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Opinion: ‘After 5 long and often bitter years, Stewart Donald’s Sunderland association is over’

Donald's remaining 9% shareholding has been purchased by Juan Sartori and Kyril Louis-Dreyfus, and no tears will be shed at the news, writes David Holloway

Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

I never thought that I’d have to write about Stewart Donald and Madrox again, but since his time on Wearside has finally come to an end, it’s worth reflecting one last time on his involvement with Sunderland AFC.

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It’s a statement of the bleeding obvious to say that when the news broke that the final 9% of Donald’s shareholding had been acquired by Kyril Louis-Dreyfus and Juan Sartori, it was universally welcomed on Wearside.

His time as the majority owner was as bad as it could be for Sunderland fans and there are no tears being shed over his departure. Three attempts to get out of League One and three failures. It was a grim time.

Donald oversaw a period in our history when every aspect of the club was downgraded. Staffing was cut to the bone and our academy was shot to pieces, with its best young talent jumping ship far too regularly and for comparative peanuts.

A succession of second-rate managers and coaches came and went, and when you throw in the likes of Will Grigg, Danny Graham, Callum McFadzean and the recruitment of journeymen lower league footballers, it seemed set to put Sunderland on a path of forever failure.

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However, to understand why this all happened, we need to think about the pre-Madrox era, because the final two years of Ellis Short’s ownership set the scene for what was to come next.

Short was a generous owner but it was a fool’s gold. When he turned the taps off, the club still had unaffordable commitments on contracts, which he had sanctioned. That lack of care and planning had us headed only one way: down through the trapdoor and into League One.

Social media has been full of disparaging comments about Donald- that he set us back years and used the club’s own money to acquire it. It’s hard to argue against any of that, nor can anyone argue that his time here wasn’t a complete failure, because it clearly was.

However, was it not inevitable from the start?

In 2018, what option did any new owner have but to cut the excesses of the previous regime; not only to trim the fat, but to pare the club to the bone? This was necessary just to survive.

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Think back to the way the club operated under Byrne, Hutchinson and then Bain, with an absent owner simply signing the cheques. We were going down for years before Madrox and it was that period which ultimately left us in League One.

However, this isn’t to let Donald and Madrox off the hook.

The questions around the deal to acquire the club remain, but if there’s any blame for that, it lies equally at the door of Short.

He signed off on the deal as he couldn’t wait to leave, and he had no clue how to fix the mess which he and his merry band had created. He simply handed over the club and the final parachute payment to a group who, as it turned out, had no clue either.

Although such deals are clearly wrong, they’re not unusual.

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Clearly Donald, Charlie Methven and Juan Sartori didn’t have the finance to turn the club around in 2018 but they also did some decent work that summer.

They cleared out many of the failures of the previous season and they dealt with the fallout of cases which had been hanging around for a few years before that, whilst simultaneously building a squad that should’ve been good enough to get promoted.

One of the accusations levelled at Madrox is that they came close to taking the club into administration.

That may be true, and the near disaster of the MSD deal is evidence enough, but the position that was inherited was never really cleared. This was as much, if not more, the cause than their comedy of erroneous decisions ever was.

Surely the summer of 2018 was the bottom. It was the closest we came to suffering the shame of administration and the position we were in at that stage was due entirely to the previous owner.

The one success they did have was to bring the fans back on board with the club, if not on board with them.

Somehow, the fans found the will and the energy to stand up and be counted throughout those dark days. Methven’s methods and behaviour certainly can’t be praised or appreciated, but his impact – for better or worse - was to summon up some passion in the club again.

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We must remember that this was after a period when we collectively sat on our hands and watched the club die in front of our eyes.

The entire 2018/2019 season was played out on Netflix, which did them no favours.

‘Sunderland ‘Til I Die’ cast Donald as a David Brent-style character and Methven as an evil bully. It may have been a consequence of a cruel edit or it may have reflected reality, but it’s likely that there’s a bit of truth in both.

As time drifted on, the quality of the playing staff, if that were possible, diminished further.

The club became ever more desperate and it was obvious that there was no plan, and that the owners had neither the knowledge, the funds or the will to continue. The enthusiasm and presence of 2018/2019 was no longer and they’d lost the trust of the fans.

Then, they found a young man who had the drive, the influence and funds to facilitate their exit and here we are. It’s May 2023 and we’re looking forward with Kyril Louis-Dreyfus owning two thirds of the club with the ‘ox’ from Madrox out of our club forever.

However, the ‘Madr’ still remains in the shape of the enigma that is Juan Sartori.

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We still don’t really know what his motivation is and what he brings to the party, but he remains a significant shareholder and as his percentage has increased from 2018, we can only assume he’s staying for the long term.

It’s clear that Donald’s time charge of the club was a failure. It’s also clear that he’s had little, if any input into our recent recovery and is now just a footnote in our history.

Was he a chancer? A charlatan? These are labels which have been thrown his way, but perhaps it’s a touch unfair, given who and what went before.

That was when the real crimes were committed against our club; that’s when we nearly lost it forever and it shouldn’t be forgotten amid the current noise.

Donald was an unsuitable owner who was out of his depth on a financial and business level and should never have got himself into the position that he did, but it’s a bit more complicated to lay all of the blame for his time here at his door, because there are plenty of others who were just as culpable.


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