Pink Floyd talk about the sensible things to do with money – ‘grab the cash with both hands and make a stash’ before deciding to waste it on ‘new car, caviar, four star daydream, think I’ll buy me a football team’.
If Pink Floyd could see that buying a football club was an insane waste of money back in 1972 we can’t claim that this is the first time that it’s been a problem. Equally, we can’t claim we’ve always been on the poor side of the argument. Remember that, in the post war years, we were known as the Bank of England club, able to buy any player we wanted. Of course, unlike City, United or Chelsea who used their immense financial advantage to win things, we managed a third-place finish before the superstars fell out with each other and it all went wrong again.
As well as gracing the pitch at that time, Shack described what happened perfectly, saying they were more a collection of talented individuals than a true team.
That’s how I feel more and more when I watch the Premier League - talented individuals interested in themselves more than the team. I see players on the same team who struggle to pick the run of their team mate because there’s no link between them, no stories of teams going off together socially. But at the end of games, the elite embrace their friends from other teams, talking behind hands to prevent lip readers knowing what’s been said (and let’s be honest, you wouldn’t worry about lip readers if you were asking how his family was), huge smiles on their faces despite the fact one of them has lost.
The Manchester United team of the 90s were all ludicrously well paid. So well paid that six of them can afford a football team as a hobby. But they didn’t have that attitude. They played as a team. They played for the team, for the club. Many local lads came up through the ranks with coaches to explain the history and what was expected if you played there, captains like Bruce and Keane who you knew would give everything for the cause and would expect every one of their team to do the same and a manager who had had to work for everything he’d achieved in his life. Behind the scenes there was a massive effort to build the youth set up and grow strong relationships with local businesses both large and small. Many people hated that team, many still hate that club but I look back with admiration at the last team in this country (in my opinion) to get to the top the right way.
Yes, he made signings and he spent a few quid but it wasn’t that he signed proven European players and internationals to fill gaps. He signed players from Torquay, Middlesbrough, Oldham, a young keeper with potential from Brondby, an impossible Frenchman from Leeds to work with the young players we were told he’d win nothing with. And in all of those early years as they got to the top the club made profits. They were self sufficient.
That’s the only way to run any business in the long term – to be self sufficient. I’ve started three businesses and have never borrowed a penny in any of them. It’s been hard work but, by structuring them properly (I hope!) from day one, we’ve worked within our means and grown. Some would say we might have grown quicker if we’d gambled more and borrowed big to fund expansion. That’s true, we might have done but we might have lost the lot and I wasn’t prepared to gamble my family home and the homes of my employees to maybe get where we wanted to end up a little quicker.
The point I’m trying to make is that in any business, we use the skills we have and the gifts we’re given, hard work and energy to move us forwards – not to the promised land in one step but gradually, constantly reviewing where we are, constantly developing our skills while strengthening what we already had. We cannot be waiting for handouts from others, especially handouts from people we want to be our competitors! Imagine that in any other business situation – my small chain of shops isn’t doing very well at the moment, Tesco, could you pay my staff for a while? Not only would Tesco never do that, why would you want to be a business reliant on hand me downs from competitors?
For some businesses there’s a natural ceiling created by a lack of customers or product in which case the sensible business person cuts their cloth to work with that restriction. They either accept that and enjoy the limited spoils and minor successes or they look at other ways to move forwards with new markets and new products.
In football, though, there is a different argument as well which I shouldn’t ignore. Should it be a business at all? Should it be local community sports clubs run for the benefit of their communities? I like that idea. I love the idea that all players come from a 20 mile radius of the club, passionate about their team. Imagine if ‘he’s one of own’ was never sung again, not because there were no local players but rather because it was a given. It’d be awesome. But it’s a dream. We are where we are – football is a business and clubs need to be competitive off the field as much as (if not more than) on it to survive. But how can clubs be competitive over a medium and long term?
Three things are clear, whether you’re Manchester United in the 1990s, Sunderland in the late 1940s or Accrington Stanley in 2020 - by investing in youth programmes and making them the envy of other clubs, by working with local businesses and trying to encourage working together projects and by engaging with fans and making them proud of every aspect of the club success can be achieved. But not by being beholden to clubs who happen to be the big boys currently.
At Sunderland, whoever is in charge of running the club needs to work on those three aspects. Time and energy must be committed to the academy, developing younger players within a structure and plan which other clubs would envy – at the moment we don’t even have someone in charge.
With all the empty seats at the Stadium of Light appearing on streams across the world, local businesses would love the chance to get their names on those seats, banners covering, say 50 seats from now until Christmas, assuming the price was right. Businesses are looking for places to hold business meetings away from offices to encourage small groups of staff to meet without needing to worry about laying out two metre markers and keeping a ready supply of masks. What better place than the Stadium of Light? Are we looking to make inroads with these businesses at the moment? Perhaps even help out businesses that are struggling to broaden the future appeal of the club in those business people’s minds. Since Tony Davison and, to give credit where it is due, Charlie Methven, left, do we have anyone in that role working with and talking to local businesses?
And then we move to fan engagement, feeling proud and wanting to be more involved. Well that’s the job of the chairman. The figurehead of the club who leads all aspects from the academy to business relationships to financial management to first team progress with each section managed separately but guided by the top man. Again, at Sunderland we don’t have anyone fulfilling the role. How can we possibly move forwards?
The future of our club or any other club shouldn’t involve hand outs from Manchester City. Yes, the way TV money and cup revenues are shared out is completely out of balance but 92 clubs should look at that issue and try to resolve it rather than 6 making a weak gesture that, in the long term, keeps them in an even lower risk position, to return to Pink Floyd ‘share it fairly but don’t take a slice of my pie’. Until that happens, we need to deal with the position we find ourselves in and step one for all clubs should be to make themselves self sufficient.
If an owner chooses to gift money to a club to help it at the moment, that’s fine, that’s effectively what Pink Floyd were talking about, and remember that by helping financially now, the club’s value improves in the long term and will be represented by capital growth for the owner in the future. I dislike the idea of owners lending money to clubs because of what happens when it goes wrong or the interest charges made by people like Glazer adding to the potential unsustainability of once financially secure clubs. Inevitably at Sunderland we’ve gone the other way. Not only do we have no chairman, no business interaction and no academy boss, we’re in a situation where the club has lent the owners money rather than the other way around.
The position is clear – we need the right people in the right jobs and, in this time where funding sources are tricky, we need the owners to repay the money they’ve borrowed or acknowledge that loan in their valuation of the club, move on and let other people work on the above list. Those steps, along with our new policy of never conceding goals, should see us move back up the football pyramid, slowly but surely, as a well structured, self sufficient club, not jumping to take charity at any cost.