A year in Sunderland’s life: things we may never know

Jake as Tony Roffe's caption writer

Something I had no reason to expect plopped on the doormat during my fleeting visit to London to visit my brother Phil (much, much better; even out of hospital since the weekend). It was a copy of that lesser spotted creature Wear Down South, newsletter of the London and SE branch of the SAFC Supporters’ Association. Ian Todd’s review of events during the many months that had passed since the last edition made the wait worthwhile. Ian, co-founder and mainstay of the branch, tells the story of an important year in SAFC’s recent history with exemplary attention to detail …

The last edition
of Wear Down South featured several photos of our social on the eve of the game which saw West Ham relegated. (Sorry couldn’t resist mentioning that!)

But who of those attending that evening could have guessed from the enthusiasm for the club’s future, displayed by our guests, that one year later neither Niall Quinn nor Steve Walton would be involved with Sunderland AFC?

In fact, in Steve Walton’s case, he left his chief executive post a mere 46 days later, along with the marketing and commercial Director, Lesley Callaghan. What few had realised was their “neutering” had commenced way back in February when they (together with then club secretary, Margaret Byrne) left the board of Sunderland Limited (the operator of sports arenas and stadiums) and were replaced by Ellis Short and Per Magnus Andersson.

Per who you may ask! Well in the first matchday programme of the new season he was listed as a director of the football club. Does he own shares? Has he yet watched a game at the Stadium of Light? Or is he no more than (thanks to Google) a business associate of Ellis Short and president of Kitano Capital LLC?

Whilst the owner has of course the ultimate right to hire and fire, the timing of these departures was a puzzle in itself. Surely the optimum time to re-structure the support team was immediately after the end of season, not in July when several transfer deals were either already concluded or in train? The spin on the departures by the club, suggesting that at the time of the Drumaville sale, Walton and Callaghan had agreed to stay for a period for continuity, wasn’t really convincing. Perhaps we’ll never know the real reasons.

None of this is intended to suggest that Margaret Byrne, elevated from legal secretary to chief executive, or the subsequently appointed Mike Farnan, as marketing director, aren’t doing splendid jobs. Margaret had already earned her spurs in the game at large as a member of the Premier League’s legal advisory group and been short-listed for a Secretary of the Year award.

She has since been afforded the confidence of the Premier League to be one of their representatives on the FA Council, and is probably its youngest member there by almost 20 years! So she’s no lightweight.

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Similarly, the recent deals announced by the club, on the club shop, kit supplier and sponsorship, and the development of the website suggest that Mike Farnan’s influence outside of the North East is reaping reward.

The progressive departure of Quinny was perhaps even more of a surprise and surrounded by a similar haze of mystery. His initial move away from chairman to an international development role somehow didn’t ring true though it’s possible that our pre-season games in South Korea and our new Invest in Africa shirt sponsorship aren’t entirely unrelated.

So when Niall left completely “to spend more time with his family” and build up Qsat, his satellite broadband company in Ireland, it seemed a sad but inevitable end to a fairy tale. Niall’s value to Sunderland, first as a player and latterly as its chairman, must not be undervalued.

Without him would we ever have had the Drumaville owners or now Ellis Short? How many players were convinced by that assured brogue to join us? Managers too, Keane and O’Neill? Who of the current board has such wide contacts in the game to choose our next manager? There were mistakes too of course, none more so than the extravagant and lengthy contracts he agreed under the Keane regime which only now we are finally flushing away. But the memories will predominantly be fond ones.

This thumbnail sketch of board matters wouldn’t be complete without a mention of the arrival as vice chairman, of David Miliband MP. Whilst there was a logic that his constituency encompassed the Academy of Light (for which we still hadn’t then planning permission for an indoor barn!) his previous governmental role as Foreign Secretary sat very cosily with the club’s aim to develop worldwide recognition. David has been a regular at home games, often hosting visiting directors in the owner’s absence on business and even sat on our side of the directors’ box at the Emirates, suppressing his previously alleged Gunner affection.

Angela Lowes fills the finance director seat on the front row, whilst Gary Hutchison was also recently appointed commercial director. Gary was probably best known for his success in developing the Stadium of Light as a pop concert venue but his remit was much wider covering events and sales, including the setting up of a company, 1879 Events Ltd, which recently won a contract to provide the bars and catering facilities at Newcastle’s Pride Festival.

Finally a new company, Sunderland FC Development LLP was incorporated on 1st June this. Its purpose? Who knows – and will we ever?

Another off-field event is worthy of mention. Quinn had assured us at the May 2011 talk-in that our financial future was secure and that the 83 per cent of our turnover spent on wages, generally accepted in the world of football finance as too high, would progressively be falling season by season to nearer the 60 per cent target. Though the 2010-11 accounts have yet to be formally lodged the club did announce that our loss has been reduced from the previous season. It’s like the Chancellor of the Exchequer cutting the deficit. Commendable indeed but all that means is that the debt is growing more slowly.

There has been no mention of Sunderland’s debt. In the last set of accounts it was £66m. How much is owed to banks, how much to Short?

Members will of course be much wiser about events outside the inner sanctum. Another reassurance at the talk-in was that Steve Bruce’s aim was to have a 22-man squad where there was a back-up for each position. The 11 signings last summer seemed to endorse that aim except we still didn’t have one recognised left back, let alone two, and continued to collect centre backs. The midfield seemed to have been strengthened by the arrival of Larsson, Vaughan and Gardner but, despite the latter’s scoring potential, we still seemed too reliant on Gyan up front and the expectation of Campbell’s return. Ji Dong Won and Wickham were already labelled as “ones for the future” so the sudden departure of Gyan and desperate stakes arrival of Bendtner hardly inspired confidence (other than in the player himself?).

There’s no need for me to say much other than, after a promising start at Anfield, the home loss a week later to our closest rivals was the start of a slide which, with few freezes, culminated in Ellis Short deciding after the home defeat by Wigan that enough was enough and bidding farewell to Steve Bruce.

The transformation of the same players into a co-ordinated, and motivated, unit was perhaps better, and certainly quicker, than we might have expected. But Martin O’Neill was soon able to convince watchers that we weren’t as bad a side as we’d seemed. It may not have been pretty (a bit like watching Chelsea in the Champions League Final or England at Euro 2012 perhaps) but safety was achieved in good time.

Steve Bruce’s protests, to all who would listen, at his treatment became a bit boring and scarce on foundation so it was a shame that some poor performances near the end allowed us to finish lower and with fewer points than in 2011.

O’Neill has promised that we’ll play more attractive football next season and let’s hope so. That said, I wasn’t enthused that his first signing was yet another centre-back!

Roll on 18th August …

Ian Todd (source: www.weardownsouth.com)
* A brief description of Ian Todd, from the pages of the SAFCSA website, also called Wear Down South:
One of its founder Life-Members, Ian raided the (Sunderland AFC Supporters’) Association membership list during the summer of 1966 and wrote to all with addresses in London and the Home Counties. The result was a meeting before the game at West Ham in February 1967, attended by about 50 potential members, a Club director and the parent body’s Chairman, at which the London Branch was inaugurated. A volunteer Steering Committee was formed and two weeks later the Branch ran its first coach trip to The Hawthorns.

3 thoughts on “A year in Sunderland’s life: things we may never know”

  1. What an absolutely superb article Ian. The club has really got its act together on the business front and there are people with not only exceptional talent and experience who are now in a position to drive it forward. Great to see an article from you on Salut too! 🙂

    Things have come an awfully long way since Paul Days was running the website using BT Friends and Family benefits to dial in.

  2. I wondered whether to insert a smart alec note pointing out that West Ham were already relegated by the time we beat them on the last day of the 2010-2011 season. But technically, I think, Ian is right since they remained a PL team until the season’s end so SAFC supporters at the game did ‘see’ them relegated.

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