Finally, it’s over. After months of speculation, rumour, rancour and any number of either misleading or patently false statements, finally, after all this time, Sunderland AFC officially has a new owner. That is as important as another fact this moment confirms: the reign of the worst ownership group in the club’s history is now at an end. Chris Weatherspoon takes us through the Madrox Years and what the future may hold for the Black Cats.
Before we welcome Kyril Louis-Dreyfus into a seat which will be feeling decidedly hot, though perhaps a tad less so after he witnessed Saturday’s thumping win over Doncaster Rovers and a Wembley-sealing victory last night, it would be remiss of us not to bid a gleeful farewell to those whom he has today usurped. After all, they’ve certainly had plenty to say about us fans.
The first reported instance of Stewart Donald looking to sell our club came on March 3rd. Not last year but 2019. Of the 1,004 days he enjoyed majority ownership of Sunderland AFC, the spectre of a potential sale loomed for 718. Or 72% of Madrox’s time here. And that doesn’t cover the fact discussions were being held privately even before then.
How can a club be a success with such uncertainty hanging over for it for so long? The simple answer, as brutally proven here, is that it can’t.
Make no mistake about it and do not understate or forget it: this moment marks the end of the most shameful period in Sunderland’s history. We have had poor owners, have endured embarrassments and shoddy judgement many times over and have, though we’d rather not admit it, been made to feel saddened by the actions of people at our club, but never before have we witnessed all of those factors bundled together so neatly as in the complete horror show the past 33 months have comprised.
They have failed miserably here, failed to be promoted with the grandest resources a third tier club has ever seen and, beyond that, failed to meet even the most basic standard that football club owners should aspire to.
Donald and Charlie Methven’s list of errors and disgraces is too vast to detail here, too raw to bother with on a day that should go down as one filled with hope rather than bitterness. The one fact that underlines it all, whatever they seek to spin in the future, whatever some may even now try to defend them with, is this: they are failures.
They have failed miserably here, failed to be promoted with the grandest resources a third tier club has ever seen and, beyond that, failed to meet even the most basic standard that football club owners should aspire to. Their reputations, such as they were, have been torpedoed, their credibility shattered. If they make themselves richer via our club (still, somehow, a distinct possibility), it will be on the back of the efforts of others. There is no pride in that and money, believe it or not, really isn’t everything.
Their legacy is not, as they will surely claim, nursing the club back from ill health and handing it off to a billionaire with big ambitions. It is instead what we have seen much too often this season: a husk of a football club, flailing in its own downward spiral, a mess of contradictions and non-existent planning. They leave our new owner and his staff – some of whom have been in place for two months, for even this eventual deal had to be drawn out as long as humanly possible – with a mammoth task on their hands.
Under Donald and co, this has become a club so ill-equipped for the level it strives to be at it is scarcely believable. That sneaking into the play-offs this season would be roared as a success from here tells you everything about the decline the past few years has witnessed.
I said this should be a day for hope and, whatever the mess the club remains in, it really should be. Players often state that what goes on at boardroom level is of little consequence to events on the pitch but, just like at any other business, shit rolls downhill. The management of the club as a whole ultimately shows on the pitch, a fact we should know not just from the Madrox era but from the one that preceded it too.
Plenty may struggle to accept this is the end of that era until the main protagonists go for good, and understandably so. Yet they will almost certainly be relegated to the role of non-entities at our football club from now on. The shares they retain comprise a pension pot and little more.
Indeed, for anyone struggling with the possibility that they may profit in the future, consider this: it will take years to turn Sunderland AFC into a profitable, booming entity. How easy will it be to sell 15%, and no control, of a loss-making business for big bucks? How will Donald and Methven meet their proportion of the capital injections which will be necessary to fire the club back to the top tier? Don’t be surprised if their shareholdings contract before they manage to offload them.
With EFL approval obtained for the new ownership split, and FPP Sunderland paid back the loan that, in truth, at least helped protect the club against Madrox selling off more than just our best young prospects, this truly is Kyril’s world now. Louis-Dreyfus and those he appoints will be calling the shots from hereon in.
Whether that will result in the new dawn we all hope for remains to be seen – we are much too long in the tooth to assume all will suddenly be right with the world – but in the immediate term there is cause for optimism. Lee Johnson has got off to a fairly middling start as manager, but the logic in appointing both him and Kristjaan Speakman is plain to see, as is the thinking behind a number of last month’s signings.
The talk of structure and a forward-looking recruitment plan is music to the ears of supporters of a club that, for far too long, has been rooted in the past. Forging a new path means, in the very first instance, ridding the club of those who played a starring role in the demise: expect to see immediate high-profile departures.
The club itself is in need of enormous amounts of TLC and investment, and here too we will see quick action. Stuart English, spotted last night, as new academy boss and a head of recruitment are first off the rank. Further roles will need to be created or tweaked, then filled with competent individuals. Louis-Dreyfus is taking over a business skeletal in its staffing and where, after round upon round of redundancies, one can only assume morale among those remaining could do with a boost.
The arrival of an owner who, above all else, needs to make a success of owning a football club (he does not, unlike those he replaces, need to make money from this venture), should surely help in that regard. Correspondingly, the need and opportunity for us to hear about every little thing the owner does should decline. There should be no reason to try and pull the wool over our eyes this time around.
Whether Louis-Dreyfus is a success or not will take a long time to determine but right now it is a joy simply to see a changing of the guard. Madrox’s first season was quite enjoyable, but it was built on sand and held up by, if not outright lies, then certainly deceptions. The moment that ball hit the net in the 94th minute of the play-off final was the moment the mask properly began to slip, and it has been little fun since then.
Far worse than that, it has been heartbreaking. The pandemic hasn’t helped, sitting in front of a one-angled television stream, ripping feathers out of the cushions at another insipid display with no prospect of post-match pints to help the recovery process. But it is hard not to think these lockdowns have simply added to what was already happening for many: a falling out of love with a club they have followed since birth.
To support Sunderland AFC in the past 18 months or so has been paradoxical, at once hoping the best for the team and the worst for those in charge who have treated us with such dreadful contempt.
That they are now on their way off stage is a relief as much as it is cheering. Football is, after all, a hobby, something to brighten a crap week at work, to bond with others over. It should not be as exasperating as these past months have been, should not invoke the rage and anguish too many of us have felt recently.
To bid Donald and Methven farewell is to make a step toward getting some sort of connection to our club back, a real one, not the smoke and mirrors type we got when they landed here in 2018.
That, to my mind, is one of Kyril Louis-Dreyfus’ biggest tasks. Some will say that if you win games fans will soon get back onboard, and joyous reactions to last night’s win in a very silly cup are helpful evidence, but that understates the hurt that has been inflicted here, first under Ellis Short and then amplified tenfold under Donald and co. What we are left with now is, for many, sheer apathy.
Results like just over a week ago at Shrewsbury Town, like the myriad shockers we’ve endured recently, they don’t hurt as much, don’t make you want to shout and bawl and scream purely to vent your frustrations, principally because those frustrations aren’t nearly as forthcoming any more. We have been beaten and let down to the point of indifference. To the point of…meh. Fans have been treated awfully and put up with rubbish for much too long; it will take a while for those wounds to heal and that passion to return.
The hope is that it will. Today’s news, as any takeover tends to, offers hope in abundance. Much is unknown about what will now unfold at our club but, at the very least, we no longer need to fear for its future existence. Louis-Dreyfus has, well, rather deep pockets, and if he fails here it is unlikely to be because his credit limit maxed out.
We have of course seen that money doesn’t fix all, Ellis Short was not short of a few bob, but it does at least take away one worry that has plagued plenty of us. The new owner moving to the region to oversee the start of the journey is a surprise and a welcome one at that, suggesting a level of personal investment that is, quite frankly, necessary. Short never lived here, nor did Donald. That wasn’t the reason they failed here, but it didn’t help.
It is reassuring, too, that the little we know about Louis-Dreyfus to date has been positive. Though we tried to block them out, there were concerning murmurings around Madrox even before they officially got through the door. Not so this time where, in fact, the deal completed for the club shifted in both the new owner and the club’s favour. That he has gone through with the takeover even after all this time – his name was first mentioned in the Guardian over three months ago – is a positive too, showing a clear desire on his behalf to take charge.
For taking on that challenge, without even mentioning anything else, he already deserves credit. He will rightfully enjoy a warm welcome from a tired, hurting fan base.
What would be nice to see now, other than a much-needed promotion surge, is a return to normalcy. The past couple of years have been plagued far too much by off-field concerns, to the extent the actual football has often become a sideshow. That’s a ridiculous way for a football club to be and if our new owner prioritises action over talk then it will be especially reassuring.
All of that is to come. Given the club was for much of its existence owned by a collective of minority stakeholders, Kyril Louis-Dreyfus today became a member of a very exclusive club. At just 23 years of age, he is only the fourth majority shareholder, after Bob Murray, Short and Donald, in Sunderland AFC’s long history.
That is an incredible position to hold, not least because he assumes it at a point when the club is, and we can say this without exaggeration or hyperbole, at its lowest ever ebb. For taking on that challenge, without even mentioning anything else, he already deserves credit. He will rightfully enjoy a warm welcome from a tired, hurting fan base.
If he can make this feel like our club again, he will be lauded. I sincerely hope he does. Haway.