First Impressions

As first days go, they could have hoped for little better. While the sun beamed down on Wearside and local journalists gathered, Stewart Donald and Charlie Methven strolled into the Stadium of Light press room looking an awful lot like a breath of fresh air. Where their predecessor had deigned to even face the media upon his arrival, Sunderland’s new owners not only abstained from dull platitudinous statements but proceeded to sit and field questions from the floor. Donald and Methven not only answered everything put to them but also, and whisper this one, did so impressively.

It would be foolish to get carried away on the back of one day but this first 24 hours in the rest of Sunderland’s life did at least show that things are going to very different in SR5 from now on. Where Ellis Short was famously reclusive – a quality that was at first withstood and later derided – Stewart Donald and Charlie Methven appear to be singing from a rather different hymn sheet.

Donald and Methven have been in touch with fan groups since their ownership of the club was first mooted three weeks ago, and the latter in particular has made considerable progress in allaying the fears of any who doubted their understanding of what they had just gotten themselves into. To hear Methven reference the club’s former “absentee owner” as well as his own anger that the club has become “a place where people have come to take the piss” was to wonder whether or not the new minority shareholder had been perusing blogs and forums, so unerringly accurate and in tune with the fan base were his comments.

Both he and Donald seem at least to understand the potential that the club holds, as well as some of the methods they need to employ to unleash it. Donald’s desire to get fans into the ground to replace those pink seats (a phrase which the club would do well to trademark and use as an extra revenue stream, so frequently is it now uttered) had more than a hint of naivety about it, but the underlying message of wanting fans to feel truly involved in ‘their’ club strikes a note that has gone untouched at the top of the club for far too long.

So too did the new owners’ focus on the club’s academy. Donald’s concern that the Academy of Light recently came close to losing its ‘Category One’ status spoke of a man who realised the great benefits such a resource could – and should – bring to the club as whole.

Meanwhile, Methven’s querying of the cheerleading role that Kevin Ball has been demoted to was an astute observation from an individual who has been very much on the outside until the last month. That he has grasped it so quickly appears in stark contrast to those who have been at the club for years in a state of wilful ignorance. Should Ball be put back in charge of the club’s youths, as is now being strongly mooted, it would be far from the worst idea the new hierarchy will have this summer.

Likewise, the swift removal on Tuesday of Martin Bain from the now redundant CEO position marked a necessary break with the past. Bain, for all his failings, was handed a tough job, one made almost impossible by Short’s subsequent tightening of the purse strings. Yet the Scot took a bad hand and played it poorly, and also took far too long to realise that many supporters would not be taken in by statements that did not match up to his and the club’s actions. Removing him is a crucial step in wiping the slate clean.

That is not to say all that is to come is sure to be rosy. If following Sunderland has shown anything in recent years, it is that caution is required and indulging in optimism and hope is a perilous endeavour. When you have seen as many false dawns as we on Wearside, it is difficult not to retain an element of scepticism.

Having spent Monday evening in the company of Lee Howey on the Wise Men Say podcast, it was plain to see that the former Sunderland defender’s own recently voiced concerns were borne of a supporter’s concern rather than naked self-interest. Howey was castigated for doubting the authenticity and motives of the new owners yet, as he said himself, the information “vacuum” that opened up upon their initial arrival on the scene had plenty wary of two men they had never previously heard of.

Howey declared himself enthused by what he had heard earlier that day and plenty more now feel similarly. Yet actions speak louder than words and, for all those words were the right ones, it is only tangible on and off-field progress that will allow us to ultimately view the new owners in a truly positive light. Methven in particular talked the talk, yet it should not go unnoticed that his background is in PR – he is a man who knows what to say and how to say it.

Moreover, the financials of the deal remain somewhat uncertain. Donald declared that he had had to prove to the EFL his wealth to the tune of at least £50m, a statement which is perhaps erroneous: it is more likely that he needed to prove the club itself would have such resources so as to meet commitments as they fell due. The new owner was also adamant that the club’s debt had been wiped in full, yet he confirmed that the £40m paid to Short for the club’s share capital was due in instalments and, furthermore, is secured against the club’s future incoming parachute payments.

The duo’s explanation that this is to manage cash flow holds water - the club still possesses significant transfer creditors that must be paid out in the coming weeks and months - but the timing of said parachute payments does raise further questions. At least one tranche of those payments should arrive in June, which begs the question of when Short is expecting his instalments to be paid. Thankfully, both this arrangement and the satisfaction of the club’s old external debt should become clearer with information made available for public consumption in the coming weeks.

Donald’s bullish proclamation surrounding the club’s transfer budget for League One, too, might be less encouraging when we look at the finer details. Those aforementioned parachute payments ensure that the club will enjoy probably the biggest level of turnover in the history of the third tier anyway, without the need for an owner’s input, and there it is also potentially counter-productive to refuse to be held to ransom by players and agents while at the same time declaring yourself to have deep pockets.

Such concerns might seem unnecessarily negative and, in truth, they perhaps are. Following Sunderland AFC has been torturous of late; to revel in positivity for at least a little while mightn’t be the worst thing. Certainly, there is plenty such positivity to go around right now. Stewart Donald’s sudden emergence at the end of April took many by surprise but, without any evidence to the contrary, his intentions appear good and both he and his partner are going great lengths to understand the task now ahead of them.

That task is a considerable one. Positivity in the air or not, the reality is that Sunderland still have a season in League One to enjoy – or endure. Methven’s comment that the club needs to realise it is “no longer a Premier League club” was not only jarring but also, and more importantly, proof that the new owners are under no illusions as to where their new club is in the pecking order. Reality will bite soon enough and it is they who have now been entrusted with climbing back up the hill the club has tumbled down so swiftly in the past two seasons. That they seem well grounded and unwilling to give in to hubris is welcome.

They are off to a good start and they seem determined to continue it. After years of a widening disconnect, they have sought to restore the bridge between fan and club as their first course of action and that can only be a good thing. As a result, they have many Sunderland fans behind them from the get-go. Now the hard work begins.