Eighteen months have passed since their whirlwind takeover of Sunderland AFC and, seemingly, the wheels are coming off for Stewart Donald and Charlie Methven. Here, Chris Weatherspoon looks at the last 541 days and asks the question – where do they go from here?
“Stewart said in his very first podcast last summer, ‘I never wanna be in the position where, as a board, we’re not able to meet the aspirations of the supporters for financial reasons.’ We’ve seen it happen at other clubs, it’s a horrible situation to be in, where the owner has sat there like a sort of sitting tenant and everyone’s shouting at him to get out, and he’s hanging on there for dear life because he likes being the owner of a football club, or whatever it might be.”
“Let’s be clear: we’re not at that position now. We can fund the football club.”
The first person speaking is Charlie Methven, the second is Stewart Donald. The setting was two days after Sunderland’s loss in the play-off final last May, as the pairing discussed the game and plenty more on the Roker Rapport Podcast. I share the quotes here for reasons that will soon become clear.
To try and maintain such clarity, let’s start by saying that Methven’s quote isn’t a perfect leaping-off point: very few people are currently shouting at Stewart Donald to “get out” of Sunderland AFC. Whatever the narrative now swirling around the owner’s relationship with fans (and we’ll come to that soon, too), the reality is that Donald continues to be held in warm regard by plenty of the club’s supporters.
In the interests of full disclosure: I am not one of those supporters. Without being overly self-indulgent, it’s only fair to mention that I’ve had run-ins (plural) with the Sunderland chairman in the past, usually brought about by me saying something and him telling me I don’t know what I’m talking about. Such is the wonder of social media that those incidents were on full view for all to see, so it would be remiss not to highlight that I am someone whose opinion on the current ownership is firmly set in stone. I am writing this for a fanzine as a fan, but that doesn’t mean I speak for this fanzine or even for any other fan. Some, I have no doubt, still have full faith in the current regime.
Yet it is clear that things are now on a firmly downward trajectory. When Donald decided to sack Jack Ross last month, many were joyous. Removing the manager from his post would allow the club to get in a new man who would fire this squad, one that was easily one of the best in the division, to promotion. Yet since Ross left and Phil Parkinson has arrived, we have won twice in eight games and lost more than double that amount.
That is not all the new manager’s fault. A fair argument can be made that performances have, in parts, improved. The defence looks more robust. Sometimes. Yet the fact there has been almost no ‘new manager bounce’ to speak of is alarming. It is almost as if this squad isn’t quite as good as many believed it to be when the season began.
What does any of this have to do with the above quote? Well, aside from the fact Parkinson’s appointment could fairly be argued to have been done on the cheap (and, for what it’s worth, I don’t actually believe this was the sole, or even primary, consideration when hiring him), it looks, at least to me, like almost everything which has followed those comments has been done with one eye on the bank balance.
High-earners that we were told the club could afford to keep hold of have been let go and, more worryingly, the club continues to pay them – Methven admitted in his programme notes in August that the current wage bill is “£10m per annum, or £12.5m if you include payments still being made to players who have left the club”. Leeds United got into deep financial trouble by, among other things, paying players who were no longer on their books. Reece James and Bryan Oviedo were dispensed of with no replacement in sight and we were fed the line that we would have the pick of “these players who think they’re going to get a Championship move” and are “a little bit better than the (League One) standard” once that second tier’s transfer window shut. We ended up with a last minute loanee from Leeds who their fans gleefully told us is absolutely dreadful.
And then the news last week came out: the “investment” the club has received from three American billionaires will go towards fixing a lift at the Academy of Light and replacing the sound system at the Stadium of Light. Some might say those things are important, and they’d be right. But why, we must ask, is money from a third party required to pay for such things? Why has an ownership who have rejoiced in the success they’ve had in cutting costs not been able to afford what are, in the grand scheme of things, relatively minor expenses?
At a talk-in at Town End Farm in the wake of the incoming money from FPP Sunderland Ltd finally being confirmed, Charlie Methven told those in attendance, “It’s no secret Stewart and I are not particularly wealthy to the level we would need to be were Sunderland to make it back to the Championship.” That’s an interesting comment when lined up alongside the quotes that I began this piece with. And it’s even more worthy of note when we set it against what we were told when the pair first arrived on Wearside back in May 2018.
Upon his arrival, Donald claimed he had to show the EFL “£50m to say that I could cover Sunderland”, something he laughed about and said he’d “managed to find in my piggy bank under the bed somewhere”. More pointedly, when asked about his ability to fund the club in the future, the new chairman was pretty clear. “I can look after this club in the Championship,” Donald said. “And potentially beyond, depending on how well the money is spent.” Less than six months ago, as I’ve outlined, we were told they had no issues funding the club. Hell, Methven even made the claim that we were in one of the best financial positions in the EFL. Has something changed in that time?
Earlier this year, Donald moved quickly to shut down any hint of a dissenting opinion to the idea the club was in great financial shape, but even the most ardent supporter of the chairman surely can’t ignore the growing body of evidence to the contrary. The relatively minor boost received from FPP – talked up by Methven as “a very substantial sum” – should be viewed with both optimism and worry. Optimism because it attests to their willingness to be involved with the club; worry because everything we have been told would suggest that the current owners should not need it for the things they have now told us it will be spent on.
What Has Changed On The Pitch?
Many have lauded the current ownership for their aptitude in sorting out the off-field mess and, while I (quite clearly) disagree entirely with that assessment, I’m willing to let that slide for a moment. Let’s instead consider their on-field judgement. After all, if a football club isn’t performing on the field, then everything else largely fades into the distance.
Truthfully, it is difficult to look back over the past 18 months and identify a single big footballing decision they have got right. The initial appointment of Jack Ross, oddly, stands out to me as just about the only one. Or at least the only one for which a clear plan was possible to discern. His hiring looked to be a decision with the future in mind, opting for a man with an up and coming reputation and the ability to work with youngsters, a stated requirement of the new era on Wearside.
Everything else has been garbage. Setting a public deadline to get Josh Maja to sign a contract, ignoring it to try and keep him and losing him anyway; signing Will Grigg at the eleventh hour for a vastly inflated sum, despite, according to journalists close to the action, the manager saying he was happy to make do with what he had; hiring Richard Hill and Paul Reid in hugely influential positions without anything to suggest they had similar experience in the past; saying Benji Kimpioka can’t play for the first team until he signs a contract and then having to renege on it; initiating a recruitment strategy that appears to shun anyone with even a modicum of pace and comes across as unimaginative in the extreme; sacking Ross and taking nine days to get a replacement in.
Absolutely none of it has looked well-thought out, none of it has been innovative and the results we are now seeing on the pitch are nothing but the natural endpoint of such a haphazard approach to football club ownership.
At WMS our default mode tends to be self-deprecation. Better to laugh than rant. One among our number has made a point of saying that this is “a new low” just about every week now. And while it soothes the matter somewhat it’s also becoming increasingly clear: it isn’t fucking funny anymore.
This club should be absolutely nowhere near 7th in League One, nowhere near toiling to FA Cup first round draws with Gillingham in front of three empty stands, and nowhere near obtaining money from third parties just to, apparently, spruce up facilities.
Methven told us when they arrived that Sunderland had to get used to the idea of being a League One club. I suppose Charlie was spot on, because we absolutely are one right now.
That 1-1 draw on Saturday was another in a long line of embarrassments that have unfolded under this ownership. The sight of Jon McLaughlin trotting 15 rows into the South Stand summed up what we have fast become: a moment of light relief, a meme, an afterthought in the eyes of most. It is not this ownership’s fault that we ended up in League One, nor even their fault that we have to play in the FA Cup first round, but last season was a failure and this season, so far, is even worse.
To watch McLaughlin have to do that was indicative of a club once again on its uppers, not because there were insufficient ball boys/girls behind the goal (there were, they were just too slow off the mark), but because it neatly encapsulated what the club has become over recent months.
Methven told us when they arrived that Sunderland had to get used to the idea of being a League One club. I suppose Charlie was spot on, because we absolutely are one right now.
Although, on Tuesday evening at Scunthorpe United, we weren’t even that. Away to a side two points from the foot of the entire football league, we played just about a full-strength team and were thumped 3-0. Make no mistake about it, pointless Leasing.com Trophy or otherwise, that is the worst result in the history of this football club. We were told by the ownership on that podcast in late May the aim this season was to get “100 points” and charge our way back to the Championship. The expectation was set by them, not us. And here we are. We’ve lost six of the last 10 and if you think we’re getting a century of points this term I’m calling an ambulance for you.
Just as under the last owner, drift is becoming all too clear. One area the current regime could not previously have been accused of skimping on was their promotion of the club and its causes; take a look back at last season and, for a whole host of home games, you’ll find entertaining and effective marketing ploys, ones that brought in bumper third tier attendances.
And this term? Hardly anything. It started before last season ended, in truth, as the pivotal home play-off tie with Portsmouth was met with a wall of silence from the club. News reports swirled that the higher-ups were in the process of trying to sell the club and, whatever was going on, it was clear they weren’t directing operations on the ground, as it fell on the fanzines to do the club’s job for them. A crowd of just 26,610 – a third less than had watched the same two teams do battle a fortnight earlier, when the PR machine had been in full flow – was the result.
Methven in particular talked up the club at every opportunity last season but this time around, with the exclusion of the last few weeks and his attempts to embellish the “investment”, he’s been missing in action. Some will say he’s damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t, but with an apparent skeleton staff in place (as the owners have admitted themselves, everything has been pared back), it has become clear direction needs to come from above.
Stewart Donald’s Abuse Claims
And here we come to the elephant in our room: Stewart Donald’s departure from the scene. Methven has been in full attack mode recently, claiming that Donald’s exit has been brought on by “abuse” the chairman has suffered from fans. Predictably, plenty have fallen for the spiel. To be clear, no one deserves personal abuse, nor do their families and nor anyone else connected to them.
The problem with the abuse supposedly levelled at Donald is that very few people seem able to put their finger on what is being referred to. Certainly, there were no reports of the chairman being targeted when he stood in the away end at Bolton Wanderers less than two months ago, nor, to my knowledge, has there ever been a report of him receiving abuse at a game or in person.
Methven has now suggested that Donald refuses to come to games because of abuse suffered online which, even if it didn’t seem immediately illogical, looks at least to be somewhat exaggerated. From my own experience I can say that any previous attempt to suggest the chairman isn’t the best man for the job has been met with almost cult-like rebuke. That no one seems able to give examples of repeated abuse directed Donald’s way looks, to me, to be proof of the matter being overplayed.
How disappointing, then, that Methven continues to talk about it at every turn. When asked about abuse on the aforementioned Roker Rapport Podcast, he said he was not there to discuss such things. Then proceeded to discuss just that. What is more, he appeared to suggest abuse of Donald was acting as a barrier to the club obtaining new ownership. Yet what have these would-be new owners seen that would put them off? Donald, as I’ve mentioned, has been almost universally adored during his time here. Why would the words of a staggeringly small minority, words most aren’t even able to find, put new buyers off?
Sadly, tales of abuse have only reared their head when the going has got tough. They appeared when the club was struggling to replace Maja and they appeared in the wake of The Sun breaking the news that FPP looked unlikely to take over. In between that, they appeared after Donald deleted his Twitter account in the summer, only to make a return before the end of July. When he did return and was questioned about that particular exile, he said he decided enough was enough when someone threatened to burn his house down and one of his children saw it.
Such a threat is abhorrent and should never be condoned. But it is also true that Donald had come off Twitter after apologising for his conduct to yours truly and stating that he needed to “rethink” how he used the platform. That such a disgusting threat arrived at a similar time is an unfortunate coincidence, but Donald himself has said it was not the only reason for his departure.
Whether the abuse tales are overblown or not, it is hard not to think that a slippery slope has been embarked upon. Martin Bain was reviled by most on Wearside yet still came to football matches. Sir Bob Murray was, quite literally, glassed in a restaurant for what a punter saw as his unacceptable approach to running the club. He did not proceed to tell the world about the abuse he was receiving from the club’s fan base, perhaps because he realised that the majority of people weren’t doing anything of the sort.
That Donald and Methven have continued to bang on about the actions of such a small group of people is, quite frankly, a disgrace. It paints the club’s support in a dreadful light; the same support they have relied upon hugely since their arrival. And it has hardened an opinion I have long held and others appear to be coming around to: the jig is up and we would all be best off if they left Sunderland AFC for good.
Looking To The Future
Often when calls like this come in football they are met with a fairly valid question: who should, or even could, come in? The equally valid answer is that it’s not my job to know, but, in this instance, we do know. There are American billionaires who have seen fit to come to the Stadium of Light and spend a Saturday watching League One football. They have invested time and money in weighing up the potential of the club. And, by the looks of things, they lodged a takeover bid. Stewart Donald told a room full of people in Consett a few weeks ago that he and Methven weren’t sure if the Americans wanted to keep them around. How does that tally with the latest tale, the one where we are told a takeover was never on the cards?
For whatever reason, a takeover has not transpired. But FPP’s decision to give money to the current ownership is clear evidence of their enduring interest in affairs on Wearside. John Phelan, Glenn Fuhrman and Robert Platek have a combined worth in the multi-billions; the returns on a £9m loan, if it is a loan, as we still cannot be sure, are barely worth them getting out of bed for. If it is a gift, to a business they have no prior affiliation to, it would be a very strange gift indeed.
The narrative that Methven – in Donald’s absence – has tried to now build around that money is laughable too. To say, as he did on the Roker Rapport Podcast at the weekend, that “The arrangements between FPP and Madrox are entirely private” and that “they have no financial connection with Sunderland AFC” is a truly incredible piece of PR guff. That Madrox exists solely as a holding company for Sunderland AFC appears to have slipped Methven’s mind. As does the fact the club is, as far as anyone can tell, the company’s only asset. If they have no financial connection to the club then what exactly have they “invested” in?
If I buy a house I can’t afford to live in and soon run into difficulties, it doesn’t make me a good guy willing to take a risk. It makes me irresponsible. The same logic applies to a football club.
If Stewart Donald and co could not afford to run Sunderland AFC to the required standard beyond a single season – and, based on the available evidence, it increasingly looks like they couldn’t – then they shouldn’t have been allowed anywhere near it.
Charlie Methven told me last Christmas that “the EFL [Owners and Directors Test] has become much tighter now”. Presumably that means they insist on applicants at least spelling their names without error as, on this evidence, they don’t seem to have been too concerned about Sunderland’s future beyond around 12 months or so.
It’s been an interesting year and a half. Stewart Donald and Charlie Methven sat in front of us 541 days ago and promised us a brighter future. For a while it looked possible, even likely. But as with so much at this football club over the past decade, optimism and positivity has faded swiftly into the distance.
We are 18 months down the line and, far from any project taking fuller form, it is collapsing before our eyes. Any uplift will be temporary; the rot has set in again. This wasn’t how it was meant to be, and it isn’t what we were promised.
So, Stewart, Charlie, I have to ask: what on earth is going on at our football club?