lessons, or showing a hint of business acumen – spent well beyond the club’s means for years before turning the taps off and letting the whole thing whither.

Death for the club could have come at that point before Madrox arrived with one plan – promotion in 12 months and then sell, and sell quick.

Charlton’s last-minute winner in the 2019 Play Off Final and the failure to secure promotion saw the talks with Mark Campbell come to an inevitable end - another ‘there but for the grace of god’ moment in our history.

The Charlton Athletic team
Charlton’s last minute winner seemed to throw our previous owner’s plan out of the window

It was, of course, much more complicated than a last-minute goal that meant that the plan failed. However, depending on your view – through necessity or in sheer desperation – Stewart Donald sought financial assistance from outside.

He couldn’t fund the club long-term from his own resources, and no rational mainstream investor would – so the club turned to MSD, which brings us back to Derby County.

Little was known of MSD at the time but there was much hope as they “invested” in our club, primarily due to their links with Michael Dell.

The details which then trickled out, not helped by the typically contradictory spin from each side of the Madrox gang, and it inevitably added a degree of murk to the deal that was made murkier with every public utterance.

Now as we witness the situation in which Derby and inevitably several others will soon find themselves in, the whole thing is becoming clearer.

MSD are businessmen - they are in it to make money. However, and there is always a however, they are investing in failing businesses.

Indeed, you could argue that these clubs aren’t really businesses at all. They will never achieve a return for the investor and are steeped in the fabric of the community in which they are located.

Sunderland v Wycombe Wanderers - Sky Bet League One
The Financial Times reported MSD were approached by Sunderland to purchase the club, and although the deal fell through MSD did loan money to the club
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

It isn’t the fault of MSD (and others) that they can do what they do.

But what do they do?

It seems that they provide finance (which some of the clubs are unlikely ever to be able to repay) in return for security over land and buildings – usually the football stadium.

Sunderland, Southampton and Derby have similarly aged football stadiums, and not a dissimilar design, and you would expect real estate value – all have or have had loans provided by MSD with security on that land and buildings.

I guess that’s what you would call a business model.

Fans of Coventry have seen what happens to a football club that no longer owns their stadium. Derby could see it all pan out now – decades of memories, hopes and dreams yanked away in a property deal.

All gone in the blink of an eye.

That could so easily have been us. It should never be allowed to happen to another football club.

The media will tell us that the sports shop owner up the road is the worst of the lot.

Oxford United v Newcastle United - FA Cup Fourth Round: Replay
The sports shop owner from up the road gets a bad rap, but in reality there are far, far worse owners out there – as we’ve found out to our cost.
Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images

Well, every man and his dog knows that he isn’t a generous benefactor, nor is his model of ownership a blueprint for success. But why should any owner be a benefactor?

Ellis Short pumped huge amounts of his accumulated wealth into a football club. When he reached his limit, he pulled out, with the inevitable consequence that led to what could have been a bad debt due to MSD. That could have led to the end of the Stadium of Light and Sunderland AFC.

Sometimes you need to show some humility and be afraid of what you wish for.

It is a relief that our current owner has stated that the plan is to move towards sustainability, and it’s seemingly taking shape.

There was no evidence of overspending in the summer - it felt like there was a structured plan that was adhered to. Progress with the squad and at the academy is visible to our eyes. We can hope that as finances settle, the Stadium will be freshened up as well.

Of course, there will be tests and testing times ahead of us.

We are still in League One after all, nothing has yet been achieved. How those testing times are met will be when we really find out about the new regime, not now when we are winning, but when things aren’t going right as is inevitable in this game.

We can’t go back though, we need to remember where we were 12 months ago – we should never risk having to suffer what the staff and fans of Derby County (and others) are about to suffer.

All football fans would do well to take note of that.

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