Ownership Speculation Ends – And Now Sunderland Look Forward

Wednesday morning saw Kyril Louis-Dreyfus and Juan Sartori increase their holdings in Sunderland AFC, and Charlie Methven depart for good. Chris Weatherspoon analyses the latest share shuffle.

The never-ending story that is the ownership of Sunderland AFC took a new turn on Wednesday morning, with the announcement that chairman Kyril Louis-Dreyfus has obtained a 51 per cent stake in our football club. Juan Sartori, previously dispensed of upon Louis-Dreyfus’ arrival before being brought back into the fold, has upped his own holding to 30 per cent, meaning a fifth of the club has changed hands.

That fifth is shared between Stewart Donald and Charlie Methven. Donald has sold off a further 15 per cent of his holding, reducing his ownership to 19 per cent. Methven, whittled down to five per cent 16 months ago, has sold up entirely.

1,493 days since he arrived, and a paltry 929 since he stepped down as a director ‘for both family and work-related reasons’ and definitely not because of incendiary remarks he made about the club’s fans at a meeting with supporters and the fact the unpleasant truths of his and Donald’s ownership were breaking into the open, Methven is finally disassociated with our club.

His departure is as welcome as it is overdue. Wednesday’s news was swiftly followed by a statement from Louis-Dreyfus, capping off months of ownership speculation and drawing a clear line in the sand: ‘Our ownership group has been consolidated and there will be no further sale of shares to a third-party buyer.’

As ever with this tale, there’s plenty to consider from the latest development. The headline point is that Louis-Dreyfus now holds an ownership stake fans were misled into believing he already had for a year previously. Despite his complicity in said misleading, that can only be a better thing than the previous situation. Whatever the nuances of the former arrangement, it was messy and ran the risk of holding our club back.

Now, with an irrefutable majority, we can at least take greater comfort in believing the club when we are told Louis-Dreyfus has primary control over proceedings. That was fairly clear already, with plenty of good happening over the last season, but there’ve still been obvious signs not all is as it should be. The hope is this change means the club is once again run in a manner befitting it, rather than skimping by.

That isn’t to say we should expect a financial splurge. Thursday morning’s report in The Athletic confirmed as much, once more highlighting ‘sustainability’ as one of the key tenets of Louis-Dreyfus’ ownership. That’s fine, to an extent, and the evidence to date suggests money will be spent on players where the club deems there to be value in doing so. That the money is there at all is refreshing after the past few seasons.

On the pitch, there’s been plenty to admire since Louis-Dreyfus arrived, and in Alex Neil the club (eventually) settled on a gem of a manager. A younger, more vibrant squad was welcome after years of drudge. Truthfully, the jury has to remain out on this ownership until we see what comes in the next year or two, but there’s more reason to be positive now than at the beginning of the week.

One of the less obvious but more important consequences of Wednesday’s news is the departure of Methven should reduce the general air of mistrust surrounding the top of the club. Never has so small a shareholder exerted so vast an unhelpful influence over Sunderland AFC. Methven’s attributes, such as they were, could be found not in his money but his mouth; for four years the man spewed bile and contradiction in impressive fashion.

It is difficult to accurately summarise just how pernicious his presence at our club has been. From day dot and those, shall we say, mistruths about how the club had been bought, fans have been subjected to insults and tall tales about all manner of things.

It is not an exaggeration to say there are plenty, this author included, who reached a point whereby they struggled to believe a word their football club said, so all-encompassing was the spin imparted since Madrox first darkened our door. Methven played a starring role in that being the case, unfortunately finding willing mouthpieces in individuals and outlets beyond the club that should have known better.

It’s unlikely that not being here any more will stop Methven spouting falsehoods about his time at the club. Indeed, an article written by the man himself in The Oldie (which, if you’re unaware, is basically what Jacob Rees-Mogg would have been if he’d entered the world as a magazine) seeks to do just that.

Written a good while ago but re-published on Tuesday, presumably in anticipation of Wednesday morning’s news, the article is a remarkable work of autobiographical hagiography. In it, Methven claims the club was ‘losing £35m a year’ (it wasn’t), ‘£180m in debt’ (it wasn’t), and that ‘Ellis Short…could find no takers at any price’ (he could, and Methven knows as much, as he once sat across a table from me and reeled off a list of competing buyers). Being out of shares won’t stop his utterances, but it should at least mean the damage wrought on our club is now minimal.

It is Methven’s own personal tragedy that the size of the fan base he appears to hold in such disdain is the only reason anyone in football outside of the northeast or Oxfordshire could pick him out of a line-up. You’d be a lesser man without us Charlie, but Lord knows we’ll be better off now you’ve left the premises for good.

He leaves behind him not only a legacy of failure but, clinging on by his fingernails, his original partner-in-crime. Donald looks from this vantage point all too much like a gambler who doesn’t know his time at the table is up. No figures have been released from this latest deal, and the assumption is he’ll have made enough to help keep his own lights on here, but it’s clear as day he continues to hold out for a grand payday.

A 19 per cent stake might not seem too arduous a commitment to fulfil at face value, and that piece in The Athletic asserted Donald’s ability to meet his funding commitments with ease (how this tallies with four years of cutbacks is left unexplained). But any prolonged stay in the Championship – which is considering officially changing its name to ‘Football’s Financial Black Hole’ – will soon see that commitment reach a lofty figure indeed. Donald’s last big bet on Wearside will be a hope of near-instant promotion.

The likelihood of promotion has probably just increased, albeit not by enough for it to be immediately attainable. There remains an awful lot of work to be done at the club, but the ridding of Methven and the consolidating of the ownership picture does at least allow for such work to be undertaken with fewer distractions and roadblocks.

There will also be fewer excuses. In taking up a genuine majority stake in the club, and irreversibly aligning himself with the owner of a further 30 per cent, Louis-Dreyfus has made it abundantly clear: everything from this day forward is under his watch and arises from a situation of his making.

What of Sartori? His role at our club has been steeped in murk and, to some, he is almost as unwelcome as those he joined in forming The Group Formerly Known As Madrox. For many though, his complete lack of any real presence in recent years is deemed sufficient to award him a blank slate and see what comes of it.

From this observer’s viewpoint, Sartori’s continued (or rather, increased) involvement on Wearside is a disappointment. There is much out there to back that up. Some has been documented by others on this website and more elsewhere, not least the fact the company at which we were led to believe he’d been a roaring success actually booted him out for poor performance and did their utmost not to pay him his severance.

That being said, his purchase of a further 10 per cent this week might suggest a shift in his priorities and efforts. For three years, Sartori pretty much stood by while the club was asset-stripped to within an inch of its life, popping in the bare minimum to help keep the lights on. If he now sees the club as worth funding properly and aiding Louis-Dreyfus with, then even those of us who find him unpalatable may just have to hold our noses and get on with it.

This latest share reshuffle is not perfect news. The situation remains messier than it need be and continues to include characters who should have departed a long time ago. But it is unmistakably a step in a better direction.

Much more importantly, it allows us to get the ball rolling on a crucial summer without yet more ownership turmoil threatening to waylay us. For too many recent years, Sunderland’s pre-season has hinged on what happens at boardroom level.

This news, at the very least, offers some certainty and means the club can move forward with clear eyes – and look to make its mark in the Championship.