Meeting an SAFC club official in the Hilton Garden Inn not 10 metres from the Stadium of Light is a bit like meeting a Tinder date outside an Odeon. It’s pretty much the least effort the two of you can make, and if things get hairy you can always make a quick exit back to a safe area...
Charlie Methven is by all accounts a lad’s lad, and after a beer, the terrible music in the Hilton made us want to bail. We headed over to the Colliery Tavern, but they were mid-bingo. So we hit The Wheatsheaf, where they don’t take card, so I missed my round, the barman put blackcurrant cordial in my Stella and I thought that after two hours of talking shit we should probably do an interview…
ALS: The first thing that leapt out to me is that you’re a football fan. You grew up loving the game, whereas a lot of owners, like our last one, won’t necessarily have that connection to the sport. What is your background?
My Grandad was one of the group of guys who helped build up Headington Utd as Oxford Utd, back in the day, so I grew up going to games with him. Stewart [Donald] likewise, with his Dad, we were going to the Manor Ground when we were very young. It was a slightly hazardous place to be as the ground was, rather like Roker, almost all terracing. Our families would take us for a bit and then, when we were old enough to go on the terracing, we were on the London Road terrace behind the home goal. That’s where we learnt football.
So, have you and Stewart known each other for years?
Yeah. Not closely really until the last ten years — he’s three or four years older than me and I remind him of that. You know, we’re both from Oxfordshire families, grew up supporting United. When we were young, Oxford were a very good side, so we never had any reason to be glory hunters because our side was doing very well. When we became shit later on, I suppose you’re kind of stuck with it by that point aren’t you?
We eventually got far enough in our careers where we could actually help the club and have the time and money to do stuff. But even before then, I was involved in the supporters’ trust from my early 20s, was writing for the fanzine when I was 18.
What was the name of that fanzine again?
Ah, I remember doing a fanzine swap with them when I was outside the Manor Ground.
It was decent! I’m sad it doesn’t exist anymore, like so many print fanzines, but greatly yours still does. So, from writing for fanzines, to being on the supporters’ trust, to starting fan groups, to rattling buckets outside the ground on the many occasions we were going bust and couldn’t afford to pay the staff. To then later on becoming involved — by that time we’d dropped down all the way into the Conference, which for Oxford was a pretty sorry pass, rather like Sunderland dropping into League One. Then I got more heavily involved, helping the new owners, helping them run the academy — this was the mid 2000s; 2005/06 I think it was when we were relegated to the conference.
That was when I started working with Stewart, as his company started sponsoring the club. He was helping a lot behind the scenes financially and giving all the moral support. The people who bought the club, the Lenegans, who also own Wigan Warriors in the Rugby League, they were also local Oxfordshire people. So, in a way we’d both known them for a long time, and we kind of grouped together to rescue the club from the desperate depths to which it had sunk.
We had to virtually recreate an academy from scratch. Oxford’s famed youth scheme, which had been amazing for decades, had been abolished by the asset stripper who destroyed our club and whose name is still on our stadium. So, there was that, getting the club back on its feet commercially, getting a manager in who cared about the club, Chris Wilder, who did a fantastic job with Stewart’s financial backing. We got a ladies’ team up and running. For quite a while we were very heavily involved and began to understand not only how a football club works but how a football club can be put right.
It was a very tiring, exasperating process that ended in huge satisfaction. When we all look at the club now in League One, which is still obviously not where we’d like it to be as supporters of Oxford, but you know, compared to where we were, we’re quite proud of what’s been achieved.
So when you left did you have a kind of exit strategy?
No, no, Stewart and I weren’t the owners, so it wasn’t down to us. Ian [Lenegan] decided to sell as he had various other financial projects. Another owner came in and also did a pretty good job for a while. It’s been a good 11 or 12 years from the club being mid-table in the conference to being mid-table in League One. Given that it doesn’t own its own stadium, that’s about as good of a result as you can get right now.
The point I’m trying to make is that we’ve done a lot between us in terms of scope. We both played football to a decent amateur level, getting paid a little bit to play, but never being good enough to really do any more than that. From that, to running the line, to working the ticket office, to dressing up in mascot costumes. Between us we’ve kind of done the lot. We feel that in as much as any non-professional footballer can turn into a football person, we kind of are. We love the game and we’re passionate enough about it to have spent half of our adult lives engaged in it.
Obviously, Stewart then went down to Eastleigh and got his, sort of, training course in being a Chairman. Learning what all of that involves. Not many people buy football clubs having owned a football club previously. A lot of Sunderland fans may say ‘well Eastleigh isn’t Sunderland’ — no it’s not, but how many other owners of Sunderland have owned a football club before?
So, he’s done his apprenticeship running a football club, I guess
Spot on! And that’s exactly how I think he sees it. I think that’s how he saw it when he took over at Eastleigh. He thought: ‘as well as being involved in a football club, I need to understand exactly what an owner does’. And to be fair, he did a brilliant job there. They were a very small non-league club when he took over, and he took them to the very brink of getting into the Football League. For a club of that size it would have been a phenomenal achievement. They got beat in the play-offs, in the end, by Grimsby I think.
So, we feel like now is the right moment to put everything into practise. Did we think that would happen at a club as big as Sunderland? No. But are the principles the same; the fundamentals? Yes. We didn’t think we’d get the chance to take over at the seventh-biggest club in England. We didn’t. We thought we’d take over a different kind of League One club; a club with potential that maybe could go places. Not a club as big as Sunderland. Sunderland’s very particular situation has given us this opportunity and we’re deeply aware of that responsibility. Very aware.
So how did it all come about, you said that you had a relationship with Ellis Short already?
I’ve known Ellis Short for a while, yeah, through business.
Did he approach you, in terms of selling the club?
We had a kind of mutual conversation about it, you know:
‘How are you getting on with selling the club, Ellis?’
‘Well…a bunch of people are trying to buy but I’m not 100%.’
‘Oh ok... so how much are you trying to sell it for?’
He told me, and I said ‘I think that’s probably a fair deal’ and that I could probably find some people who can pay that sort of money and do a really good job. He said that if I could find those kind of people with the right sort of money that he would block those other guys and he’d go with us.
Fair enough. It all seemed to happen pretty quickly, did you have the opportunity to do any due diligence before fronting the bid?
We did a lot of DD. We had two-and-a-half weeks when I was living up here in Sunderland, while Stewart and a team of accountants were down Oxfordshire. We did our DD very thoroughly, but we did it on four hours sleep a night for two-and-a-half weeks. In some ways that was the best way to do it, because it was really intense and it meant that we did it properly. We totally immersed ourselves in it. In some ways, me being up here was part of the DD. I was able to make an initial diagnosis on the club itself, as an outsider. I diagnosed it to be a sick club, but not terminally ill.
Had you been to Sunderland before as a fan of Oxford?
I had, yeah. I watched us get beat 7-0 here. I watched us play at Roker, twice. There’s been quite a lot of players traded between the two clubs historically: Dean Whitehead and Andy Melville, probably gone from Oxford to being good Sunderland players. David Rush, Martin Gray, coming from Sunderland to Oxford and doing really well for us.
Under Denis Smith obviously...
Yeah, he was kind of the link between the two clubs. He was a great manager for both clubs I think, and a great man, I absolutely love Denis. So it’s always been a club that I’ve been somewhat fond of from an early age — for some reason I’ve always had an antipathy towards Newcastle. I mean that wasn’t a determining factor in this, but it does mean I’ve always had a slight soft spot for Sunderland because I’ve always found Newcastle to be a rather arrogant club.
Yeah that seems to be the general feeling in football. Arrogance and no silverware since the 50s.
They seem to think that they’re special, and they don’t understand that every club is special. From an outsider’s perspective I feel that from the North East clubs, at Sunderland and Middlesbrough there’s much mutual appreciation from other clubs, but at Newcastle there’s little appreciation for or from other clubs.
In terms of other revenue streams, the concerts at the Stadium of Light were a big plus for the city. They brought people to the Stadium who didn’t necessary always go and were a massive advert for Sunderland. It was mooted that they never made any money, although I understand that they did. Is that something you’re open to explore?
I think they did make money. Maybe one or two didn’t, but obviously if you’re managing things incorrectly then they might not be. We are absolutely intent on bringing the concerts back. It’s part of the program that has to re-engage Sunderland with its community and making the Stadium of Light the centre of that. What Bob Murray intended was for the SOL to be a beacon, a sort of symbol of hope, and that great things that can happen in Sunderland. Of course, that’s mostly football, but the reality is the Stadium gets used for football 30 times a year. It’s an amazing facility. Why would you only use it 30 times a year?
In terms of real estate, there are a lot of things that have been said about how much land the new owners will obtain; things like the Charlie Hurley Centre, the Hilton Hotel.
We have not bought the Hotel or the Charlie Hurley Centre. We have bought Black Cat House. I’m not very keen on Black Cat House. I think that currently the club staff are too spread over different locations. It doesn’t engender a sense of team or togetherness. It’s no great surprise that nobody’s acting as a team because they barely even see each other. It isn’t open plan, there’s no buzz in the place, it feels toxic. We want to turn over a new leaf and I suspect that won’t entirely be at Black Cat House. What we’ll do with it I’m not sure. We’ll have a look at it. It’s nothing financial — it’s not a big deal financially, it’s not about that. It’s about trying to get the right atmosphere back in the place where everybody wants to work together.
What about the ticket office though?
That’s the big question. We’re actually having meetings about that at the moment. I think there’s ample opportunity to house it within the stadium confines, but it may be that we retain a little bit of Black Cat House to do that and then we rent out the office space above.
Do you have any plans to restrict the areas of the ground that are open to help the atmosphere? Obviously, they closed the Premier Concourse, do you agree with that decision?
I don’t disagree with it. I think it’s right that you want to stop people from being too spread about. Ultimately you want to get an atmosphere in the place to make opposition teams feel a bit afraid. The bowl below the Premier Concourse and North Stand extension has a capacity of around 34,000, something like that. I’d love us to do more than that, but I think realistically, in League One, it gives us a realistic target to work towards filling that first. Rebuild the trust, rebuild the engagement, and hopefully we can then make a big thing of opening the Premier Concourse again. God, it would be great to get there quickly. It would be a real sign that the patient was back on its feet and healthy again. But first things first, we have to try to address each challenge as it comes and not run before we can walk.
I feel as though a big part of your plan, so to speak, is to sort of trim everything back. In terms of the job description, you’re looking for young, hungry people to roll their sleeves up, not just in terms of on the pitch but in the offices as well. From the rhetoric that I’ve heard from you guys, it seems as though you’re prepared to be on the front line and set the standards yourselves.
It’s not that we’re ‘prepared’ to, we will do and we enjoy it. Stewart and I start businesses, we run businesses, we operate businesses; we are operational people. I think fans will be surprised, and in some cases slightly discombobulated, to see where we end up. They will almost certainly find Mr Donald in the ticket office at some point, because he likes ticket offices. They will almost certainly find me in the hospitality suite helping out at some point because that’s something that I enjoy. They will find me heavily involved in the matchday programme, because that’s my professional background (journalist) and I enjoy it.
I was going to ask you about that actually, where your PR skills would come into play. Because it sounds like you’re up for doing what needs doing, but what are your strengths and weaknesses?
Stewart is a financial guy; he’s an accountant. He’s a very, very, smart businessman. I’d hope that I’m a smart businessman as well, but I wouldn’t be in Stewart’s league. He’s done great things. It made me laugh when I saw people speculating that he’s not worth eight million quid, that’s just an absolute farce. He’s been spectacularly successful. He’s a very enthusiastic frontman, and he’s good financially. I think that at times Stewart’s enthusiasm almost bubbles over a little too much and, at times, I’m a little bit more cautious. We both match each other well in that way, and I think we both recognise that.
That’s good though, to be able to bounce off each other like that.
Yeah, and I think my professional background as a journalist and PR guy obviously lends itself to a certain area of the club, no doubt about that. Marketing, communications, digital, retail; these are areas I have professional knowledge and understanding of. I set myself a reasonably high level. I’ve done work for Arsenal and currently my company is a consultant for Spurs.
So what sort of work were you doing in that capacity?
PR, marketing, a mixture of things really. At Arsenal I was advising the board on resisting a hostile takeover bid. At Spurs I was advising the board on how to maximise their new stadium. Two totally different tasks but both in the same public-facing areas. I think when it comes to belts and braces fan engagement, it’s a passion of mine. I’ve been on both sides of the fence and my guiding principle is that there’s a massive difference between a club and a business. A club, when you think about it, if you see a place and it has a sign above the door calling it a club, what does that say to you? Not even talking about in a football sense but just generally? Go on, tell me.
I dunno, a group of people who are in it together…
Yes, and who want to be together! And who have a common reason to be together. That’s what it is. I think most football clubs have forgotten what being a club means. There’s nothing like belonging to a great club of people, and we all have different roles in the club. I don’t like the categorisation of supporters over fans. It’s derogatory in my view. Not intentionally, but it’s casual. It’s circular. You can look at supporters in two ways: financial and vocal. You turn up and you shout, and you pay your money. Both of those two things are the lifeblood that keeps everything else going ‘round. Without those two things, A. there would be no point in the exercise, because nobody would be watching, and B. there would be no money, unless there’s somebody who is prepared to pay for everything, which is something nobody has ever done before.
Within that circle of supporters, administrative staff, volunteers and players, it’s all one big circle which is called ‘The Club’. And the moment that ‘The Club’ starts to view itself as being different from its supporters, it becomes a franchise. Once it’s a franchise, it’s something very different from a club and shouldn’t call itself a club. It’s an absolute driving passion of Stewart and mine, as people who still pay to watch football, willingly, enjoy paying to watch football, even when our team loses. That’s how we want to spend our Saturday afternoon. On away days this year, people will see us there. Not in a Mike Ashley way, posturing and pretending to be a supporter. But because sometimes, if it’s your hobby, like it is our hobby, it’s nice to actually spend your Saturday afternoon the way you want to spend it. Being in a boardroom can be a bit sticky and a bit stiff at times, and I mean, that’s our role here, that’s where we’ll be a lot of the time, but sometimes we are just football supporters. That’s our role as well.
We regard ourselves at Sunderland as being cheerleaders in the club for the supporters of the club. We’re trying to remind people in other parts of the club that the supporters are actually part of the whole thing, and that’s a cultural change which is simply going to happen. We have a zero-tolerance approach to any kind of distancing between the club and the supporters. This will come like a bucket of cold water to a lot of people, and some of the supporters may even feel a little bit funny about it. ‘Why are these people being so welcoming, what are they up to?’ It’s because we’re all part of the same club and having been made to feel anything else than that by ‘The Club’ is wrong.
In terms of the Academy, it’s actually been quite successful over the last, say, dozen years, and we have a well-graded academy. Is the money set aside to keep that going?
Yes. Simple answer yes and, if anything, a bit more money. Because one thing that’s been noticeable is that there’s been no budget to poach — I use that word snidely — there’s been no budget to bring in other young players from other parts of the country or even locally at a slightly later age. When you’re a category one academy, I’m afraid you have to be brutal. You have to use your category one status to go to see young players who are going places and tell them that your future is going to be brighter with you. ‘This is the placed that turned out the England captain, England’s number one goalkeeper, that’s where you want to be right? You don’t to be at a category two or three academy? You want to be at number one. You want to be the next England captain.’
So, we’re gonna be ferocious, brutal, and tough for Sunderland, because we believe that it’s worth fighting for. And you’ve got to fight! This isn’t going to be a soft touch. Sometimes people will find Stewart and me abrasive, I can’t say otherwise, that is gonna happen, but we’re gonna be abrasive on behalf of Sunderland Association Football Club. And the people who are gonna feel the force of that abrasion, 98% of the time it will be agents, other clubs, people taking the piss. Occasionally we’ll get it wrong and it’ll be someone inside the club, but we’ll find them afterwards and make up, it’ll be fine.
Have you looked at the TV revenue? The reason I ask this question is because I know absolutely nothing about what we can expect financially from TV in League One
We know League One quite well, so we know exactly how much the TV revenue is. Basically, the square-root of bugger all. Six million pounds less than in the Championship, and the Championship is about six-and-a-half million pounds. Work it out from there. Bugger all.
So, for the first time in quite a while, one of the main sources of revenue going into the club is actually going to be from the fans?
I remember having a meeting with Grahame McDonnell, the then commercial manager at the Club, going back to the days of Roker Park, 20 plus years ago, and him saying fans aren’t as important as they used to be, it’s all about the TV money…
Eugh! Horrible. What a miserable sentiment.
Not a nice guy by the way. But the reality is now we’re in League One, it’s even worse financially than in the Championship. Maybe do some gigs, you’ve obviously got to buy and sell well, cut your cloth accordingly with the staff...
Get fans to attend matches?
But with that, it’s a results-based industry so they want to see results.
It’s partially results-based! And it’s partially other things as well. But it’s lazy to say that it’s all about results. Results make a big difference, but on the margin, other things make a big difference as well. Let me give you an example. Sunderland, next season in League One, let’s say we’re fourth in the table. Fourth place with people feeling great about their club will engender good attendance. Fourth place with people feeling miserable about their club will engender a different attendance. The Club has been far too complacent about that, saying X and Y is happening because it’s not happening on the pitch. I don’t believe it. Alright, it’s very difficult for people to be happy when nothing's going right on the pitch, but I think that has been compounded by bad decisions elsewhere.
Fair. Who do you see as our main rivals in League One? Hopefully not Oxford.
Probably, yes. Because Oxford will have one of the top four or five budgets in the League, and they now have a competent manager in Karl Robinson. I’d have to look and see what the summer recruitment is. This is quite a limited pool of players and if you know the pool of players well enough you can see the type of times who are more likely to succeed. Historically, teams coming down from the Championships have done well, but they’re more yoyo clubs. Barnsleys and Burtons are quite well geared up for League One, and they don’t have the massive cost base that Sunderland does. They should be able to shuffle their feet and act accordingly. I would expect them to be competitive. Charlton I would expect to be competitive, depending on what happens with their ownership and manager situation. Portsmouth are a club on the way up; a significant-sized club. They would be a big threat to us in terms of size of club in League One. They get 18,000 a game paying an average ticket price higher than Sunderland, so the equivalent in financial terms would be more like us getting 22-23,000 a game. So, we should still be the club with the highest revenue but it’s not an absolute given. Bradford had a horrible fall away this season but have been very competitive for a while. Scunny are a hard, tough, physical League One side that are always in the top 6.
From a financial perspective, how vital is it for Sunderland to get promoted back to the Championship at the first time of asking?
It’s not financially vital, but obviously we’d love to see it happen. We have to cross bridges. The first bridge was to appoint a new manager and now allowing Jack Ross to get his recruitment right. The second bridge is having a proper pre-season plan. When we arrived there were no pre-season games planned! It’s a shambles. Fortunately, it’s still May! So hopefully we’ll change that. I mean that’s just bizarre; I don’t understand that. There’s a trip booked for Portugal, but no matches booked. I don’t understand that. I’d understand them doing it one way or the other, plan a pre-season or hold off in case the new owner doesn’t like Portugal. But not book a trip out there and neglect to book any matches.
With all your involvement in football as a fan, and the way you’ve engaged with supporters since you’ve come to Sunderland, how far would you be willing to take that? Would you want to have a fan on the board?
To be honest with you, somebody asked us at the press conference “What’s your job title?” and I suddenly realised we hadn’t even discussed it.
Quinny was the same when he came back, so he just, kind of, ended up doing everything.
We hadn’t thought about the board, because we just assumed 'okay we’re gonna run this thing'. We aren’t corporate people. I think Martin [Bain] was a very corporate person who dealt in structures and job titles and all this other stuff. There’s absolutely a place for that, and I recognise it, but that’s not Stewart and me. I don’t think ‘The Board’ or ‘board meetings’ will be particularly significant because we take decisions on the hoof all the time. We probably speak to each other 30 times a day.
So, I will speak to supporters’ groups about the idea of fan representation. And we will consider it very seriously; the ups and the downs thereof. I think the fans will find that anyone who wants to engage with the Club or me and Stewart will discover they have more influence than they can possibly imagine, because we don’t regard ourselves as being better or different from them. I think, when it comes to Sunderland, we’ve got a lot to learn about what it means to be a football fan...
In previous ALS meetings with SAFC board members, Bob Murray gave us posh nosh in the boardroom, our breakfast meetings with Quinny were tea and toast, Ellis Short used to just wander into the ALS shop unannounced for a chat, before he lost interest, but on this occasion, we ended the night getting Dominos pepperoni pizzas and chicken goujons delivered to the hotel and washing them down with pints of Staropramen. Based on that, it’s not a competition, but these guys are winning…