Sometimes it is better to wait and ponder rather than rush in with a hot head, wise men do say that it’s only fools that do that type of thing after all. In a mixed up world at the moment you might be forgiven for thinking that nothing too outrageously newsworthy would spring from Sunderland AFC at the moment, after all, there’s no football happening. Then again, if you did think that then you probably haven’t been following Sunderland that closely for the past ten years; the club always has the knack of plunging from frying pan to fire. Where did it all go wrong… this time?
The first in a series of debacles coming from the boardroom broke in mid May with national newspapers claiming that they had seen a set of leaked accounts which had deterred potential investors due to a £20.5m hole in the accounts. A hole which neatly fitted the amount of one of the parachute payments. There was, of course, nothing new in that itself, we were all fairly certain that parachute payments had been used to purchase the club; however, there was something new in the fact that the £20.5m had been written off. Effectively this means that Madrox were no longer under any obligation to repay the money. There was no legally enforceable debt owed to the club by Madrox. The club released a statement saying that large swathes of the parachute money had gone back in to SAFC, but to blame fanzines and fans for the takeovers going flat suddenly seemed incredibly disingenuous.
The FPP investment, which looks like a loan to Madrox given that charges were registered over club assets, remains shrouded in mystery. What do billionaire Americans want with a £9m loan in a club in League One? What has the money been spent on? Is the lift in the academy now working? The Sunderland Echo recently published an open letter for more transparency around FPP’s plans, an understandable move, but one which betrays the desperation that Sunderland fans have at the moment. Our Titanic has sunk, our lifeboat is leaking and there’s some nasty looking grey clouds on the horizon as we bob along, adrift in the lower league ocean. We are hopeful that rescue helicopters are circling rather than sharks.
Around three weeks later the next chapter opened. Against the backdrop of shadowy Zoom meetings with the rest of the League One clubs about whether we would continue our season the club released an update to its season card holders regarding the renewals. They recognised that “supporting those who support us is paramount.” The support of those who had already renewed for next season was “much appreciated, and it will not be forgotten.” Refunds would be issued to season card holders for un-played games this season. For those renewing you would get a streaming pass if games were played behind closed doors and all that at no extra cost! Presumably that would mean season card holders would get a refund for any games played behind closed doors. Well actually, it wasn’t that clear about that point in the update. The Q&A was a lot clearer.
“In the event that any 2020-21 games are played behind closed doors, season card holders would receive a streaming pass only for the corresponding games and no further refund would be provided either by way of cash or voucher.”
Hang on, would we get a streaming pass and a refund?
What about if there are a few people in the same house, surely we’d get one streaming pass and some refund?
Well what happened to “supporting those who support us”? What happened to the loyalty being “much appreciated.” Social media went into a frenzy and public declarations of withdrawal of support via season cards started pouring in. The temerity of leaning on supporters who are in the middle of a global pandemic that is likely to provoke an economic crisis even for those who have not lost their jobs or businesses while the club have decided that they aren’t going to hold a legal charge on the money that Stewart Donald borrowed from the club to buy the club was too much for many. The bluntness of the Q & A made the club sound like a petulant child and Jim Rodwell made an attempt to clarify the messages whilst softening the tone. Still no refunds though chaps. There was a commitment to work with supporter groups on this and so a meeting was called for Friday 12th June. Mr Rodwell (not that one thankfully) would listen to feedback from “supporters’ groups” and take it from there.
The season ended on 9th June. Four clubs who voted that it was entirely unsafe to continue the season ended up in the play offs and therefore being the only four clubs who would continue the season. Who’d have predicted that? A bitter pill as Jim Rodwell put it. This meant that the season card issues now needed addressing more than ever. Interestingly enough to get a refund for this season you have to apply according to the message coming from the club on 12 June. Now I don’t know about any other season card holders, but I haven’t received a letter from the club spelling that out. I am au fait with social media and how to access the club website. Others will not be. I do wonder how they know that they have to apply for a refund or how they go about doing that.
Similarly, I wonder how many of those have had a chance to digest the conditions around season cards. However, following the meeting with fan groups progress was made. For any games played behind closed doors, a pro-rata refund would be given to supporters or, alternatively, a streaming pass. Rodwell also referred to the emotional attachment to season cards which he had underestimated. In terms of a climb down he was clearly intent on winning over hearts and minds. The fact is though that the damage had already been done for a lot of fans. Fans felt they had been treated with contempt, and there was still the question of £20.5m hanging around like a rotten fish tucked down the back of the sofa.
I personally have no emotional attachment to a rectangle of plastic; I have an emotional attachment to the club and the past few years have tested that attachment greatly. In my view every single supporter who had season cards during the concurrent league one seasons has shown loyalty beyond what anybody could ask. When Charlie Methven stood on the pitch and announced the attendance of 46,000 against Bradford we were proud to be there, it was a “look at us” moment. A year later we were apparently to blame for the takeover deals falling through. In actual fact, we fulfilled our side of the deal and the messages around season cards tore many a frayed cord.
Unfortunately, the frustration doesn’t end there. Against Wolves, two teams said goodbye to the Championship with very different destinations. John O’Shea handed the captain’s armband to Bali Mumba and we saw a number of academy prospects deliver solid performances that gave us hope that we could start again with a completely different blueprint. We had a world class academy that had produced England players, a Champions League winning captain and a heroic World Cup penalty king. We would be fine. Since then we saw Maja and Asoro go. What was even worse was that players were leaving before they even had the chance to break into the first team as Premier League academies swooped for our starlets. Then the news broke that Mumba could be sold. The one jewel in the crown for Sunderland is our academy. It is, no doubt, difficult for a Category 1 Academy to exist at a League One club where your rivals largely have the glamour of the Premier League to dangle in front of our prospects but to lose players like Mumba is criminal. If this club is to rise again the academy needs to become the foundation of the entire operation and to neglect that is not only the antithesis of the “Dortmund Model” but an abhorrent illustration of short termism. If we are that desperate for the money, then why are we constantly told that the club is in a strong financial position?
Then there are the first teamers leaving. Lafferty has gone and is joined by Watmore, Ozturk, Baldwin, Lynch and Robson have already gone. Flanagan, Maguire and Mclaughlin have been offered new deals, whether the deals offer enough of an incentive for them to stay at a club where everything is pointing in a downward direction remains to be seen. We have yet to receive an update on whether the extension to Luke O’Nien’s contract has been triggered.
All of this leaves us in a position where we will once again need to build a team. In some ways that may be easier as other League One clubs will be in similar positions. So too may some Championship teams. The next spell of recruitment is possibly the most important in recent seasons and Sunderland cannot be left behind. It is terrifying to think where poor recruitment will leave us. I have always said that Sunderland fans only ask for one thing, success at a modest level. I am not afraid to say that League One is beneath us. That is not arrogance, that’s the mark of a club that can command an attendance of 46,000 in the third tier of English football and hold the same number of League titles as Manchester City.
We are not demanding that we win the league or play in the Champions League’ we just do not accept that we are a League One club and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. The fact that we are being run like a League One club shows a fundamental disconnect between the boardroom and the supporters. The expectation levels have a chasmic degree of separation and, in my opinion, that chasm will remain as long as the current owners remain. Investment is badly needed and there is only so long you can claim you have done a good job because you have cut costs. The transparency and openness promised in the opening months has become shrouded by holes in the accounts and misinformation and secrecy around the FPP investment or loan or whatever it is.
If Stewart Donald does not want to sell, then he needs to think about what he promised when he first came in. He needs to return to those promises and be honest with himself about whether he has delivered. Perhaps he could revisit them and rediscover what he set out to achieve in the first place.
Sadly, for him, I think he has left it too late.