Niall Quinn and John Hays had a lot of fun. Particularly in the early days and especially on away trips. The routine was well-rehearsed: the club driver would pick them up, before Quinn called a halt to the journey and darted into the nearest newsagents for a copy of the Racing Post. A few pints near the ground before the match, then further carousing in the directors’ box. The trip home was usually accompanied by three points.
When Hays recounted his time as the club’s vice-chairman to me several years after he had arrived as part of the Drumaville consortium back in 2006, the giddiness had not quite left him. He spoke with glee about those trips to see his boyhood club, the joy of being involved in a genuine revolution.
His and the chairman’s journeys up and down the land in that first year of ownership threw up plenty of yarns. Few who saw Hays and Quinn galloping across the grass outside Hull City’s KC Stadium are likely to have forgotten the sight. Fully suited and bearing expressions of panic, Sunderland’s most senior directors were frantically trying to avoid missing kick-off after staying in the pub a tad too long.
Similarly, anyone who was at Bristol Airport and bore witness to Quinn’s famous “These are my people” proclamation, and then boarded one of the many taxis he summoned to save their stranded souls, will doubtless still be recounting the story to all who will listen.
Hays did stray towards an inkling of regret. “It was, at times,” he pondered, “perhaps a bit unprofessional really.” Yet any such concerns were quickly – and rightly – dismissed. His and Quinn’s and Drumaville’s mission had not been just to fix things on the pitch. It had also been to repair an off-field bond that was close to severing.
Fast-forward to 2018 and much the same is the remit of Stewart Donald, Charlie Methven, Juan Sartori and the host of other new faces that have arrived on Wearside since that defining day at the end of April, when Chris Coleman was fired and Ellis Short announced his imminent departure from the club.
Donald and co. arrived at the Stadium of Light and found before them an empty husk of a football club. Two successive relegations and countless uncaring players left behind an atmosphere that was at best apathetic and at worst downright toxic. Laying a sledgehammer to the playing squad and replacing it with players fit for purpose was the main task at hand, but bringing back on board thousands of disillusioned fans even before the season kicked off was not too far behind it.
As soon as the new owners showed up on the scene, they set about fixing the club’s image. Methven’s declaration on his first day that “the piss-taking party is over” has swiftly taken on cult status, but far more telling was a comment he made as recently as the beginning of August. Talking to FC Business magazine, Sunderland’s new Executive Director said, “We aren’t just ‘owners’ – we are custodians of an institution.”
That sentence, combined with the words and actions of the new hierarchy since they took the reins 101 days ago, is indicative of the sea change that has taken place at the top of the club in a remarkably short space of time. Donald and Methven quickly realised, much like Quinn and Hays before them, that the only way to truly turn around the fortunes of Sunderland AFC was to tug at the heartstrings of a set of supporters who have been crying out for a reason to take pride in their club.
To that end, they have undertaken numerous steps. Where Quinn famously went on his roadshow, holding forth with supporters’ branches in a (successful) bid to bring them back onside, so Donald and Methven have embarked upon a public relations trip of their own. Fanzines have been schmoozed, granted access and information all summer long; the Red and White Army group (RAWA), ignored by Short, has been met with genuine interest on the club’s behalf; hell, fans have even been allowed to offer their own services in restoring the club to its former glories, taking part as they have in a mass refit of the stadium’s seats.
Scepticism is ready at hand when you’re a Sunderland fan. It is easy to scoff. Methven is a PR man and knows just what to say without really meaning it; the new owners know that getting fanzines and RAWA onside helps them control the message; getting supporters to fit their own seats for nothing saves on labour costs. All are criticisms that have been levelled at the new men since their arrival. None are necessarily without some truth.
Donald and Methven do know, for example, that buttering up fans and fanzines is key. They mightn’t want to control the message, per se, but they will hope to build up something of a buffer should things hit the rocks at any point. Similarly, while the collective seat fitting was unlikely a solely financial decision (if it were, it wouldn’t have taken place at all), there were still monetary advantages in getting the masses to do it themselves.
Yet there is a pervading sense that the new ownership really is looking to do right by the club and its followers. Donald’s openness on Twitter came to be criticised, not least by myself, but it is a struggle to put it down to anything more malicious than naivety. The new owner’s decision to engage with fans on social media seems now to have been one not born of seeking the limelight, but rather an acknowledgement that this was the quickest way to talk to individual fans. As Donald said himself, “connecting with people on Twitter has sold executive boxes for the club this season.” The method mightn’t have been perfect – Donald, after letting slip too much information on transfers, has taken a step back in recent weeks – but it is increasingly difficult to question the underlying aims.
Winning four of the first five league games has helped curry favour, how couldn’t it, but it would be wrong to ignore the fact that such results have been facilitated by the leavening of the mood across all areas of the club. Where Coleman was asked to revive a club on its uppers with practically zero support from elsewhere, Jack Ross has been able to seize upon the opportunities that a clean slate and a reinvigorated fan base offer up. Where once gloom eked into every crevice of the Academy of Light, now positivity is the order of the day. One need only watch the joviality of Max Power’s Instagram feed to get a sense of how the good feeling introduced by the owners has cascaded down to the playing squad.
The story of Jane Moran, highlighted by George Caulkin of The Times last week, is another which only heightens the sense that the new owners could not be more different from those previously at the helm. A lifelong fan facing up to the dwindling health of her similarly ardent father, Jane could not quite believe it when Donald reached out to her, offering to come and visit a man whom is unlikely to be able to make it to the Stadium of Light again. That both Donald and Sartori took it upon themselves to visit her father in his home was telling; that they did not court publicity when doing it, instead leaving it up to Jane to share the news if she desired, is even more so. There is a genuineness that has been all too lacking in recent years.
The sight of the club’s directors venturing to the Colliery Tavern on a regular basis might look pre-meditated if taken in isolation. Sartori’s venture to the South Stand during the Scunthorpe game likewise. But when all the tales are bunched together they instead give off the impression that, much like Drumaville over a decade ago, this is a group which wants to both elevate the club and enjoy themselves along the way. Indeed, they see the latter as directly linked to the former.
News yesterday morning confirming the clearing of the entirety of the club’s external debts has engendered yet more goodwill towards those at the top. It has been one of the key statements from day one, declared by Short and reinforced a few weeks later by Donald, but still a wariness remained while the loan remained unsatisfied at Companies House. Now it feels foolish to have doubted their word. Sunderland AFC is debt-free and, finally, is presented with a base upon which to build solid foundations.
Donald and Methven have worked assiduously to plan for the club’s future. To hear talk of living within the club’s means is, after years of waste, music to the ears. It has meant some tough choices, not least the rounds of redundancies that stand out at odds with an otherwise positivity-laden summer. But when those tough choices are backed up by an openness that doesn’t go too far and sensibilities that should be a prerequisite for running a community club such as this – the owners have confirmed they are budgeting for without parachute payments, knowing as we all do that they do not last forever – then such decisions are far easier to stomach.
Deep down, it is that sense of community which has fomented the shoots of revival that we have witnessed up to now. Donald and Methven are not from the northeast. Sartori most certainly isn’t. Yet all three, in a very short space of time, have tapped into the region and realised the importance of bringing people together. They witnessed a club and its fan base on the brink of divorce and moved quickly to bind the two more closely.
It will not all be plain sailing. To err is human and human is all they are. But they have made as good a start as can be hoped. Should defeats arrive they will not do so out of a lack of care or effort. After years of those such failings manifesting themselves in red and white shirts, such a departure is something to celebrate.
Sunderland stepped into their brave new world 101 days ago. The body of evidence so far highlights exactly what we hoped it would. Just like John Hays and Niall Quinn all those years ago, Sunderland’s new owners ‘get it’.