Having recently interviewed head honchos Stewart Donald and Charlie Methven, we sent Tom Lynn along to catch up with his old mate and Sunderland’s recently installed managing director, Tony Davison, for an exclusive interview – accompanied, of course, by an icy cold pint of Heineken in the Ivy House, straight after the former Tottenham Hotspur employee’s first day at graft at SAFC.
Davison is a Sunderland fan, and former club employee, we previously had his mobile phone number saved as Samson the Cat, from over 20 years ago, but have now changed it to MD @SAFC!
Samson the Cat to SAFC managing director! How does that happen?
I left Sunderland after the 19-point season, volunteered for redundancy and went traveling round Australia and then worked for IMG, who are a big sports marketing agency. Working on the Wembley project, I stayed at IMG for seven years, working in tennis, the Olympics, the Euros and all sorts of different projects. I then went to work for a different agency called Lagardere. Funnily enough, I worked on the Tanzania project for Sunderland Football Club, as well as LED and that sort of thing.
From there, I went to work for Oxford United. I knew of Charlie Methven, and we’d met a few times before. I got a call from Charlie about a commercial director role with the option to end up as managing director. Basically, sorting out the commercial side at Oxford United. That’s when I first worked for Charlie. When they sold the club, I went to work for Charlie’s agency, a PR firm dealing with luxury clients. It was a lot of fun. And then onto Tottenham. As much as PR is interesting, the chance to get back into football with Spurs working on the new stadium was exciting. I’d have still been there, in all honesty, I loved working for Spurs, it’s a very well-run football club, very well organised, commercially sensible and it was a massive project, we had to generate £200 million of revenue to fund the loans that were building the stadium.
But, as these things happen, I met Charlie in a pub and we talked about his potential purchase of Oxford and how to run a football club. Next thing you know, Oxford turns into Sunderland and now I’m back working for Sunderland again!
And how did that conversation progress to you being offered the role?
My sort of model on purchasing football clubs, if you like, was: you buy a club that can get more than 20,000 fans, a club used to playing in a higher division than they are currently in and a club who own their stadium. At the time of the conversation, Sunderland wasn’t really on our radar, it was saddled with so much debt that it didn’t make for a sensible investment. I think, at the time, it wasn’t a conversation centered specifically around Charlie buying a specific football club, it was just a general conversation. Next thing you know, we met at an event when things started to get real and he’s asking who we should speak to. I told him that he should talk to the guys from ALS, Bob Murray etc. Basically, we were just formulating how they would go about organising a takeover,
When talks progressed between the interested parties, who all knew each other very well (especially Ellis Short, Charlie and Stewart Donald), and it was discussed about me coming back. I loved working at Spurs with the amazing new stadium project. Everything was set up to be fantastic, But the role of managing director at SAFC and the chance to help turn around the club I love. Every fan felt the way I felt: gutted at the way the club was going. But, I was one of the few people who could do something about it.
You’ll have to relocate your family back to Sunderland and the goldfish bowl the city is, not to mention that if things aren’t going well some fans will grief you.
It’s hard not to look at some of the treatment previous staff members have had at Sunderland Football Club and it does put you in two minds. At the same time, the opportunity is there for me to do something about the state of my cub.
And the opportunity may never come along again?
It won’t ever happen again. The chance to take over a club that’s just had two relegations with two people that you know and trust and it just so happens to be your team, you can’t say no to that. It was a bizarre evening we had when we were having a couple of drinks and a chat in the West End, then suddenly I’m home to tell the wife that I think I’m the new managing director of Sunderland Football Club.
And your wife understood?
Yeah, she’s been good about the whole thing. She understood I couldn’t turn it down.
So, what sort of background and qualification did you have upon leaving Sunderland after that 19-point season?
Jim Slater, when he was at Sunderland, put me through the Institute of Marketing exams etc. Sunderland paid for it at the time. I’d had a good grounding at Sunderland, a really good apprenticeship in PR, marketing, and hospitality, even helping out in the ticket office and obviously, a stint as mascot. Literally done everything at the club. And that was the thing with Samson the Cat, what needed to be done had to be done, so I did it. That’s what we’re trying to get that mentality back at the club.
Tell us about your relationships with, and opinions on, Stewart Donald and Charlie Methven? They’ve made an immediate impression with their openness with the club’s fanbase but what should we expect in the long term from them?
Stewart and Charlie are proper football fans, even though they’re cut from different cloth. Stewart very much prefers to be behind the goal with fans shouting and balling and Charlie is more at home in the boardroom, so they do complement each other very well and they are both good fun to be around. We won’t agree on everything, but we do have similar mindset on the fact that you can run a football club properly. And that if you run it for the point of running a football club, which is to provide somewhere for people to go and watch football together and hopefully be part of something amazing. We may disagree sometimes, but the end goal is the same.
Is there a toughness to Stewart in his business dealings despite his nice guy image?
He’s been involved in football with Oxford and Eastleigh for years, football is his passion. But, make no mistake, Stewart Donald is a very smart cookie and a very smart businessman.
So, do you know Charlie a bit better than Stewart given you’ve worked closely with him?
Charlie sits in an open plan office in a swanky location in Mayfair, at the same time he works extraordinarily hard, he’s at some different event every night of the week. He’s always on the go, always working and he’s a brilliant salesman and influencer. He’s in PR for a reason, because he tells the truth and speaks from the heart, he always says that he doesn’t have to remember his lies, because he doesn’t tell any! He speaks with passion and gusto, it’s hard not to get carried away in that enthusiasm.
Dya think Charlie reins Stewart in a bit?
I think they rein each other in for different reasons. They really do complement each other, but, again, they are working towards a very singular goal. They have the same view on what a football club should be.
Do you see them as a team, despite Stewart being the outright owner? An almost Quinn and Phillips-like duo.
They both know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. It is, as you say, like Quinn and Philips almost. They’re both good at different aspects, and they’re both good at speaking to people. We have two people who’ll be the front of the club before we didn’t have anyone. No one would turn up to events or speak to fanzines. Now we have two people and they’re not available for whatever reasons, then I can step in.
What do you make of the new age of fan interaction?
I think if we lose the first three games then a few fans will be saying that perhaps we should have spent less time doing ALS interviews, but you can’t spend 24 hours trying to sign footballers. There won’t be silence or lies, that’s the key thing. This approach is part of where we need to get to. ALS and the fanzines are the right routes, we have to speak to the mainstream media too and we’ll have to do our own website. But, if we want to speak straight to the heart of the fans. I mean, why wouldn’t we engage with ALS?
At the minute, Stewart and Charlie are spending a lot of time on Sunderland and they both have other businesses to run, they might not be accessible all the time, but they’ll want to be. They want to speak to the fans and be honest with the fans because that will create a “one club mentality” if you want to call it that. They talk about Borussia Dortmund, their commercial director over at Dortmund is actually a Boro fan. Even at Spurs, they’re trying to recreate the yellow wall with a single tier stand behind the goal.
People have looked at that Dortmund model and believe it’s the right way to go. It is the right way to go for a club like Sunderland. We shouldn’t be trying to compete with Tottenham, we’re a different type of club. I want people to come to Sunderland and not enjoy it if you’re an away fan. When Quinn and Phillips were upfront, I remember Sol Campbell getting absolutely battered and Quinn scoring two. Spurs fans and players absolutely hated coming to Sunderland, it being cold up North and all that and their fans going home cold and unhappy.
We want that sort of mentality again…
Part Two to follow…