ALS Chats to Stewart Donald

A Love Supreme has been around since 1989, and the spectrum of fan engagement we’ve seen from SAFC in nearly three decades of covering the club couldn’t be more vast. In the 90s we had fair access to players and would often interview them casually in pubs or over dinner, but that all changed with the Premier League, when serious money entered the sport.

Football clubs became corporations, with playing and managerial staff morphing into prized assets that needed to be shielded from all facets of independent media. For fanzines like ourselves, we were denied access to the clubs we’d spent our lives dedicated to, while national media, so often critical and unfair, still retained a presence. This remains the case at most major football clubs around the country.

With the arrival of Stewart Donald and Charlie Methven, fan outlets such as ALS, Red & White Army, Wise Men Say and Roker Report have been given unprecedented media access to SAFC. The Chairman is a phone call away, the Manager by proxy, and the new owners seem intent on doing anything they can to restore that special bond between club and supporter. While speaking to us won’t conclusively take care of that, it shows that they respect the culture of our fan base, and are willing to connect with supporters through channels that have previously been unfairly discredited;

ALS: You know you bought loads of seats to replace the pink ones? Did you buy any giant red armchairs like they’ve got at the World Cup? Just I fancy one.

SD:*Laughs, no I didn’t. Although if you had mentioned it earlier I might have been able to sort something!

ALS: Who is better at football, you or Charlie Methven?

SD: Me, no doubt about that whatsoever. Charlie can’t play, he thinks he can but he can’t. I was a central midfielder or centre forward when I was younger but as I progressed to adults’ football, I was best off as a right back and I got paid around £5 or £10 a week to play non-league football. The standard was a bit above your local league, but not high enough to class yourself as a player. I never trained once in the ten years that I played, I just turned up and played. I still enjoy a kick about now and play a bit of five-a-side. I’ve got two sons, who are 14 and 16 and they play football with their mates a lot in the back garden, it’s like football was 25 years ago with some quite violent tackles going in!

ALS: What role will Kevin Ball take up at the club? Many thought he may head the academy?

SD: Kevin has actually spent the time since my arrival away from the club, so I’ve not had time to talk to him yet, he’s only popped in a couple of days this week after arriving back a week early. I’ll need to speak to him, but I envisage him helping Paul Reid run the Academy and be more involved in that than what he’s doing. We need to utilise his strengths which is definitely around the coaching staff and the coaching, there’s a couple of roles there for him, I see him as being heavily involved. He is Mr. Sunderland and he is probably the most impressive person I’ve spoken to since I have arrived here. He’s been frustrated by what’s gone on here, he gets what the problems are and has his own views on the solutions. He obviously has passion, energy and desire to make sure the club is successful, so I think he has a big part to play in the Academy and throughout the club. What his title is going to be, I’m not quite sure yet. For example, I’m not a typical chairman and going into the detail I go into and keeping on top of the club’s finances right down to the very fine, intricate details. So even though we don’t have a Chief Executive myself and my business partner Neil fulfil many of the same roles and responsibilities of a Chief Executive. We just want to focus on roles not titles.

ALS: What’s your business background?

SD: My own background is Insurance based and I did every role in that company from accountancy to whatever was necessary, this helped me develop my skill set, in the past 10 years I’ve been buying businesses and we do the financial due diligence on the business and Neil does more of the operational stuff and I’ll do the numbers. Between us we’ve probably bought between about 20 companies and I’ve got trusted people here who I’ve worked with for 25 years. Through the process of buying these companies I feel we’ve improved with each new purchase, after the fourth one we sat down and reflected that we had perhaps been too soft in some areas and we had to change that. So, when it comes to Sunderland we’ve gone through the process of making redundancies and squeezing down expenditure as much as possible and with each business I feel we’ve improved the financial position much quicker every time, so hopefully we can use the skill sets we’ve learnt over the years and Eastleigh has given us our football background. With Sunderland being a slightly distressed business, we hope to combine our football knowledge and our financial background to get this right quite quickly. In terms of my own reputation I have to get this right and this is important to me in my business life. I differ slightly from Ellis Short and other chairman in that it doesn’t matter to them particularly if they continue to sink loads of money into a club it annoys them but it doesn’t hurt them. I was in a similar position at Eastleigh, whereby I invested a total of £12 million pounds which I could afford to give away, but if I get things wrong at Sunderland I will be giving away £12 million every single year, after a couple of years that won’t feel great. I have the skill set but it is vital I get this right and I don’t want this to become a money pit for me and with the right people around me we can get this right and sustainable and figure out what is a sustainable level of investment to get the club back to where it needs to be.

ALS: Brown, or red, sauce on your bacon sarnie? SD: Red sauce, but neither really.

ALS: Dya get recognised in the street in Sunderland yet?

DS: I’ve been Sunderlanded in Oxford never mind on the streets of Sunderland, when I was on my way up here I stopped at Wetherby Services to get a sausage roll and I was recognised and photographed by a Sunderland fan. Luckily, my family, including my two sons and my daughter are all football mad so they don’t mind it. People down in Oxford don’t quite believe that I get stopped in the street etc. but I’m sure when they come up here for games, they will realise what it’s like. At the moment I’m trying to do two nights a week and three working days up here. I realise that I’m in a bubble up here and it’s fantastic but I can’t get too carried away with it and whilst it’s positive but there will be a point where things aren’t going to plan and people might not be quite as complementarity, so you have to keep level headed and keep your feet on the ground because you ever know how quickly things can change in football.

ALS: One of the biggest announcements made when you bought the club was that Ellis Short had wiped the entirety of the club's debt - both to him and the external lender, Security Benefit Corporation. Currently, despite the filing of the securities against the parachute payments, Black Cat House and the Academy of Light, we have yet to see that the external charge has been satisfied. Why is that? This week we saw documentation confirming that £152m of equity had been put into the club - we presume this was Short converting his debt prior to leaving the club? If so, should we see the satisfaction of charge document soon?

SD: Ellis’ idea upon the sale of the club was to carry the debt over to the new buyers but not charge the club for it, it would it have been tax advantageous from my personal perspective, but I did not want to start my life as Sunderland owner saddled with his debt on my shoulders. The right thing to do with the football is to wipe the debt completely, all the other bidders were going to carry over the debt, but our deal was right for the club financially. The £152 million figure is way of converting the debt into shares I get the shares, so in simple term if the club was worth £40 million and had 40 million shares, each share would be worth a pound. If it was slightly different and there was 200 million shares then obviously the value of each share would be worth considerably less, the club is still worth the same but there is no debt. The reality of the whole situation is that it’s great news for the entire football club in five weeks we’ve gone from £152 million worth of debt to being debt free and I haven’t taken it as a tax break for myself.

ALS: The club has also recently allotted shares such that the issued share capital of the business could increase by £2m within the next five years. Was this done with a view to future incoming investment, e.g. Juan Sartori?

DS: Juan Satori is currently going through the EFL process and there is no reason at all for him not to pass, he has no issues and is extremely well capitalised. He will take a 20% stake, so that will leave me with 74%, Charlie with 6% and Juan with 20%. At this stage we don’t need his capital, as a League One club as long as the plan works we don’t need that level of investment. But should we get promoted then he comes along with an awful lot of long term benefits such as his connections with Monaco, his links with South American players which could boost our academy and we’ll be able to lean on his European connections as well. From a business perspective, he’s connected to an awful lot of wealthy people who like sport. If we reach a certain level he can really help us kick on, it’s important we get him onside with the vision as quickly as possible, I’ve already sold him my version of it and he’s aligned to that and when he came he was very excited in what he saw and he said that Sunderland could be a top 20 European club in the future. If we can sustain the club and enthuse him and his contacts, then it will be the right sort of benefit to the football club and he will want to compete at a higher level. If we can get his father in law onside and his other contacts, we will hope to compete with a Roman Abramovich or Sheikh Mansour. It might not work out that way but at the moment that is the long-term plan. So, I’ve done the deal in the short term, but it certainly has an eye on the future if we can deliver, he is the one person that has all the skill sets to deliver. He’s very keen to see if he can help the academy in the short term and explore untapped markets, he could also help shift players who want to leave form the current squad and generally have a look at the business overview. It is vital that the academy keeps its Category One status which wobbled slightly last year, we need to look at how we utilise the Category one status which means we can take some players who we believe are potentially good enough for our first team and we could certainly look to invest some funds in looking at other players from lesser academy’s and as Sunderland we should be able to attract players from Category two or three teams.

ALS: What’s the craic with SAFC ladies.

DS: I spoke to the ladies’ manager and as I understand it, the view was that the contribution the club made was an uncomfortable amount in the top flight. Therefore, they applied for Division Two status, but the more I looked into it the less it actually felt like it was Sunderland ladies, they were going to play at a University and not really be integrated with the club and the city. In my eyes with an adjustment to our academy there is no reason that the ladies couldn’t have played there as well as another couple of team who don’t at the moment. That didn’t seem logical to me, so having failed to qualify for the Women’s League so we have funded the appeal bid and we have already made an effort to reintegrate the ladies as part of the club. The initial bid was pretty weak financially and we plan to get the girls back in Sunderland not just wearing the strip if we are successful, hopefully the damage has not already been done. There are a lot of teams that are in the top women’s league based on their brand as opposed to their standing in the women’s game, there was a similar situation at Oxford and unfortunately this is what we are up against. It is frustrating dealing with a lot of the hierarchy in football. In my business life I am used to doing what I want to do when I want to do it, if I want to buy a company I will buy it and I don’t have to wait for processes or a panel to make a judgement on something. Why we don’t just have a meeting, I’ll tell you what I want to do and you can make a decision there and then? I’m quite a simplistic person and I don’t like to wait a long time for someone to make a decision for me. When you have a body and a group, things do take time, I understand that, but I think there’s a lot of things in football which are over complicated and if you just take a simple and logical view, then a lot of things could get done. I’m a fan so I take a fans point of view, safe standing? What’s the issue? How complicated can it be to get that to a yes? Sometimes it feels like there’s business prevention people working against you, they have to make you jump through hoops to justify their existence.

ALS: Beer, or wine?

SD: Beer.

ALS: What has it been like working with Jack Ross so far, is he hassling you for players?

SD: He’s really good, I keep asking him why we haven’t done many deals yet and he keeps telling me I’m negotiating too hard! He’s a very smart, articulate bloke that helps him deal with players in terms of their commitment or lack off. Jack is the type of manager that players will want to play for, even if he doesn’t pick them. Jack fronts up to people and explains his decisions and treats them like adults and he builds loyal teams who will work for him and this is what Sunderland fans want from him. All the players we are close to signing right now are extremely honoured to play for Sunderland and they are living the dream playing for such a club and I hope we see that on the pitch and we can create something special between the players and fans.

ALS: Oasis or Blur?

SD: Oh, that’s a tough one. I’ll have to say Oasis.

ALS: Last time we were in the Third Division we had the biggest wage bill in the league, will we have the same this time?

SD: I think we will have the top budget in the league and there is no point hiding that, but it is a question of spending this wisely, although we have that capacity but even if we do get up it won’t be an achievement in a sense, so we won’t be over spending to get there. Bearing in mind that players will want to come here why should we have to beat anyone’s wage, they should want to come here. If we could sign say 16 players on League One wages, about £3k a week for a defender and £5k a week for a striker that’s around £4 million which is more than any other club will spend, that will put you high on the budget radar. Then on top of that we have the existing players which bump it up and hopefully we can have 16 players that are the best players in their position for League One. But we won’t bid silly money, we won’t pay a premium because they should want to come here, so we will spend but we won’t overspend. The big issue here is that with some players if Sunderland get promoted they want their wages trebling and this is not in line with our revenue stream, which is why we have taken longer in negations. I’ll give you an example, we were in talks with a player who had an offer of £4k a week at a not particularly attractive Championship club so we matched that, and he countered that he should be earning £8k should we get promoted the Championship, despite the fact he accepted a wage at an existing Championship club for half that salary. It annoyed me, so I pulled out of the deal.

ALS: Is your biggest challenge moving on the high earners?

SD: Yes! Khazri’s agent came to me and said we should allow his client to leave for nothing, because he’s not a League One player! What they are trying to do is hold out as long is possible to get the vibe that we are desperate. We don’t react very well to people trying to take the Mickey out of us, therefore if we press on with our recruitment and we bring the right players in we have no need to sell them and they will remain our players. We will hold their contract and they will not play football. We are currently going through the process of trying to persuade the young players that their futures lie here. Most of the senior pros want to leave, but one or two might be surprised to find themselves staying.

Jack Rodwell, Lee Cattermole and Oviedo are the standout big earners and they are all on long term deals, I suspect we will only end up with one of those. The one we will struggle to move on is Lee Cattermole due to the length of his contract. If he wants to leave he can leave, we still owe £4.5m for Bryan Oviedo, so we would need a fee for him to move on. Lee Cattermole’s agent says he won’t leave a penny behind, so if he expects to move to a Championship side he has a footballing decision to make because we will not fund any of the difference in wages, why should we pay that over a long period especially when his agent (Margaret Byrne) agreed to the deal in the first place.

ALS: What’s Rodwell’s attitude been like?

SD: Rodwell has actually been very reasonable throughout the process, although we have refused him a loyalty bonus because he hasn’t been loyal. Simple as that, but he’s ready to have a very sensible conversation about his future. If we manage to move Rodwell on, we can afford to keep the likes of Wahbi Khazri and he’s a very good player. However, McNair’s agent has said that he will never ever play for Sunderland again. We turned down two offers for McNair, we had two offers from Brighton and we heard nothing from him or agent despite Paddy publically stating his desire to play in the Premier League. So, we were suspicious that they had lined up their own deal and were waiting to see what offer we would accept in order to inform the rest of the market what we would be willing to accept, therefore he could then go to a club who had bid below what they may have lined up with another club and they would get a bigger proportional cut of the fee. Paddy McNair has played very few games and has been injury prone, only one club has tried to match Middlesbrough’s valuation of him, that’s Stoke.

ALS: What about Kone?

SD: Kone has been very quiet and his agent hasn’t said anything, and we have a feeling that they are playing the long game and waiting for us to panic on transfer deadline day and accept a much lower offer. We want fees on every single player, there’s three or four that wouldn’t command a fee, but McNair said he didn’t want to play, but we haven’t had an offer that matches our valuation, so we will keep him. Naturally, his agent protested and said, ‘yeah but you’ll need to sell him.’ That’s not the case, like I said earlier it’s not going anywhere if we can generate income elsewhere which will mean he can stay here unless our valuation is met. After speaking to 75% of the squad, Jack Ross reported back that only Ethan Robson wanted to stay and after he held discussions with the other 25%, three or four more expressed a desire to stay. Each player has an individual value and we will be determined to not sell for less thank these market values. There is still a discrepancy because we still need to pay money owed on the likes of Didier Ndong, Ricky Alvarez and other signings we’ve made over the past few years and we have an agreement with Ellis thereby he will split the money with outstanding payments, 50:50. If we don’t get what is on the sheet for Ndong then we can fund the shortfall. In terms of the fit and proper persons test we were cautious on money generated in player sales but we were strong on the way we can bring costs down etc. I had to prove I had the funds to cover the running of the club even if there was no player sales and obviously I met that criteria. To be honest if we sat down in a room we probably could have done it in half a day, all of money has come from heavily regulated businesses. Regulated far tougher than any football club, it’s not like I’m a gunman from Peru! There are quite a lot of variables and we have a lot of work to do to fit our own business plan.

ALS: Has your openness with fanzines like ourselves made things more difficult with the traditional local media outlets?

SD: It’ll probably put people’s noses out of joint, because all the fan groups will find out stuff first. I did this approach at Eastleigh because when I was at Oxford and I tried to help out with my shirt sponsorship and gift donations were forgotten about as soon as I wrote the cheque. But I remember what football used to be like where the fans did matter, and I did this at Eastleigh and I saw the passion of the fans and they felt like they were part of a football club and we went from crowds of 350 to nearly 4 or 5,000. It’s much easier there to communicate because it’s on a much smaller scale, this way I can communicate to the fans via people like yourselves because I can’t answer every single person’s queries. Through being on Twitter I’ve helped people get seasons tickets, I’ve sold a few boxes, I’ve gained offers from roofers for work on the stadium. I’m sure in the future things won’t always go well, but I’m sure if there are genuine concerns I can be open and honest about them with what I can change. I work for the fans, on their behalf. I’ve experienced bad times at a football club so I’m fully aware of the repercussions of not doing well. My love of this comes on a Saturday afternoon, I just want to go to the away games, with my boys, have a burger, buy a programme, pay to go in and enjoy my Saturday and I’ll bump into fans and have a quick word, but I am there to just watch the football. Home games I can’t do that as easily, but the away games I’m massively looking forward to them I just want to be in with the Sunderland fans and hear the noise and feel the atmosphere. That’s a really big thing for me, doing this, my football experience, when the games come I just want to be in with Sunderland fans, really and experience it all.

ALS run buses to every single away game the SAFC play. Click here for a list of prices and times.