It was fitting, really, that the final notable act of Sunderland AFC’s year came off the field rather than on it. Even before the Covid-19 pandemic laid waste to sizeable chunks of the footballing calendar, 2020 was already likely to be more notable for events surrounding the wider club than the actual football.
With Stewart Donald reported to have put the club up for sale on December 30th last year – and then confirming as much in person on BBC Radio Newcastle three days into January – it seemed pretty clear that events in the boardroom would garner their fair share of attention.
So it proved. An extraordinary year saw Donald claim back in January that the sale would take ‘only a month or two’, minority shareholder Charlie Methven state, in the same month, there was a queue of ‘very credible people’ ready to take over imminently, Methven later advise the pandemic would have minimal impact on the club sale and the deal should be done ‘by the end of May’, Methven also essentially accuse fans of hounding out the previous five ownership groups, a second series of Sunderland ‘Til I Die that looked to many like Donald and Methven’s own vanity project, the bombshell news that, far from paying back monies which enabled them to buy the club, Madrox Partners actually wrote off £20.5m of Sunderland’s money, an extraordinary meeting with fans in which Donald seemingly blamed supporters for his failure to sell the club (as well as telling yours truly to ‘check facts or shut up’), a radio interview on the same day in which Donald claimed, without pushback, that a group of supporters had, in effect, kidnapped his daughter from an Oxford bus stand and marched her to his home, a report, doubtless leaked from the top of the club, that the owners were in a ‘period of exclusivity’ with a would-be buyer way back in July, before a further five months of rumour, speculation and befuddlement.
Finally, on Christmas Eve of all days, 360 days since Donald publicly put the club up for sale, 594 since a bid was reported as accepted from Mark Campbell way back in May 2019 and several weeks since the Guardian reported the deal was to be confirmed within a fortnight, the official announcement came: ‘an agreement has been reached for Kyril Louis-Dreyfus to acquire Stewart Donald’s controlling interest in the club’.
The news was as welcome as it was overdue. The above does not come close to covering what has been a dreadful year for our football club, one in which we both began and ended at some of the lowest points in our long history. Louis-Dreyfus is expected to assume the chairmanship of a club (the deal must be ratified by the EFL, but that is now a mere formality) which will enter 2021 positioned 11th in League One, possessing a largely one-paced first-team squad and all manner of background troubles.
That early Christmas gift was music to the ears of many. In the immediate term it draws an end to a nightmarish 18 months or so, one in which the rift between club and fan has been widened far more greatly than any of us could have imagined. In the longer term it is a relief to know that the club’s existence is unlikely to be in doubt; we may remain in the third tier forevermore, but at least we will do so safe in the knowledge that our majority shareholder isn’t likely to bankrupt the club.
That word, majority, was the key part of last week’s announcement. When the Guardian first reported Louis-Dreyfus’ bid back on 13 November, it was pitched as a joint takeover by the youngster and Juan Sartori. No doubt being fed from a usual source (no prizes for guessing who I mean), the article pitched the deal as those two working in cahoots to take the club away from the failed tenure of Donald.
The deal as it stood then was a bad one for our club and a bad one for Louis-Dreyfus. While some incessantly tried to talk it up as a new ownership group taking on nearly 80% of the club’s shares, the more pertinent reality was that the current Madrox ownership group of Donald, Methven and Sartori would have retained 62% of the club. In essence, it looked all too much like Louis-Dreyfus would be putting up the cash that enabled others to not only retain control but also reap the lion’s share of any future reward.
Though no percentage splits have been revealed – and it is likely we will have to wait until they hit Companies House in the distant future to confirm them – the takeover that was inked last week is substantially different from the one previously mooted. Louis-Dreyfus will assume solitary control of Sunderland AFC and, though Donald is expected to retain a shareholding, the ability of the current Madrox trio to bend events to their will has been severely hampered. Though Donald will retain some shares, though Methven and Sartori’s shareholdings look not to have changed at all (there was no mention of either in the club announcement), it is now hoped it will represent little more than a potential pension pot for them and that their influence on our club has been, at last, eradicated.
Before we consider what the future may now hold, it would be remiss not to detail what this is the end of. Put simply, the end of the Madrox reign means the end of two and a half of the most disgraceful and inept years in Sunderland AFC’s history.
From their very earliest days on Wearside, Donald and Methven have misled all and sundry, tried to cover up and then changed the tale of how they bought the club, vilified young players, sought to intimidate those who question them, insulted fans on multiple occasions, threatened to sue and called the police on lifelong supporters and, throughout it all, seemingly acted with personal profit far higher up the list of priorities than the best interests of the club. Their attitudes and actions have been abhorrent, as far away from acting like the ‘custodians’ of the club they claimed to be upon their arrival as it is possible to imagine. Sartori, conspicuously absent, has done precisely nothing to stop or affect anything, and is clearly rather more interested in a Uruguayan political career than happenings in the north east of England.
Even if we were to ignore the many disgraceful events of their tenure, Madrox’s has been an ownership marked by incredible ineptitude. The embarrassing pursuit of Will Grigg, laid out on Netflix for the whole world to marvel and laugh at, stands out as the most high-profile of their amateurish doings, yet that is barely scratching the surface.
Their reckless management of our club was evident from as early as one month into their tenure when The Times reported that cash-flow troubles were already apparent and that short-term loans were being considered, a story Donald confirmed, and it has only gotten worse since.
Many of their most egregious misdeeds, chief among them the decimating of several year groups of the club’s academy, come back to a lack of cash to do their jobs properly, but it has also been clear from the get-go that neither Donald nor Methven nor any of the several no-hopers and cronies they’ve brought to the club have been anywhere near the standard required. The work of the likes of Richard Hill, Tony Coton and Paul Reid was, to put it nicely, pathetic, and Jim Rodwell has hardly covered himself in glory since his arrival in April of this year. For over two years Sunderland AFC has been ran like a Sunday League club, and that’s probably an affront to many Sunday League clubs, and along the way an awful lot of people both inside and outside Black Cat House have suffered.
The myth, rearing its head again, perhaps in a fit of hazy revisionism now he is set to depart, that Stewart Donald saved the club and stopped it from tumbling into administration should not be entertained, now or ever. It was never the case that Madrox were the only people willing to take on the club without retaining the rights to hefty debt – a statement which is incredible given the manner in which Madrox did actually acquire the club – nor has it ever been the case that Donald and his friends have placed the club on sound financial footing.
Were the latter true they would not have had to accept a $12m loan in exchange for securing the entirety of the club’s assets and their own shareholdings. Far from ‘investing in Stewart Donald’, as he laughably tried to claim nearly a year ago, FPP Sunderland’s loan to Madrox was a noose around the owners’ necks, one which left them desperately needing to find a new owner lest they run out of cash and lose the club by default.
Find one they have and we should expect to see that loan paid off and FPP Sunderland disappear for good in the coming weeks. Whatever the perception of them now, in the early autumn of 2019 FPP were mere days away from acquiring the club before they became exasperated with those across the table.
They returned with a mechanism by which they could acquire the club on their terms, seemingly refusing to give Donald and co anything more than they felt they deserved. It does not do well to dwell on missed opportunities but, as far as the latter goes, it is the blowing of a truly transformational chance which should ensure Donald and Methven are never again viewed kindly by Sunderland fans. The truth is blunt and it needs to be: they have failed, miserably, and their names should be mud throughout the sport from hereon.
More positively, they have at least sold to a man who, from the little we can garner, comes with a reputation that exceeds his tender age. To hear that your football club’s new owner is just 23-years-old, the youngest in the Football League by some distance, might immediately set alarm bells ringing, yet Louis-Dreyfus arrives with a family reputation for turning around French club Marseilles and, if a November piece in The Athletic is anything to go by, he has left a lasting impression of many who have worked with him in the past.
It would be unwise to automatically assume the newest owner of our club will be an unmitigated success, but from where we were seven weeks ago there are, at the very least, some positive shoots to note. Starting with the takeover deal itself, Louis-Dreyfus has not been able to oust the terrible trio in their entirety as many of us might have hoped, but nor has he proven anywhere near as gullible as some, myself included, feared when that original deal was reported.
Some will doubtless claim otherwise but this takeover came extraordinarily close to collapsing entirely, with Louis-Dreyfus determined to get control of the club or walk away. That he has managed the former is testament to his desire to own the club and make a success of it as well as his unwillingness to be pushed around by those who I have little doubt sought to convince him they could do a sterling job here, if only they had the necessary funds for it.
What is more, the appointments of Kristjaan Speakman and Lee Johnson point to a clear change of direction for the club. Plenty of concerns were raised when those two arrived without a takeover being announced, but it seems more clear now that they were in fact appointed on the promise of Louis-Dreyfus taking over, and the arrival of Speakman in particular is a notable shift in how our club will be run.
It is in no way unique or groundbreaking – plenty of clubs up and down the land boast sporting directors and managers with a keen eye on data – but it is undoubtedly a step forward for a club that has for much too long been rooted in the distant past. Words are cheap at this stage but both bring something very different to the club, and Speakman’s recent interview with the official club podcast, SAFC Unfiltered, is well worth a listen.
Some will likely retain fears around the continuing influence of, in particular, Methven, and the amicability of the club announcement last week will have done little to assuage those who are concerned Louis-Dreyfus has not grasped the depth of ill-feeling toward the current ownership. It is a concern I held too, though I’m increasingly of the opinion that the six weeks between the Guardian report and a deal finally being agreed were taken up by him doing exactly what any new owner should do: understanding the lay of the land and readying changes for when he does assume control. Being amicable prior to that moment is, whether we like it or not, the right way to do things.
That assumption of control should take place in early to mid-January and it will be interesting to see what accompanies it. If nothing of note occurs by the beginning of February, if the likes of Jim Rodwell retain pride of place in prominent roles at the club, concern may be required once more. On the contrary, if the appointments of Speakman and Johnson are added to, if a clear shift to a data-focused leadership team is evident and if, to put it bluntly, the likes of Rodwell and Methven are thrown out on their ears, we will all be able to accept that this really is something new. Some may question how we will know if Methven has truly ‘gone’ given that he holds no official role currently, but it will not be hard to tell; the endless ream of information he cannot help but spew (even people like myself, firmly off his Christmas card list, manage to get wind of his regular utterances) will dry up if his ties with the club are cut once and for all.
While there would be much to enjoy about Louis-Dreyfus eradicating all traces of Madrox at our club, of far more importance is how he goes about righting the good ship Sunderland. Let us not downplay this: he is walking into an absolutely enormous job. No fewer than 20 players are out of contract at the end of this season, the academy has been ripped to shreds such that any inflow of youngsters is going to be minimal for several years at least and, away from the field, staffing at the club has been so gutted as to be skeletal.
Talk to anyone who has left SAFC in the last couple of years and they will tell you of many good people who have been allowed to leave or pushed toward the door, leaving behind plenty other good people struggling to do their jobs without the proper resources. The neglect has been pitiful and it will take a long time, and strong characters, to put it right. This is no overnight job.
Perhaps Louis-Dreyfus’ toughest task will be to deal with expectation. Another season in League One is a nightmare scenario yet on balance it looks likely to happen, through no fault of either the new owner or the new sporting director or new manager. The primary goal of the Donald era was to achieve promotion by hook or by crook, and that short-termism perversely ended up making promotion far harder to achieve. Fans may be joyous now but come May, if another season in the third tier beckons, many will struggle to gee themselves up for it again.
What very badly needs to happen is what we thought we were getting in 2018. Fans need to feel a connection to their club again. Speakman has discussed the need for the team to play as a mirror image of its followers, hard work and energy are the order of the day, and it is a good start, but away from that we fans need to feel we can actually trust a word we are told. This will be achieved not by meaningless platitudes nor leaking news to fanzines – something which needs to stop, for it compromises the objectivity of those outlets – but by tangible actions that will require patience on our behalf as fans.
The Red and White Army’s statement reacting to the Christmas Eve news has been derided as demanding and ill-timed in some quarters but it is, quite frankly, exactly what is needed regardless of who takes over at our club. Their missive was not an attempt to pressure Louis-Dreyfus from the get-go but rather a clear indication of what has gone before, and accurately portrayed what fans will offer the new owner. If they are given something to support and believe in – and, so far, there has been nothing to the contrary – they will do exactly that; if concerning signs arise then they will not sit quietly by.
Anyone complaining that the statement sent the wrong message would do well to remember that too many, not all, but too many, in the media have stood idly by while our club has been decimated by not one but two successive owners. It is abundantly clear that it is the fans who will have to continue to look out for the best interests of the club, as the press and the footballing authorities have repeatedly proven themselves inadequate at doing so.
None of which is to say that any negativity around Louis-Dreyfus may ever be merited. Certainly, the takeover has given us the one thing we were almost entirely out of: hope. Where the last two years have been plagued by money troubles, it is unlikely those will be close to the surface any longer. Furthermore, while Donald and co clearly saw Sunderland as a scheme by which they could get rich, Louis-Dreyfus already is. He does not need the money that will come from taking the club back to the Premier League. He does, on the contrary, need to make a success of owning a football club.
Our fervent hope, as ever, is that he will be. Being entirely honest, supporting Sunderland AFC has been a dreadful chore for far too long. It was long before Madrox appeared on the scene but the feeling has been intensified by the dreadful actions of those who have run our club over the last couple of years. It has not been nice to feel the need to disassociate the club’s owners from the club itself. It is cliched to say we must all pull together, but it’s also true.
What happens once Louis-Dreyfus completes his acquisition will be telling and, for all I now suspect he is fully aware of what he is walking into, he could do worse than sound out as many informed voices as possible. It would take an awful long while to outline what has gone wrong at Sunderland AFC in recent years, and longer still to detail how best to win back the trust of many who have just about been fully turned off by the whole thing. RAWA are a group with the club’s best interests firmly at heart and would offer sage advice if called upon, but there are plenty others too, both inside and outside the club, who know plenty of what the issues are and have ideas of how to resolve them. We were promised a community club a couple of years ago; how great it would be if we really got one this time around.
That is conjecture and the next month or so will be interesting. Christmas Eve brought incredibly welcome news, not least because it should mean we can go back to talking about what happens on the pitch rather than off it. The circus surrounding the club under Madrox has been dreadful to witness and the return to something resembling a normal football club, to something, dare we say it, a little more boring, will be welcome. It will be nice to look forward to going to the match again, whenever that day may come, and nice to support a club where we know the owner has its best interests firmly at the front of his mind.
Kyril Louis-Dreyfus will become Sunderland’s youngest ever owner at the club’s lowest ever ebb. The job before him is huge, and the expectation of him will be likewise. But he will benefit from the simple fact that he isn’t those who have gone before him. A shift is already apparent and it is one that suggests he is more forward-thinking than anything which has gone before. After a very dark time for our club, he offers a chink of light. At the end of a terrible year, that is something worth celebrating, and toasting.
Here’s to a new beginning.