Much has been said about Ellis Short’s time as owner as Sunderland AFC over the years, and whilst the club would eventually suffer back-to-back relegations under his stewardship, the American hedge-fund operator was initially enthused by the prospect of owning a football club that was viewed by many as a sleeping giant.
He was famously quiet in the public sphere though, and on this day eleven years ago he made his first appearance in front of the press, speaking to Nick Barnes from BBC Newcastle about the club’s new sponsorship deal with Invest In Africa, as well as our plans for the summer under the management of Martin O’Neill.
First on the table was talk of the new shirt sponsorship deal with Invest In Africa, with Ellis providing us with more background on the charity, and what it meant for the club moving forward:
Well I hope it sends out a positive message.
Tullow Oil, the initial founding partner of Invest In Africa, is a blue-chip, very serious, successful, well-run and prominent company, and they will bring in other companies like themselves into this initiative. So the kind of international companies that will be within global reach and that we can be associated with, I think reflect the fact that now we’re an established Premier League team who is steadily improving.
At the time it felt as though Invest In Africa could not only be a good deal for us as far as bringing some international recognition, but also to set us up for further deals of its sort by bringing us together with other companies through the initiative, who might in turn want to sponsor Sunderland.
Ellis went on to further discuss the deal with Invest In Africa, what they actually stood to get out of the deal as well as what it means for us to have an international sponsor after years of local companies:
Yes, and we have had some fantastic sponsors.
Tombola was wonderful for us - local company, done very well, loved the club and they were very good for us, but as you said, we’re an established Premier League team, getting a little bit more coverage with a manager like Martin O’Neill, we expect to really improve, and with that will come even more coverage.
So to now be sponsored by an initiative which his backed by some big, serious, international companies, is a good reflection on us, and does indicate that we’ve taken a step up.
After other teams had chosen to try and crack the markets in the Far East and the Americas, the question was put to Short about why go into Africa, and how come nobody else had really done so:
Well, commercially this is a good deal for us, but more importantly, it expands our presence and expands our fan base potentially.
In the modern world of football, we are going to be living with Financial Fair Play, so our spending will be limited by what we bring in. The Premier League is a global business watched by millions and billions worldwide, The reason that the TV revenues are so high, and continue to grow so high is a reflection of how many people watch it - so to thrive going forward, we need to be able to grow revenue, and to grow it locally doesn’t make any sense.
This is where our fans are, and this is by far the most important area for us, but even the UK with 60 million people isn’t enough when you’re looking at TV revenue generated by billions. Africa is a very fast growing continent, with 300 million people watching Premier League matches. If we can become a very popular team on that continent, it’s better than being the 100th most popular team in the richest economy in the world.
Back to happenings on the pitch, however, and Ellis spoke honestly about the club's position in the league:
It’s a lot of pressure. The first step is getting into the Premier League, we’re there. The next step is staying in the Premier League, the next step is being considered an established Premier League team.
There is a lot of pressure not just to stay in the Premier League, but to improve.
We’re not happy with finishing 13th, we’re not happy at all, but we realise that you need steady progress and continual progress - you don’t want to finish 7th twice in a row and get relegated the next season, which has happened in the past.
We do feel right now with Martin, and with the progress we’ve made we are well positioned. We want to be well within the top ten. We certainly can’t promise that, but we’re not happy with where we are and we do want to improve, and yes, there’s huge pressure to do so - from the fans and their expectations, but also from the sheer size of the economics of the Premier League.
Ellis also seemed happy to discuss this summer’s transfer policy and budget - a far cry from the system we have in place now at Sunderland, where the manager had full say in who we sign... something you can look back on with interest now given what we know about what followed the following year, with the club handing control of transfers to Roberto De Fanti:
Well Martin and I speak frequently, so this wasn’t a surprise to him. He and I have been talking all summer long about what we’re going to do. I think the fans [and everyone else] have a pretty clear idea of what we need to do.
So now, Martin is looking at specific players that we might want, and then there’ll be a lot of work in trying to get them players here, but we don’t want to sign players just for the sake of signing them, or because it feels like they’re inexpensive for some reason.
We want to identify players who are good, and will definitely improve us, and we’ll try to bring them in.
Over the following years these public interviews with Short were few and far between, something which increasingly became more of an issue because of the direction the club was headed. Despite all of his best intentions, Short ultimately didn’t have enough control over the running of Sunderland AFC and to this day we’re still suffering the consequences, playing in the Championship albeit with a tonne of forward momentum.
It’s interesting transporting back eleven years knowing what we know now - I often wonder if Short ever regrets buying the club, and I also wonder what actually went wrong.
Dark days indeed.