Sunderland AFC: What kind of club is this anyway?

Chris Weatherspoon considers recent events on Wearside, and what they tell us about our football club in its current guise.

On Friday March 5th 2021, a letter fell through my front door. If you were an existing or recent Sunderland AFC season ticket holder, you’d have received identical correspondence, save for the change in address and name. The letter, stretching across one sheet of A4 and printed on club letterhead, was signed by Kyril Louis-Dreyfus, Sunderland’s new chairman and apparently, as we were led to believe at the time, the club’s new majority shareholder.

Eleven paragraphs long, the letter was part-drumming up support, part-apologetic thank you. Louis-Dreyfus’s arrival marked the end of Madrox Partners’ reign and reconciliation was the order of the day, with the new chairman seemingly aware of how badly his predecessors – and new business partners – had damaged the bond between fan and club.

“I’m sure there have been occasions when it felt like the club turned its back on you,” the letter went, “but your passion never faltered. Throughout good times and bad, you have been the one constant that this football club can always rely on.” Here was Sunderland’s new chief drawing a line in the sand, acknowledging mistakes of the past and recognising how pivotal the club’s fans would be if he was to achieve success in his first footballing venture. “We will work with you,” the missive went on, asserting that, together, “we can bring success and sustainability to the club.”

The letter was a nice touch, a move that cost money to undertake after years of the club’s owners skimping by wherever possible. Perhaps its most important message came in just 11 words at the top of the second column: “[Your] support should never and will never be taken for granted.”

* * *

One thousand and 35 days later, on the evening of Thursday January 4th 2024, Sunderland fans heard from their club’s chairman again. The tone, content and method of delivery were far removed from the introductory letter of nearly three years prior.

This latest message from Louis-Dreyfus was sombre, a mood and feeling only heightened by the jet black backdrop he chose to set six paragraphs of white text against. Where that first letter had been only part-apology, this time sorrow formed the basis of the entire statement. “I would like to apologise to everyone associated with Sunderland AFC for the events that have unfolded today,” it began.

If you’re a Sunderland fan or, really, anyone with even a passing interest in football, you’ll already know what those events were. What unfolded in the Stadium of Light earlier that day quickly become not just local or national but international news, as even staff at the New York Times found it galling enough to be worthy of comment.

Having already gifted Newcastle United an entire end of the Stadium of Light to fill with visiting fans, with the hospitality of the Black Cats Bar thrown in for good measure, the brains trust running our football club opted to let them decorate the latter too. What followed was both unsurprising and shocking, as the Black Cats Bar was adorned in ‘Black and White’ signage and, most insultingly, a great black cross placed through the beginning of a ‘Ha’way the lads’ emblem. ‘Howay’ was scrawled over the top.

As the images broke onto social media on the Thursday lunchtime, the outcry was immediate and loud. There are some things you don’t do, and this is one of them. Allowing Newcastle United to take over a whole end of the stadium was bad enough; allowing them to come in and not only take down Sunderland decorations but to put up their own, decorations that blithely mocked those usually in place, was beyond the pale.

Incredulity spread the world over. What sort of club allows anyone to do this in their own home, never mind their fiercest rivals? Who on earth allowed this to happen?

In his apology, Louis-Dreyfus told supporters that he was “disgusted and hurt by the pictures circulating online of the inappropriate signs that have now been ripped down”. That, without any surrounding knowledge, would seem fair enough. Sunderland’s chairman took “full responsibility” for decisions of club employees. A club statement issued earlier in the day confirmed an “immediate review…to determine how this process unfolded” was underway.

All well and good then. Or perhaps not. After all, while the images of Newcastle United decorating the home of Sunderland AFC were shocking, they weren’t a surprise to anyone who follows the club closely. That the visitors were being allowed to redecorate had been public knowledge for weeks, discussed openly on online forums, in person and even on one of Wise Men Say’s own shows. Black Cats Bar tickets were being sold at an appalling £600 each; in exchange, Newcastle could redecorate and, even more remarkably, enjoy ‘Entertainment from a Newcastle United legend’.

The events that took place following the cup draw being made in early December are scarcely believable. It is hard to overstate just how embarrassing the whole period has been for the club and its fans. Continued refrains that the club had no choice but to give away all of the North Stand to accommodate 6,000 Magpies are senseless and baseless, not least because 15% of the stadium’s capacity – which people frequently point to as the away side’s right in FA Cup ties – isn’t 6,000. The club also didn’t have to house the visitors across two tiers, and they certainly didn’t have to put them up in the Black Cats Bar for a nice day out.

If Louis-Dreyfus did not know what was unfolding in his own stadium before a game of such importance to fans and the local area, one has to question his suitability to lead our club. If he did know, his apology is another statement that can be seen as wilfully misleading fans. After all, it was under he and another in the current ownership group that fans were misled for a full year about who owned how much of our club. Careless or lying; neither is a favourable option.

The galling irony in all of this is that at a time when Newcastle United have morphed into one of the most despised football clubs on the planet, their closest and oldest rivals rolled out the red carpet for them. At a time when the Sunderland AFC hierarchy were presented with one of the simplest PR wins in memory, they didn’t so much fluff their lines as tank the entire production. Willingly.

* * *

Less than 48 hours later, the match itself took place. The indignity of that day was not in seeing Sunderland lose by three goals to nil at home to Newcastle United. That, or perhaps something even worse, was expected by anyone who’d paid a modicum of attention to the two clubs’ recent fortunes, even if some prominent journalists tried their best to suggest the gulf between the two clubs wasn’t so wide as is now obvious.

The distance spanning the divide is made clearer when considering the number of Premier League starts racked up by each team’s starting XI a week ago on Saturday. The visitors’ line-up had 1,120 top tier starts between them; the hosts just 38, all of them attributable to one player – Alex Pritchard. Ordered by the number of starts in England’s top two divisions, Newcastle players occupied the top seven spots. Their remaining four starters from the game – Anthony Gordon, Bruno Guimaraes, Sven Botman and Alexander Isak – cost a combined £183m.

Sunderland’s game plan might have been, at best, naive, but the embarrassment of the day stemmed from decisions made by individuals situated far from the dugout. How galling it was to see the entire North Stand filled with twirling black and white scarves – gifted from and funded by Newcastle’s image-conscious owners, of course – how sickening it was to see, in the flesh, the result of Sunderland fans being sold down the river.

The icing on this most foul tasting of cakes arrived after the final whistle in two acts. First, the visitors were able to exploit the freedom of the city they’d been afforded and take one of their now ritual victory photos on the Stadium of Light turf. Second, as most home fans filtered out, those confined in the away end went for refreshment and were greeted with free beer. It wasn’t intentional, the system the ground’s tills rely on went down, but it about summed the club up lately. Even when they’re trying to fleece people for an easy buck, they still can’t get it right.

Most things are fair game in a derby, and Sunderland fans have certainly doled out their fair share of jabs over the years. No run-up to these games is complete without stumbling over an image of Steven Taylor getting intimate with a goalpost. Yet the fawning reception offered up by our club to the visitors stood in stark contrast to their gloating and mocking. Offered a welcome mat, they promptly pissed all over it.

What did anyone expect? Certainly any Sunderland fan with a brain cell in their head could have told you that, given an inch, Newcastle and their followers would take a mile. We, after all, would have done exactly the same.

The problem is that it is not those who allowed this to happen who will have to deal with the fallout. They will, sooner or later, take their leave of this club. We won’t and can’t. The images of this most recent derby are etched into the rivalry’s history forevermore now, and you can bet they’ll be displayed at every opportunity. Those in charge might deem it to be worth it – and their decision to do all of this makes a lot more sense when you hear, from a reliable source, the tale that Newcastle gave up their gate receipts in return for the freedom of SR5 – but what they’ve gained in cash has been more than offset by what they’ve lost in trust and faith.

Money was clearly the Sunderland hierarchy’s motivating aim in all of this, but it also shouldn’t be forgotten this wasn’t the first time under the current regime that the club had dallied with Saudi Arabian favour. Back in November 2022, Sunderland trotted across to Dubai for a friendly with Al-Shabab FC of the Saudi Pro League, a club not PIF-owned but still state-owned. 

On the day that friendly was announced, Juan Sartori met with the Saudi Arabian ambassador to Uruguay. Sartori occupies, in the loosest sense of the word, a seat in the Uruguayan Senate, and the meeting was said to be on the topic of “enhancing cooperation” between the two nations. It’s unlikely a meaningless friendly was top of the agenda. Yet the timing was curious, and did absolutely nothing to comfort those of us who take great issue with the fact Sartori owns 36% of our football club. He has been here over five years now and the point of his presence remains a mystery.

It is not just his presence that puzzles. Quite what the point is in having Sunderland fans on the club board is anyone’s guess. If they cannot stop and/or speak out during episodes like this, what are they doing here?

Leo Pearlman is fairly new to the role so can perhaps be afforded some leeway, but what of Dave Jones? What, exactly, has he done to aid the club’s fortunes and represent its fans since taking up his post over four years ago? What is the point in occupying the role if you’re not going to make clear how unacceptable the events of last week were? It shouldn’t be forgotten that Jones arrived on the board in December 2019, right at the time fans who had otherwise been ridiculed were finally starting to get the message across about the harm the then-owners were inflicting on the club. Not once did he speak out against Stewart Donald, despite the fact the latter’s actions brought our club to its knees.

* * *

While we’re considering how much trust to put in the word of those in charge, it’s worth remembering that a pretty significant promise has yet to come to pass.

Nearly two years ago, in April 2022, Louis-Dreyfus signed off the club’s accounts for the 2020/21 season. Within those it was revealed the club owed a debt of £2.2m to its shareholders at the end of July 2021, but that those amounts would be converted to equity (i.e. made non-repayable) “in due course”. Eleven months later, in March 2023, Louis-Dreyfus signed off the 2022/23 accounts. Again, the promise was made that debts to the club’s shareholders – up to £12.6m by July 2022, and then £15.1m by March of last year – would be written off “in due course”.

To date, no equity conversion has taken place since Louis-Dreyfus arrived on Wearside. It is curious the club’s auditors would permit a disclosure promising the debt write-off when, nearly 24 months on, it has yet to be carried out. 

Perhaps it is overly cynical to have expected that promise to have been fulfilled by now; perhaps it will happen “in due course”. Perhaps there are strategic reasons for delaying; the EFL’s Profit and Sustainability rules aren’t especially clear on whether or not equity injections only increase loss limits if the cash comes in during the monitoring period. If that’s not the case, the club could see benefit from waiting to convert the debt to shares until a point where it needs broader scope to comply with financial regulations.

Or perhaps this club’s penchant for misleading its supporters over recent years makes it an entirely valid concern to raise. It is a question worth asking.

* * *

There has been a constant juxtaposition across Louis-Dreyfus’ reign between what has occurred on the pitch and what has taken place away from it. The former has largely been positive; the latter has generally been shambolic. The expectation has long been that the gap between the two would narrow as time went on, and while that’s arguably ringing true there is a valid concern it is because things are shifting the wrong way. The off-pitch stuff is as bad as ever, while the football itself might be starting to stagnate.

All of this brings into focus an important question: what kind of club are Sunderland AFC trying to be?

We are told, ad nauseum, about long-term plans, sustainability and the desire to stack the squad with young, ambitious players who we can either recycle for better or use within a promotion-winning squad. None of that is disagreeable. The rigidity and dogma surrounding it is another matter for another day.

Leaving football to one side for now, it’s worth looking at how the club has conducted itself off the field in the last few years. In Louis-Dreyfus’ first meeting with the Supporters’ Collective in March 2021, he spoke of wanting to implement a “high-performance culture” on Wearside. It was a phrase which reared its head again last month when Tony Mowbray was sacked.

Using the term ‘high-performance’ immediately puts you in close proximity with the likes of Jake Humphrey who, as any right-thinking person knows, is a complete arsehole. He’s also a bit of a bluffer, so in a way it all makes sense when Louis-Dreyfus prattles on about our club having a “high-performance culture”. Beyond the pitch, there’s nothing of the sort.

Apologists rush to point out that Louis-Dreyfus acquired a husk of a club from Madrox, which is true, but apparently three years isn’t enough for at least some progress to have been made off the field. It is staggering that a valid argument can be made that things are actually worse now than they were under Donald and Charlie Methven (the constant across both regimes, of course, is Sartori, an individual whose continued association with our club has been offered far too little inspection – a failing this particular article succumbs to as well).

The very idea of anything surrounding the club being ‘high-performance’ at the moment is laughable. What is ‘high-performance’ about a club that routinely messes up processes regarding ticket sales, the one thing a football club needs to be pretty good at for its fans? What is ‘high-performance’ about a club where fans have to demand that the club shop be opened more than once an equinox, because we supporters quite literally struggle to spend our money on the club? What is ‘high-performance’ about increasing season ticket prices without telling fans? About sending said season tickets out on blank cards? About moving to digital ticketing without providing sufficient support for those who need it? About directing people’s questions and concerns to an email inbox that there isn’t sufficient resource to monitor or to a phone that never gets answered? About the club shop, now mercifully open more often, never having sufficient levels of stock? About refusing to do anything to ensure the safety of your own fans, but uprooting thousands of them because you can rinse some away fans for obscene amounts? About implementing an entirely cashless venue, but one where several members of staff don’t know how to issue a refund to someone’s payment card? About a stadium that has frayed carpets in the supposed-to-be-nice areas, scarcely any working hand dryers in the disgusting concourse toilets, a sound system that breaks down every time it rains, a press box not fit for purpose and a leaky roof? ‘High-performance’? Are we on Candid Camera? Hello?

* * *

At the time of writing, the blood some are baying for has yet to be shed. No one has been fired for any of this; the internal investigation, if there even is one, is seemingly ongoing.

Rumours swirled that Steve Davison was set to be relieved of his role of the club’s Chief Operating Officer. He remains in situ, though whether that will be for long seemed unlikely even before this sorry episode. There is plenty to criticise Davison for, and it’s unlikely many beyond the club will shed a tear if he does depart, but it would also be unfair to pin all blame for this most recent debacle on him. Davison, it shouldn’t be forgotten, was not the one who told the Spirit of 37 group that they couldn’t display an anti-sportswashing banner. He okayed that plan. The order to quash it came from above.

Nor, frankly, would Davison’s departure make much difference at all unless the club fundamentally changes the way it operates. It is not him who holds the purse strings, nor is it him who, ultimately, carries the blame for the general lack of resourcing seen around the club. As journalist James Hunter detailed on our Monday evening podcast last week, “Anyone who knows how Sunderland works, anything that involves money – anything that involves any form of payment whatsoever – has to be sanctioned at the top of the tree. It’s not left to anyone else.” Removing someone like Davison would be little more than a scapegoating measure unless something else changes too.

* * *

Some will doubtless interpret all of this as a long-winded call for regime change. It isn’t one. Any such argument (and this scribbler has to admit that, were the incumbents to sell up today, he’d be largely indifferent to their departure) is something which deserves a more holistic discussion, one that gives appropriate weighting to some unarguable successes seen on the pitch since late 2020.

Instead, this is a call for something else: pride. Nobody expects Sunderland to compete with the financial might of the Saudi Arabian government, but the way our club’s hierarchy acted from the moment the draw was made was shameful. It is not asking too much for those in charge to take some sort of interest in what fans want and, better still, respond with more than the lip service we’ve largely been served up in recent years. Football fans are some of the most blindly loyal people around; that many are so irate about recent events should be evidence enough of how much those at the top have fucked up.

It would be nice too if some form of solidarity could begin to take root among the fan base. It is incredibly irritating to be told how you should or shouldn’t support your football club, but it’s also the case that we’re sometimes our own worst enemies.

Recent abuse aimed at those behind Spirit of 37 is a case in point. No one’s going to agree on everything, and just because a group is trying something doesn’t mean it has to be met with blanket praise, but it can surely be agreed that they’re a group acting in the interests of aiding the team on the pitch? Their efforts have undoubtedly improved the atmosphere at games, and they’ve taken more pride in making our stadium look decent than three successive owners combined.

There were also rather hamstrung by our current chairman, in yet another shameful act surrounding the derby. Having had an anti-sportswashing, ‘No blood on our hands’ banner signed off, the plug was pulled from on high. Make no mistake about it: that is a disgrace. At a time when the very heart of the rivalry between our two clubs has been pretty much ripped out, when the derby now comprises a football club versus one arm of an authoritarian state, to clamp down on Sunderland fans’ freedom of speech is an act which should never be forgiven.

Those who will seemingly defend whatever anyone at the top of the club chooses to do have been quick to claim that Louis-Dreyfus could not allow a display that insulted our visitors after he had personally stumped up £10,000 towards it. Yet that ignores the fact that no one asked him to do that. Indeed, had the conditions that followed the donation been evident when it was made, it would likely have been rejected. Viewed through this lens it looks less like an act of benevolence and a lot more akin to just another rich person making sure the proles don’t step out of line.

There have been worse times to be a Sunderland supporter. But there have been few occasions so jaw-dropping as a week gone Saturday and the events preceding, few instances whereby the interests of the club’s fans were discarded so willingly for a pot of (dirty) cash. It was an appalling instance of the club’s owners and decision-makers either not understanding the importance of the fixture to supporters, or simply not caring.

* * *

We have seen this film before. In the near fortnight it’s taken me to collect my thoughts and put all of them into words that (hopefully) aren’t just an ill-measured moan, I was somehow reminded of a piece from over a decade ago. Penned by the founder of the Roker Report fan site, Simon Walsh, to read the article now is to recognise familiar sentiments. Simon is sadly no longer part of the fanzine ecosphere (he’s not dead, he just got tired of all this shit), but plenty of his words back then continue to ring at least partially true today:

“During the good and the bad there was always at least a connection to the club. It was MY club, it was OUR club. However it’s hard to get over a feeling that’s been lingering over me…that this is very much THEIR club, which we have been kindly allowed to watch. How gracious.

“Who exactly are THEY though? Well it’s pretty much everyone involved from top to bottom, and unfortunately I only have questions rather than answers. It feels very much at the moment that the regime running the club are not only clueless, but really couldn’t give a flying one about how things are going.”

The above wouldn’t be wholly fair to map onto now (and probably wasn’t then, the ‘top to bottom’ comment likely in the heat of the moment rather than an accurate reading of the situation), but it’s difficult not to see parallels. Then as now, there was a feeling of fans being taken for granted. Then, as now, a disconnect between those who follow the club and those who ran it were in evidence.

Seeing such a diatribe as far back as 2013 was quite shocking, not least because so many bad things have happened since. A list of the ways our football club has let us down in the last decade could fill a book on its own; the complaints of Walsh back then look fairly quaint by comparison (though it is worth noting an origin of his ire was the club’s repeated attempt to get Roker Report shut down for, as far as any of us could tell, no good reason).

Some might read those comments from a decade ago and believe it vindicates the viewpoint that fans are simply looking for something to complain about. Things weren’t even that bad in 2013, they may say, and still we moaned? Some of you are just never happy, are you?

On the contrary, it reflects the folly of the current hierarchy’s recent actions and ongoing under-investment or lack of care in off the field matters. Sunderland fans have been asked to swallow up the gruel served to them for years now, to accept being mere customers of a business when the club continues to prey on the idea that football fans are something more and part of a community.

For much too long, this football club has taken actions that have left many of us queasy; for much too long, those in charge have done pretty much as they please, knowing full well that in owning a football club they have in their hands a depth of loyalty that trumps just about any other business on the planet. Some will continue to defend those in charge of their football club blindly no matter what, even when the rest of us are nearing the end of our reserves of trust.

Just under three years ago, Kyril Louis-Dreyfus promised supporters of our club they’d never again be taken for granted. It is time Sunderland AFC’s chairman stuck to his word.