When, in April almost three years ago, it became apparent that the tenure of Ellis Short was coming to an end, we were already relegated from the Championship, and the new consortium was hovering in the wings. Stewart Donald sold his interest in Eastleigh FC and set Charlie Methven away on a charm offensive on Wearside. Charlie met with some fans to discuss what the fans wanted, made all the right noises in reply, and was a smiling onlooker a few days later when we smashed the already-promoted Wolves 3-0.
Over the following season, Donald and Methven were there amongst us, shaking hands, buying pints, standing with our travelling fans, and thanking us for our support. Their gamble was that Sunderland were too big to be where they were, that the bones of our relegated squad and our historical momentum would be sufficient to ensure a rapid bounce back into the Championship and above, and we, the fans, unsurprisingly bought in to that. After years of waiting for something positive to happen, we were eager to jump on the latest magic carpet that floated into view and that’s exactly what we did.
While some questioned the motives of the new owners, most of us were taken in by the promise of a rapid reversal of our fortunes and initially enjoyed the ride. Charlie Methven had contacts around the world thanks to his PR work and they included the football-mad Uruguayan businessman Juan Sartori, who came to Sunderland, kicked a ball about with the fans, and had Russian in-laws who were rich beyond belief. All good for the future, we thought. Donald in season one, Sartori in season two, and his in-laws the season after that. However, when results didn’t go as planned and it became apparent that the details of the financial complexities behind the change in ownership were beyond the comprehension of anyone without qualifications in accountancy and diplomacy, we began to question just how realistic progress on and off the field was.
The more we knew, the less we understood and the more grew concerned and when the expected quick upturn in our fortunes didn’t materialise, and neither did the associated upturn in our value, things went a bit sour. These things drove a wedge between owners and fans, and Donald didn’t help by announcing at the end of 2019 that he would try to sell the club because the fans no longer appreciated him, when it had effectively been on the market since day one of his tenure.
Nobody would have begrudged a profit for Donald and company had it arrived thanks to Sunderland charging up the leagues, but when that charge became less and less likely, the fans shouted for change. Various takeovers were dangled in front of us. Dell, Sartori’s in-laws, Billy “Whizz” Storey, without anything happening. Donald abdicated his chairmanship last summer and effectively left us a rudderless ship, while trying to sell the club because "long-term success cannot be achieved by a disunited club."
Basically, had we gone up at the first time of asking, the club would have been worth more, been infinitely more saleable, would almost certainly have been sold quickly, Donald and Methven would have made a tidy sum, we fans wouldn’t have cared less, and Sartori would have been wondering what it was all about. However, taking us for granted, and taking us for mugs by underestimating how much we feel connected to our club was a mistake and one that ultimately and fatally fractured the relationship they’d built. We’re Northern, not stupid and we understand a lot more about business than they thought.
Then along came Kyril Louis Dreyfus, apparently after being in negotiations for several months. We fans could be forgiven for regarding his potential interest with a barrow-load of salt, given the very recent failure of Dell, Billy Whizz, and various other rumoured take-overs to materialise. Enough has been written about KLD’s background and financial clout to make my commenting on them unnecessary, and while the announcement of his potential takeover being made on Christmas Eve might have smacked of yet another piece of PR, it was tasty enough to make our Christmas a little bit merrier. After all, we were, and still are, eager for good news to the extent that we tend to latch onto anything positive, albeit with our fingers crossed.
A big “but”, however, is that the law of “once bitten, twice shy” applies to Sunderland fans more than any other group of people, so it was difficult not to be a little cynical of his interest. Nevertheless, we spoke to people, we calculated his wealth, and we wondered how much of it he’d be willing to chuck our way. The deal was apparently accepted by Donald and company, then the EFL ratification process began, and with every passing day we fans wondered just how likely the takeover was to actually happen, until it did.
KLD has attended our last three games, which must mean that he has a genuine interest in what happens on the field, and will, despite his tender years, have seen both the potential and what is required to realise it. He’ll have noticed that our division’s provider of the most assists is George Honeyman, a local lad we sold for a pittance, and that just behind him is Aiden McGeady, despite having only played since December. He has to realise that both recruitment and retention of players is paramount, it’s all very well giving Maja his chance, but it’s madness to get rid when his goals would have brought promotion. Get the scouting network up and running, and make sure that any local talent is given its chance with Sunderland, and made a part of our future if they’re up to it rather than letting them find success elsewhere. Long-term on-field benefit for the club, rather than short-term financial gain.
Equally, with his business qualifications and background and with his involvement with Marseilles and Standard Liege, he must see that paying over the odds for a player who doesn’t really want to come, while it makes good telly, is plain wrong. Speaking of good telly, he’ll presumably have seen Sunderland ‘til I Die, if he hasn’t, he should and from that he’ll have picked up a few tips on how not to behave and how not to negotiate a transfer and how not to treat your staff.
What he needs to do next, and it will be made much easier because of the lifting of the salary cap, is to invest wisely without splashing the cash madly. As another ALS writer has explained, just because he can doesn’t mean he should. The last thing we want to become, again, is a rest-home for has-beens wanting a last payday and mercenaries wanting a quick buck without ever buying into what Sunderland AFC is all about. We’ve had enough of the likes of Djilibodji, Lens, Ndong, and the like, and we can’t afford (however much money KLD has) to build a team of overpaid players with nobody to step in when they inevitably move on. Buy a team this year, and you’ve got to buy another one next year.
We’ve already made big changes to football side of the club structure, what with the appointment of Speakman and Johnson in a modern set-up of Sporting Director and Head Coach, and I’m sure that this restructuring was one of the conditions of the takeover. Another thing requiring a rebuild is the relationship with the fans. The previous owners had to do it in the wake of Ellis Short’s self-imposed distancing of himself from the SoL, and we fans could be forgiven for being sceptical of yet another bridge-building exercise. We want nothing more than to be part of the club again, and KLD needs to find the right match to light the touch-paper to our support. Of course, the fact that we currently can’t attend makes that all the more difficult, but the obvious first step in that rebuilding of bridges is to win games. Nowt makes us happier than winning games, so he needs to do whatever it takes to keep that happening.
However, “whatever it takes” has to be honest and above board. No more subterfuge and mysterious financial complications. We clamoured for transparency with the previous owners, and while we initially got it before it vanished in a cloud of smoke and a flash of mirrors, we want transparency this time to be simple. Not because we’re thick, but because there’s no need for transparency to be anything but simple. If there’s nowt to hide, don’t make it look like there is, but, most importantly, make sure there’s nowt to hide in the first place.
Be honest, be open, be sensible, choose your words carefully, don’t take the fans for granted, don’t underestimate our knowledge of our club and football in general, don’t take advantage of our loyalty, and get the right people around you to formulate a plan for at least the next five years and stick to that plan.
In summary, there’s nothing in the requirements above that you’ve not read before, as they’re all pretty obvious things and that’s because the same things are still required of whoever owns us. We’re not asking for anything that any football fan wouldn’t want of their club’s owner. Only the names have changed, and we can perhaps be forgiven for any feelings of déjà vu.
The fans still want the things that we thought we were getting in the summer of 2018, it’s that simple. So please, let us get what we want this time…