On arrival at our great football club, our new majority shareholder and chairman Stewart Donald was asked if there were any other clubs that had been in League One that we would be looking to emulate. Leicester, Southampton, Norwich and Wolves were cited as examples of clubs that have not only gained promotion but have kicked on successfully since. "I think the team that we would like to be like, is Borussia Dortmund,” came the reply.
Now I'm not going to jump on that comment just to highlight the gulf in class between both clubs, nothing wrong with reaching for the stars after all, and in fact it did give me a degree of confidence at the time that there was some kind of 'model' that they envisaged for Sunderland.
Both Donald and his co-owner and Director Charlie Methven elaborated "Dortmund do not look to compete with Bayern Munich financially but they do compete with them on the pitch. They have a very clear idea of who they are.”
They also touched upon the success Southampton enjoyed after focussing on and investing in their Academy, whist highlighting that they did not have the same potential as SAFC. Now I don't know for certain what Methven meant by that, but I can only assume that amongst the talk of finance and fanbase, he also meant a clear identity on the football side of the club. A management structure, a recruitment model, a playing style perhaps? Seventeen months into their tenure as custodians of our football club, and I don't have the first clue as to who we are.
The last few weeks have brought upheaval and speculation to our door once again and it's fair to say that Donald and Methven's honeymoon period seems over.
I'm not going to castigate the owners for parting company with Jack Ross, I think most fans were willing to accept his time was up, and I'm not going to begin to speculate what the latest situation is with the proposed investment/takeover. I'm also not going to use this piece to overly criticise the appointment of Phil Parkinson, despite having doubts that he is the right man for the job. Unlike others, I'll also not pretend to know the full details of the financial state of SAFC.
What is undeniable is the club was in a horrific state (CM: "Insolvent, gone, bust, kept alive by Short") before we were taken over last year and regardless of the specifics on the actual purchase (all the talk of Short clearing debts, SBC loans, parachute payments, legacy costs and agreed instalments appears to confuse fans and media alike) the owners state that we are now "debt-free, in cracking shape and investable. We have gone from losing £25m per year and being £190m in debt, to breaking even in 17 months. We have gone from being in the worst financial state in the Football League, to the best financial state in the Football League." Then surely, we should all be eternally grateful to Stewart Donald for saving our club?
It should also be pointed out the other areas that have been well-received since the days of Ellis Short, like the open communication and the many fan initiatives that have taken place in such a short period of time. But like all things football-related, what fans are really concerned about is what happens on the pitch. And this is where I have serious reservations that Stewart Donald is the right man to lead Sunderland AFC, regardless of his shareholding percentage.
Let's go back and look at those clubs who used League One as a springboard for their current success, and specifically some of those players that helped them gain promotion to The Championship.
WOLVES in 2014: Hennessey, Stearman, Edwards, Ricketts, Griffiths, O'Hara, Doyle, Clarke.
SOUTHAMPTON in 2011: Schneiderlin, Fonte, Lambert, Puncheon, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Lallana, Jaidi.
NORWICH CITY in 2010: Forster, Martin, Holt, Elliott, Doherty, Hoolahan, Whitbread, Russell.
LEICESTER CITY in 2009: Stockdale, Clemence, Powell, Cleverley, Howard, Dyer, Fryatt, Campbell, N'Gotty, Dickov.
Exciting young talent plucked from other clubs due to an extensive scouting network. Promising Academy graduates. Experienced, battle-hardened players who know what it takes to achieve at that level. That mix of youth and experience that most promoted sides contain. Some are more household names than others, especially within that Southampton squad, but most have gone on to forge a good career and play Premier League football at some stage.
It's well-known that Jack Ross walked into the Academy of Light last summer to a threadbare squad to say the least. The task to bring together a group of players to gain promotion at the first attempt was daunting, yet it should have been possible with the biggest budget in the League.
What was the plan? A short-term fix to gain promotion then begin again. A focus on youth development and a playing style from top to bottom? To assemble a squad of experienced players who have been there and done it and are leaders on the pitch? Or grab whatever's out there and hope for the best?
It is said of Ellis Short that his stewardship was blighted by recruiting and placing his trust in the wrong people. Managers, directors and players brought in and dispatched with alarming regularity throughout his tenure. So, what is different now? Who have our owners entrusted in shaping the football side of the business?
A look behind the scenes shows a group of individuals who Donald has worked with before in Non-League football or from within his insurance businesses. I’ve no idea if they are Yes Men, but are they the right men for the job?
Richard Hill: The first I heard of Hill was when Stewart Donald reacted to a media report suggesting that he would arrive at Sunderland as Director of Football (one of the many media stories that our owner has quickly rebuffed). Hill, Donald stated, would be arriving merely as a consultant. When I checked this morning, his official title is Head of Football Operations.
Hill managed Donald's Eastleigh between 2012-15. He returned as DoF in April 2017 and was then reinstated as manager in the summer. By Christmas, he had been replaced as manager again and then reinstalled back into the DoF role.
Tony Coton: Since his playing days, including a spell on Wearside, "extremely well-connected" Coton's career has included a spell as an agent as well as scouting roles for Villa, Bolton and Wigan. Last I read was he had a team of freelancers who he tapped into for scouting reports and he attended a 'Transfer speed-dating' event at Stamford Bridge.
Paul Reid: Eastleigh's former Head of Recruitment is now overseeing our Category One Academy. He admitted in an interview with the Sunderland Echo that scouting at his level is not cost effective, so he is relying on "our contacts."
So, who ultimately decided to sign Will Grigg? Who brought Chris Maguire to Sunderland? For all our owners insist that the First Team Coach plus the rest of the football management team make the decisions on transfer targets, the details behind the purchase of Grigg continue to be questioned and I would love to hear from Jack Ross on how much say he had in any of the transfer activity during his spell at the club.
Once the dust settled this summer following out heart-breaking Play-Off Final defeat, it could be easy to forgive the poor recruitment decisions that took place last year. Even if you didn't agree with individual incomings or outgoings you could see the alternative side to the story - whether it be Maja, Grigg, Leadbitter.
The main thing was, we addressed the shortcomings in the squad, had a strong Pre-Season and kicked on to win the League this campaign.
Where to start? Pre-Season. A game against South Shields followed by a few days in Portugal to play Benfica B and Belenenses, then back home for a friendly against Heerenveen. The fewest games we’ve ever played in pre season.
Transfers: Out went Cattermole, James, Matthews, Ruiter, Love, Oviedo, Honeyman, Baldwin, Robson and Loovens.
In came Burge, McLaughlin, Willis, Dobson, Lynch, McNulty and De Bock.
Is that improving the squad? Is that addressing the clear issues we had last year? Anyone could see we were lacking pace. We needed fullbacks. We were lacking creativity. We had no physical presence at centre back and through the middle and that was before losing four fullbacks and Cattermole.
Are we stronger, or weaker than we were last season?
Our recruitment has been an absolute joke, and this is nothing to do with budgets, it's to do with having the correct systems in place to find the right players for Sunderland. And although the new recruits may all be ‘good lads’, care and try hard and want to be here, unfortunately that is not enough.
Results have got worse; Ross has lost his job and we have now brought in a new man in Parkinson. He may lead us to promotion although it looks a tall order even at this early stage of the season. But then what?
Rip it up and start again? Keep to the same structure behind the scenes? Even if new investment is forthcoming, then why do we have these pals of the owner running the football side of the club with little or no pedigree to suggest they should be anywhere near their positions. And yes, that is with taking our current League One status into account.
I'm not one who insists on Kevin Ball being at the club, but why did Donald insist he would be Reid's right-hand man at the Academy to then only wheel him out at corporate functions or to promote a new mobile App?
What is Juan Satori’s role at the club? What happened to all this South American talent he wanted to bring over to the Academy?
Every couple of months there is a new story about our finances that is denied by our owner, normally with threats to sue. It now has emerged that he didn't have the decency to speak to Jack Ross first when he decided to pull the trigger, instead leaving it to another of his Directors Neil Fox (you guessed it Ex-Eastleigh FC).
There are accusations of threats of attack, abuse and arson by our fans on Twitter before SD decided to finally walk away from the Social Media platform, so open communication has quickly turned into the opposite.
Many fans only see Donald as our saviour and are happy for fans to turn on each other. But is this what Sunderland fans are like, a toxic bunch who want our club to fail? No. We simply care deeply about or club and are entitled to ask questions instead of just having blind faith.
The more I think about it, the more I worry that our club that we will end up emulating will not be Borussia Dortmund, it will be Eastleigh.