Change has come to Sunderland. Much as it often does on Wearside, it arrived haphazardly and out of the blue. First, just as Sunday’s roast potatoes were exiting the oven, the club announced that both manager Chris Coleman and his assistant Kit Symons had “been released from their contracts.” 62 words short and lacking in detail, the statement sent the Twittersphere into meltdown amid the realisation that another manager had been thrown upon a scrapheap that grows bigger with each passing season.
Then, 15 minutes later, an even bigger bombshell dropped. Another club statement confirmed that Ellis Short had agreed “to sell the club to an international consortium of football investors.” The group is to be headed up by Stewart Donald, chairman of Eastleigh FC and a former shareholder in the club he supports, Oxford United.
The sale is subject to EFL approval but the fact that the club, and Donald, have gone on record suggests that is now viewed as a mere formality. It is, to many, music to their ears. Short, whose mismanagement of the club had seen it plummet into League One and mounds of debt, will finally take his leave and in his place will come a group of people with the acumen and nous to return Sunderland AFC to the top tier.
Or so we hope. In truth, though the events of Sunday represent a seismic moment in the club’s long history, the inner workings of the deal remain shrouded in secrecy. Conjecture abounds. Though Donald is confirmed as the group’s frontman, where the financial backing comes from, or indeed what the new consortium’s plan is, have yet to be officially revealed.
For all the rejoicing, supporters would do well to proceed with caution. The Northern Echo’s citing of Donald’s wealth at just £8.4m is unlikely to be accurate, given that it is simply the combined estimated net worth of the 18 companies at which Donald is currently a director. Yet it remains that Donald is by no means a billionaire, and the depth of his pockets is unknown. He funded Eastleigh to the tune of £10m, allowing the club to be ran debt-free, but he also admitted earlier this year to being wrong in his belief that he could “buy his way” to promotion from the National League.
Moreover, there is reason to wonder just how much Donald and his backers have been able to appraise the situation. Rumours have swirled for months as to potential new buyers, and while some had fallen by the wayside early on and others had been knocked back by Short, one consortium is known to have made significant inroads. Due diligence had been embarked upon, plans for future seasons had been laid out and a consideration of the managerial situation had been undertaken, with the members believing a deal looked extremely likely. That changed in the last 48 hours upon Short’s decision to accept the offer put forward by Donald and co.
Suggestions that the deal was done without wide inside knowledge appear true. Certainly, few at the club were aware of developments, with the news taking many by surprise; despite being given a remit of finding an appropriate buyer for the club, it is thought that even Martin Bain was not initially aware of the new offer. It is not a reach to suggest that, in only speaking to Short, the new owners may well have set themselves up for a few surprises.
What their offer entails is also not clear. Short confirmed, in a surprising step, that he had paid off the entirety of the club’s nine-figure debt, clearing the way for the new owners to take on the club with at least one restraint removed. He advised that he was leaving the club in “the best possible hands” and “higher offers from less qualified buyers were rejected”. That is commendable, as is his decision to pay off such a significant sum, even if it is a sum that has been arrived at by way of his own incompetence. Evidently, Short did not want to be left with the legacy of ruining one of English football’s oldest clubs.
But it is believed that Short’s decision was partially influenced by the size of the consortium’s offer for the assets of the club, trumping as it did that which was on the table from the other group of investors. Again, we do not know the details of that offer, but it appears Short has at least received something back on his investment.
Guesswork surrounds Donald’s backing, with one idea put forward that money is to be provided by a Spanish private equity (PE) firm. That in itself would be interesting: PE firms pool money from investors with the hope of growing a business and extracting a profit by selling up and, though the length of time to extract said profit is believed within the industry to be lengthening, it remains that any such group would be ploughing money into the club in a profit-focused manner, rather than operating in the role of benevolent philanthropists.
While feasible, that theory looks unlikely. It is instead thought that the group’s funding comes from a number of investors scattered across Europe. Donald’s past links with Oxford United have led some to draw a line to one Juan Sartori, a Uruguayan businessman who failed in a bid to buy The U’s last summer. Sartori is the son-in-law of Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev, who owns a 66% stake in AS Monaco. This is likely a case of adding two to two and getting five, but there is also reason to believe that Donald represents the face of the group so as to ensure compliance with the EFL’s ‘fit and proper persons’ test, rather than because he is the chief financial backer, or be CEO. Either way, it will take time for the funding behind Sunderland’s fresh beginning to become clear.
And while a new start complies with every Sunderland fan’s wishes, spare a thought for Chris Coleman. Coleman, who, with his managerial reputation at its highest following his exploits with Wales, put his neck firmly on the line to come here and manage – as he put it – “a big club”. Coleman, who was so committed to the cause that he moved his family to the northeast instantly upon taking the job. Coleman, who was offered quite literally nothing to spend and left to battle vainly on with a squad that plainly wasn’t fit for purpose. Coleman, who proffered last week that he would take a pay cut in order to stay on and try to return the club to where it belongs.
Five victories from 29 league games does not make for good reading, and even the Welshman himself will admit that he has disappointed in his five months at the club. An inability to keep the back door shut has remained a theme; the consistent relinquishing of leads in recent weeks has ultimately proved ruinous.
Yet for his faults, it is difficult to argue that many others would have fared much better. Complaints have been made about Coleman’s January signings yet he was forced to work within confines that even Harry Houdini would have struggled to extricate himself from. Faced with players who didn’t care and a chairman in exile that he never met or spoke to, Coleman did at least give us a glimpse of what it is to treat the club with respect. He showed genuine affection for the club and an appreciation for its role in the local community, and to see him dumped so unceremoniously seems wildly unfair. As does the fact that he has largely been viewed as an afterthought in the day’s proceedings.
Coleman’s removal suggests that the new owners already have a replacement in mind. It would be troubling if they didn’t. Who that will be should give an idea of the intentions of the group going forward. Michearl Appleton, himself a former Oxford man, has been heavily hinted at. He guided The U’s to promotion to League One, then consolidated their position there, before leaving for an assistant manager role at Leicester City last summer. Appleton clearly knows the league but, should he be appointed, the nature of his arrival would need to be viewed through the prism of the new ownership’s plans for the club going forward.
And thus we return to the reality of the here and now. Several consortia have shown an interest in buying Sunderland AFC over the past year. Fulwell 73 and then a group of German investors saw their efforts fall short last summer, whilst several groups from both close to home and further afield now appear to have been outbid by Stewart Donald and his associates. A new dawn is rising on Wearside, but how it will look is anyone’s guess. Will they rip everything up and start anew? Will they turn to the Academy of Light to build long-term foundations? Will they simply throw money at the problem and hope to stumble upon success?
Right now, your guess is as good as mine. All we can do now is wait.
To celebrate being complete and utter shite once again, we’re bringing bring back this classic t-shirt from the 05/06 season. Looking back to those halcyon days under Mick McCarthy when we managed to amass an incredible 15 points to see us relegated from the Premier League.
Don’t worry we will reach those lofty heights again but until then we can take comfort in the fact that we’re all... still here when we are shit! Hardcore fans and Sunderland till we die, whichever league we are in and whoever owns the club. Players, manager and chairman come and go. Fans remain. We are the club… click here to view product