Six Months On
ALS catch up with Charlie Methven for a progress report
Six months ago, we were a mess. A proper, weapons-grade mess. Then, as the final game of last season approached, things started to happen, and the months since have been a whirlwind, as things have changed across the club at breakneck speed.
With no chance of the dust settling, ALS met up with Charlie Methven, former NUJ shop steward, Oxford fanzine contributor, and now part-owner of our SAFC. He’s a football nut, who loves a pint and a curry and can talk non-stop about the beautiful game while consuming both. Here’s his take on six months progress, Catts, Maguire, Short, Sartori and sitting in the directors’ box at away games.
ALS: So, it’s about six months since we started on this project of resurrecting our club, how do you think it has gone?
CM: Look, pigs might have flown and everything might have gone perfectly, but in the prism of reality they’ve gone about as well as we could have hoped when we sat down six months ago and met ALS for the first time. There’s lots of detail in that that we’ll get to, but overall if you’d offered us where we are now, and if you’d offered most fans where we are now, I think we would all have taken off the proverbial right hand.
ALS: Looking back, while we haven’t won anything yet, there’s a lot of hard work gone in and battles won. Have there been certain days or moments when you’ve thought “this is a big day” such as meeting Jack Ross for the first time, or sacking Ndong?
CM: I don’t think so. It’s such a multi-faceted job with so many things happening at the same time that you have to take things as they come, so, a bit like Super Mario, you have to knock things off as they pop up on your screen and keep moving. The main thing is to keep moving. We’d have probably liked for a couple more of the higher earners to have moved on in August, as that would have put us in a strong position in the transfer market, but you know, it didn’t happen and you have to make the best of what you’ve got, and I think the manager’s done that.
ALS: Considering what we’ve achieved so far, could you pick a couple of moments on the pitch where you thought “this is going to be harder than we thought”? Burton away, for instance.
CM: Stewart and I know this part of the league pretty well, and we never though it was going to be easy, we never thought there were going to be any “gimme” games. There have been fewer moments when we’ve thought “Oh shit” and more moments when we’ve thought “you know what, this is better than we thought it would be”. I mean, when Goochy scored his diving header in the last minute against Charlton, that felt like a seminal moment, and I hope it eventually will go down in Sunderland’s history as a turning point, because it’ll have meant that something good has happened overall.
ALS: Yeah, if you were going to write the first chapter of a book, that’d be a pretty good ending.
CM: Burton was pretty horrible, but I can’t claim it was some massive shock to me because we’d had a few games when we’d started slowly and not got to grips with the game, and it was in a way confirmation that League 1 is going to be a real slog, a fight. Overall, on the pitch, as we’re averaging better than two points a game, the better moments have exceeded the worse moments so far, although I have to say when the team is a goal down and a man down, against our home town team Oxford, that was a moment.
ALS: Yeah how was that for you as an Oxford fan? A bit like going to your ex wife’s wedding?!
CM: That was weird, really weird. There were no split loyalties, but it really hit me when I was going to The Colliery Tavern and the Fanzone and hearing our (Oxfordshire) accents, in a geographic prism where I’d only heard Mackem accents before, that made me take a bit of a step backwards. Oh, we’re playing Oxford, aren’t we, and when the Sunderland fans said afterwards that Oxford fans had really turned up and were really loud and the Oxford team had really turned up, a bit of me thought: “Yeah, well, Oxford isn’t a tinpot club, it’s a proper club, what did you expect”, but when we were a goal and a man down, I very much wanted us to equalise and go on to win.
ALS: The way I see the team is in three sections. The youngsters who were already there, those who we thought might leave because of wages, and the new players. Who has stood out for you in those groups?
CM: The playing side isn’t my part of the club, so I speak as a punter, but it’s been quite evenly spread, hasn’t it? I think the younger Sunderland players, they’ve had their moments in the sun – Honeyman captain, that goal from Gooch, Bali getting his chance at sixteen, Denver proving to himself that he’s going to be a player. Maja, well, I don’t think anyone would have predicted that he’d score nine goals in twelve games, that’s not normal! What you can’t coach is that, with either right or left foot, he finds the bottom corner. You ask the coaches at the academy, and they’ll tell you that’s what he’s always done. It’s totally natural to him to be ice-cool under pressure and put it in the corner with either foot – you can’t teach that moment of cool, and that’s been a huge upside. I guess it’s now our challenge to get these players to commit to the club going forward.
ALS: Of the new players, Chris Maguire is getting the headlines. You set that deal up, didn’t you?
CM: Yeah, sort of. When we took over, Mags got in touch and said he wanted to come, and he took a pay cut to play for us when he could have just sat at Bury. I’m not saying he’s some sort of philanthropist, but that spirit of actually wanting to play for Sunderland and the fans is really important, as we’ll come onto later on.
ALS: Maguire has said that he’d fallen out of love with football before he arrived. Our fans have gone through that emotion too, over the past few seasons, so they empathise. His arrival and subsequent success has been like a rebound relation with a hot new partner, to get over a shit ex, for both player and fans!
CM: Yeah, a player who previously felt unloved, a fanbase who’d previously felt unloved, when he knew he was a good player and the fans knew they were the best fans. Both thought, you know what, with the right people on the other side of the equation, we can be the best, and both Chris and the fans are proving that they are really top drawer, together. McLaughlin was a very important signing for Jack because, like Cloughy, he believes that a top goalkeeper is absolutely critical to a team’s success, so a keeper who’s been there at this level, got the T-shirt, then gone to the Scottish Premier and excelled, was a big capture for us.
ALS: And those two lads were both free transfers, you must be pleased with that from a financial viewpoint?
CM: Of course. We paid a bit for Jack Baldwin, but we don’t regret that for a moment, and we have a commitment to pay for Max Power - despite his recent indiscretions, we won’t regret that either. McLaughlin, Maguire, Flanagan, Baldwin, there’s a thread there, as they’re all whole-hearted players. Playing-wise, what you see is what you get. They’re not enigmas - their hearts are on their sleeve and on the line. The fans want players that they know are definitely with us, as consistency is everything in this league, as there are no really poor sides. At Oxford, we’d regularly beat Premier League sides in the cups, not because we were better but because if they were even 5% off their game as a League 1 side we had enough to punish them.
ALS: Dylan McGeough seems to divide opinion…
CM: I am just another punter with a view like everyone else, but I think he’s a tremendous player. It took him a few games to settle in, and there was the injury, but he’s been one of our better players of late. He’s the type of player that fans don’t always see the upside in, but he’s always there to receive the ball, always in the right place to make the interception, always able to keep the ball under pressure. Every fan can understand a sliding tackle or a great finish, but when fans have watched a lot of football, they appreciate that some of the less heralded arts are valuable.
ALS: And the high earners? They’re taking up a large part of our wage bill, but their attitude seems to have been pretty good.
CM: It’s not Lee Cattermole’s fault what he gets paid but he has done absolutely everything he possibly can to make himself valuable to the club, both on and off the pitch. Every new player has said how welcoming he’s been, and how integral he is to things. He’s helped the team through some difficult away games and scored some goals. Personally, I think he’s a good guy.
ALS: These six months have been a whirlwind and a lot has been achieved. What do you hope for the next six months?
CM: So far, we’ve talked about what’s gone on on the pitch, but that’s not my area of responsibility. If I had to isolate what my role is, it’s to work with Tony Davison to build the revenue. What happens on the pitch has an effect on that, I can’t deny that, but that’s only part of it. You have to engage with your target markets, and there are quite a few target markets to engage with. We’re averaging 30,000 paying customers, no giveaways, and I’m really chuffed with that, it’s almost 2,000 more than any other club has achieved in this division, and do I hope that we’ll go on and beat that Man City average attendance figure of 28,261 that’s burned on my skull? Yes! I hope we’re going to smash it. I’d love it to be 32,000. I’ll put that marker down!
But there are so many different reasons why Sunderland supporters might not be coming to games, and it’s my job to deal with all of those issues off the pitch that contribute to that. I know it sounds facile because what happens on the pitch is absolutely crucially important, but I can’t affect that. All I can change is what happens off it – is the fanbase engaged, are they being listened to, is the matchday experience as good as it can be, do they feel part of the club? That’s my job, and you can’t fake it for long. If the fans don’t feel part of the club, even if you’re doing well you won’t make as much money as you should, and if you’re not doing so well things will drop off very quickly. The actual attendances this season are miles higher than last season, but previous regimes were including freebies in the attendance figures, which skewed things. I want us to build a regular paying attendance of more than 40,000 in the next couple of years and then press on from there.
ALS: Do you feel that the strength in depth of the squad and fitness has shown in recent games? The opposition have looked tired late on at Bradford, Shrewsbury and Doncaster, but we have finished games strongly.
CM: I’m not sure - I think opposing teams are so pumped up against us that they put a huge amount of energy into the first twenty minutes, whereas in a normal league game they’d conserve themselves and see it as a ninety-minute game. With Sunderland there’s the atmosphere, the intensity, the point-proving, so they fly out of the gates and expend a lot very early on. Jack’s done a great job of recognising that in the first half hour we have to match them.
ALS: In terms of away games, have you drawn the short straw? Stewart has been in with the fans, while you are in the directors’ box. How did it feel when Maguire smashed that one in at Doncaster, were you jealous that Stew was able to enjoy it from behind the goal?
CM: Just watching it really kick-off in the away end made you think that’s where you want to be, there’s not a single part of you that wants to be in the directors’ box. In the away end is the atmosphere, you’re living and breathing it. In the directors’ box you’re having to keep a lid on it, and at times I’ve found it really difficult. You live and breathe the club and our common goals every day, so when you do score you have a huge explosion of emotion. But the Doncaster game felt like the fans and the players really bonded. The bond between players and fans felt like it was there, we’re all in this together, the players were playing their hearts out, the fans were singing their hearts out, and that bond can serve you well in difficult times.
ALS: While we’ve not won anything yet, we’ve achieved a lot in terms of becoming a functional League One side in such a short time, considering how shit and ununified we were last season. Did you think it would happen so quickly?
CM: No. Stewart said to me before the Charlton game that he’d never felt so nervous before a game of football, because we didn’t know what we had. A new team, in a new league for them, you know, and there’s a relief in knowing that we’re really competitive now. In terms of the fans engagement with the players, we also didn’t know. I think that’s happened better and quicker that we thought it would.
ALS: When Mike Ashley took over up the road, there was an initial period of him being well in with the fans and him sitting with the fans etc, like you guys have. But with Ashley it was contrived, and there was a worry that it might happen here, but you guys are genuine football fans, and it feels more natural. Not that I want to make comparisons between you and Stewart and an exploitative, unethical and evil man!
CM: I honestly don’t know what Ashley’s supporting history is. Stewart, me, and Juan have watched hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of games. I watched over 300 games from the London Road Terrace at Oxford, Stewart even more (‘cos he’s older) and Juan the same in Montevideo, Uruaguy. That doesn’t necessarily make us ‘better’ than people who didn’t have that passion growing up, but what you see is what you get. There’s no contrivance about it, and I hope people see it (Stewart and Juan watching with the fans) for what it is. It’s just what they’d do anyway on a Saturday, given half a chance. The single biggest thing about football is being in that mass of people, about being in it together. I’ll definitely go in the away end at some point this season, perhaps I’ll do it at Oxford cos I’m not sure I want to take all the stick I’d get in the boardroom there!
ALS: So now you have your own football club, the greatest club in the land as it happens, there’s also an opportunity for the club to revolutionise and make things better for supporters. Treat them better. We’ve discussed this before privately, but what are your plans to follow the German model and support campaigns for safe standing and allowing fans to have a beer on the terraces whilst watching their team, just as cricket and rugby fans can.
CM: When it comes to stuff like standing and drinking at games, people say there’s two ways to do it, you’re either old-school, or you’re modern. Modern being all the things about football I don’t like, and old-school being tarred with the brush of “not getting it” etcetera. There are things that have come to Sunderland since the Stadium of Light opened, like multi-generational attendance with grandparents down to grandchildren, the highest proportion of female season ticket holders in the country, this is wonderful, and we shouldn’t forget that it’s part of a more civilised modern football. But some of the stuff that’s been lost along the way, we want to show that you can be a proper, old-school football club while retaining all the benefits of modern football. So I’m pushing hard behind the scenes within the EFL on both those issues – ultimately it would be my dream that SAFC proves that you can keep the best of the old days alongside the new…
ALS: So, how do you see Juan’s role at the club developing. He’s a global figure, successful businessman, looking to stand for election in Uruguay, so how does he fit SAFC in?
CM. He’s totally fallen in love with the club, and Uruguay is like Sunderland in that football is the be-all and end-all. It’s the same population size as Scotland, but for 100 years they’ve been in the top few teams in the world, won the World Cup twice, so the passion and effort required to achieve that it tremendous. Juan’s match-days are hilarious, with him flying in either Friday night or Saturday morning. Then he has us up the academy playing 5-a-side. Then he’ll be in the pub and playing games in the Fanzone. He’s a pain to get into the boardroom, because he wants to be among the fans watching the game, and when he heard the singing at one of his early games he asked what was being sung. I said that I didn’t know as I wasn’t a Mackem, so he went in to find out. He walked over, stood there, and listened. He wants to feel the passion that he feels. He’s at all home games and keeps in constant contact for away games. He loves talking with Jack even though he doesn’t understand a word he says. Juan has very good English, but Glaswegian is a step too far for his comprehension skills so far. He loves the passion with which the team play, and Uruguayans play with 100% commitment, and that’s what he sees with our team.
ALS: From a business point of view, how do you feel it’s going?
CM: I think that what the fans see on the pitch is obviously very important, you can’t pretend that doing a whole load of stuff which is good on the business side is meaningful if what happens on the pitch is substandard. However, in the end for a club to fulfil its potential… that will, in the end, be the result of a thousand different decisions being got right off the pitch. You can stem the tide for a while in a short termist sort of way of the club being run poorly on the business side and just about King Canute style stopping the tide coming in on the playing side but in the end it all catches up with you. That’s what happened with Sunderland. You know the club had been run really poorly for a long time. There’s a natural instinct to blame Martin Bain, or whatever, for what eventually happened under his watch, two relegations, but in actual fact Martin was landed in a very difficult situation where he was already struggling under the burden and the weight of a thousand bad decisions that had already taken place and our job is to clear up a lot of that rubbish and to then start making on a very consistent basis hard, firm, good clear decisions that fit within a strategic framework.
I know that it’s not the most exciting thing for the majority of fans, who just want to see what’s up on the pitch and that’s all they care about, but I would gently request that fans also look to the right and the left and see what’s happening off the pitch. You know, ask the question: are these people running the club well? The reality is that when we took over six months ago, the cost base was around £50m a year and the projected revenues were around £15m a year so the club was, on an operational basis, losing £35m a year and that’s a recipe for absolute disaster you know. You might find someone who can stick in enough money in the short term to tide that over but it’s pouring money into a black hole and more than that a club that is that badly run carries bad karma with it.
ALS: Yeah people don’t want to go there.
CM: Instinctively all sorts of people know this isn’t right, this is wrong. Why were revenues that low, revenues were that low because fans hadn’t been engaged with, because the business community had been neglected, because bad decisions had been made on the retail side, and so on and so on. And the cost-base had got totally out of control. So, re-engaging the club with the community as a whole carries with it a business necessity, but also a karmic necessity because you cannot run a club that doesn’t care about the people who are the other members of that club. I feel like every day and every week we’re starting to re-engage with the people who are the members of the club and that carries with it a business upside and a natural positive moment to it, as people re-engage.
So what does that mean? In financial terms it means that we have already reduced the ongoing cost base from £50m to around £28m a year. Easy to say, but that’s a hell of a reduction and we’ve increased the revenues from £15m to a projected £18.5m a year. So the £28m a year we’re still reducing and we’re hoping that by next summer that will be down to around £23m a year and the revenues we’re still increasing and we’re hoping that will be up to around £19m a year, so on that basis you have a club that’s losing £4m a year. And then we keep on improving the situation from there until we undo all the business damage that has been done to the club since Bob Murray left.
That revenue line doesn’t include cup runs and doesn’t include player sales. We’re running a Category One Academy, which ultimately is going to produce players who ultimately are saleable and I’m afraid until and unless we’re top four in the country, some of them will be sold at some point, that’s a reality, it’s the truth of the situation. So it’s entirely plausible on the trajectory that we’re on that the club actually can become break even. Then when the owners decide to put money in, the money is not going into a black hole, the money is actually being invested and I use the word very specifically. It’s being invested on the basis of if we were to put this £5m in could it be the thing that then takes us to the next level as opposed to well we’ve got to put £5m in otherwise we’re going to go bust. That’s not a happy place to be in for anyone.
ALS: In terms of how you became involved in the club six months ago. You already had a business relationship with Ellis Short. Did he approach you trying to sell the club?
CM: I knew he was trying to sell the club and I knew that I had two guys (Stewart and Juan) who would be perfect for Sunderland. I sat down with Ellis for breakfast and asked him where he had got to with the selling of the club. Ellis was really clear, I remember it so well. He said “I’ve really screwed up, the one thing I can do now is make sure I sell it to people who understand how to run a football club and who are good honest straight people.” He said the other bidders for the club either weren’t good people on the one hand, or else they are good people who don’t really know how to run a football club on the other hand. So, when I came up with Stewart and Juan, being people who are both good guys, but who also had experience of being involved with running football clubs I think Ellis thought ‘yeah, that’s the right outcome’ and he cut us a decent deal. We didn’t rip him off or anything and he didn’t give it away, but I think it was a fair deal.
ALS: So, Juan was involved from the start?
ALS: But he was unveiled later because of the EFL approval?
CM: Well what happened was we were advised was that there was a time crunch, because of the transfer window and we were advised that putting Stewart and Juan up for EFL approval at the same time would delay things and disadvantage the club in the transfer market. Juan’s business empire is a lot more complex than Stewart’s. Stewart being English, all his companies are English, he’s English tax registered. By the standards of modern football, he’s the simplest straightforward new football club owner you’re going to get. You know he just checks out. Easy for the EFL to just say OK, this guy’s wealthy, this guy’s already run a football club well, we can check easily on him. With Juan - obviously with his business interests all around the world, with his wife’s involvement with Monaco etc, it was going to take an extra two or three weeks. So, we were advised by people who are experts on these things that Stewart should take it over, get approved and then Juan should come in once you’ve already got control of it.
ALS: How long till we pay the final instalment owing to Ellis?
CM: I believe that next June or July is when Ellis gets the final instalment. He’s still a client of mine in other walks of life and he’s watched all the Sunderland games this year on the stream in America. I was with him a few weeks ago, in his castle in Scotland, when we played Bradford and he was, like, “So, where are we going to listen to the game?” So, he’s following it keen as mustard. He’s got two season tickets. He’s going to be here later in the season. He’s gunning for us. He’s right behind what we’re trying to do.
ALS: So, do you think he regrets the way it worked out for him, but he is still a Sunderland fan?
CM: Yeah. 100% and not just him, but his son. They’re Sunderland fans and the one thing he says with a bit of regret is that, “I wish I’d managed to get you guys to run the club for me before things got so bad that I had to sell it to you!” When he said that, I told him to reserve judgement until we’ve actually achieved something.
ALS: I think he was badly advised and surrounded himself with the wrong people.
CM: I don’t think Ellis would disagree with that, he didn’t know what he was doing. You know football is a business but it’s not a business like other businesses. It’s its own world. It still has the same business principles as other businesses, but some very good businessmen can come a cropper in football, as he did. You have to understand the particularities of the football world as well and he didn’t. I don’t think he would claim that he did. He didn’t and he’s suffered for it. The one thing he did on the way out was try and make sure as much as possible that Sunderland would be able to flourish going forward.
ALS: So what sort of club do you think we can be and how far can you take us?
CM: I think we can be unique within English football. I’m a dreamer, whereas Stewart is a real roll-your-sleeves-up, proper belt and braces businessman. I think the base that we’ve got at Sunderland and the peculiarities of Sunderland, as a football club and as an institution, have told us that really anything is achievable with the club and our ambition is that ultimately we would like to become among the top four highest attended clubs in the country on a very cheap ticket price and with an atmosphere that’s recognised as being second to none. We can be a club that gains a reputation for being the ultimate in what a real football club should be. I don’t think there’s any club in the country that is more suited to being ‘that club’ than Sunderland and our ability to achieve that is going to be the result of making hundreds and hundreds of good decisions. We will get some wrong, there’s no doubt about that, but if we get a lot more of them right than we get wrong, then the ultimate dream is to have 60,000 people a week at the Stadium of Light, with the biggest atmosphere in the country, with a community feel to it that attracts the most ethical people in football who decide: ‘that’s where I want to play, that’s what I want to manage, that’s where I want to be’.
I think you’re starting to see just the very start of that with the types of player who have come here already and their reaction and how they buy in to the club. I won’t claim that is anything special we have done, I think that is their reaction to the reality. People who come to Sunderland to play football, coach and manage can earn good money, but if they’re the kind of people who want a mix of earning good money and having a sense that their life is a bit more meaningful than just earning money, it also means bringing a community together, it also means being part of something passionate and meaningful in a broader sense. I strongly believe that in football – as in all walks of life - those people do exist. If you meet Jack Ross, you’ll know they exist. If you meet Max Power and Chris Maguire and these types of people, you’ll know it’s about more than just money. These are all people who, in many cases, are actually paid a bit less than they might be elsewhere because they want to be part of something bigger, they want to feel like their life’s got a bit more meaning than just running out on the pitch once a week. Being involved with Sunderland gives real meaning to people. I feel that personally myself.
ALS: In terms of recruitment, how do you actually check out the character of new players?
CM: Well you have to speak to them, don’t you? And I think Sunderland recruited a lot of players who they hadn’t actually spoken to in the past. I think you have to speak to them, I think you have to speak to other people who have worked with them and I think you have to be really tough and hard and willing to say to certain talented people ‘I don’t think you’re going to fit here. I don’t think this is your environment.’ Tony Coton absolutely did that to several potential signings in the summer. What you want are people who come here and who play at 5-10% above their ability because of their buy in, as opposed to people who come and play at 5-10% below their ability because they’re not fully bought in. The Sunderland crowd is very intense and very passionate and if you don’t get that, you don’t understand it, then all you feel from that is probably the negative side. If, however you do get it, and you do understand it and you come from a cultural background where that chimes with your own upbringing and your own personal experience then it can and should be uplifting. Jack, slightly unusually for a football person, is a football fan, so you can find him in the seats at Hampden Park watching Scotland as a punter. He’s the kind of person who has national pride, emotion, community. So, for his personality type Sunderland is a perfect fit. If on the other hand you’re someone who sees football as being your trade, just to make as much cash as possible, which by the way is not a totally unreasonable point of view, Sunderland’s not the right place for that anymore.
Likewise on the business side of the club you need people who are going to feel good about working 12-hour days, because they feel a bit of themselves is being realised by bringing the community together. I’m not saying it’s entirely altruistic, it’s just that some people have that gene in them, that regards being part of a community as being important and if you come into Sunderland football club you’ve now got to have that gene. You’ve got to think that it’s bigger than just being a money-making exercise.
With Sunderland AFC, you need to be part of a cult, you need to dive in head first in to the cult and know what it means to the city and the region and feel privileged by it or else you don’t, you keep yourself removed. You go in live either in London, or an hour or two away, whatever it might be and you try and keep yourself separate from it and if it’s the latter I don’t think you will ever give your best for Sunderland.
ALS: has there been a lot of encouragement for the new players to live near the city and get involved in the community?
CM: Let me put it the other way around: when it comes to recruitment, you’re looking at recruiting characters who are that type of person. So, it’s not a case of us making players who aren’t that way be that way, it’s a question of recruiting people who are that way naturally. And that goes for the football side and the non-football side. You need examples at the top of the club. Jack Ross turned down Ipswich Town to come here. Tony Davidson left Tottenham Hotspur and took a pay cut to come here. Now it’s not because they’re saints. I just think that it’s because both them felt, I want to be part of something bigger. I want to be part of a community. Sunderland can really offer people that. That moment of, as Stewart and I have found, that moment of absolute existential unity, of common purpose where you say, right, the whole city is on this and we’re with it and we’re all in it together. You don’t get that elsewhere.
This is Sunderland. It’s unique and special and the club and community needs people at SAFC who appreciate that.