At a time when a painstakingly detailed report on the Sunderland business model has just appeared (see below), it is not impertinent to wonder aloud where he will be then, and indeed where SAFC will find themselves.
If Bruce does well, returning to where we left off before the present run of defeats began, the risk is that another club – if not a post-Fergie Manchester United, then someone else – will come in to lure him away.
Managers, like players, can change allegiance at the drop of a hat provided the hat contains enough dosh or professional promise (just as there is no such thing as loyalty from club to them).
And if the decline worsens and we end up, despite all that Ellis Short money we’ve spent, hovering just above the relegation zone in an incredibly tight division, or a prolonged slump extends into next season, that absence of loyalty from clubs to their staff could see Mr Bruce on his bike out of the place.
Cue for a reality check, as if Stoke, Spurs and Everton (less so Chelsea, an honourable if ultimately emphatic defeat) had not already provided it.
Since Goodison, Bruce himself has told the Sunderland Echo in the course of repeating his aim for a top 10 finish but reminding us just how much remains to be achieved:
“When I arrived here 18 months ago, my brief was to turn Sunderland into an established Premier League club after being a yo-yo club in previous years. We want to be an established Premier League club which is not easy these days.
If you look around you, sides such as Blackburn and Bolton have been in this division for 10 years and Wigan have been up here for six. Establishing yourself in the top division for that long is massive. For instance Everton, who we played last weekend, have been in the Premier League since the year dot and when you’ve been up there for a long time it makes a big difference.
Their manager and players know what it is like to be in the top flight year-in, year-out and for me they will finish in the top 10 again without a doubt. That is something we would like to emulate.
But after four years, I don’t think we can say that we are there yet – not with our history. Since winning promotion under Roy Keane, we’ve only been in the Premier League for four years in a row. We’ve got to make sure that we stay in there for the long haul and hopefully mounting a challenge for a top 10 place will help us along the way.”
The truth can hurt, but Bruce is hardly overstating the argument. Mind, after Saturday’s debacle, he is probably lucky there is any argument at all. Some of us feel battered into silence; I was certainly reluctant to post anything today until I saw his comments.
Four losses in a row would be bad enough. The fixture list makes a further three likely unless Bruce can get the players to perform as they did at Chelsea, not as they did at Everton, West Brom and in crucial stages of games at Stoke and Wolves.
But I did like the response at the Echo from a supporter called Bill:
“I know we’re having a bad run – but some fans have short memories – remember McCarthy, remember Keane, remember Spragia (probably spelt it wrong) and who can forget Wilkinson – although I would like to! Ok, so Bruce has had more money but who would you rather have from the shower currently available; Benitez (destroyed Liverpool); McClaren (failed in Germany); and that little irish fella (ex Villa boss) has previously turned us down twice. The only time to judge Bruce is in May.”
And Bruce knows all too well, of course, that Bill will not be the only one judging him in May.
Speaking, as I was in passing, of Ellis Short, any Salut! Sunderland reader who has not already seen it could useful turn to the highly rated Swiss Ramble football finance blog for a long, meticulously detailed report on the state of business play at the Stadium of Light.
There are several key sections, of which I will choose three:
* The need for the owner’s backing is underlined by looking at the club’s cash flow statement. Over the last four years, the owners have had to provide over £100 million of loans to compensate for the big cash outflows before financing. This is quite interesting, as, when discussing the results, chief executive Walton was at pains to emphasise the importance of cash, as opposed to profit, implying that the cash flow figures would be much better, “There’s a big disconnect between cash and profit. The transfer fees of many of our players appear in the last published accounts even though we paid out the cash for them some years ago. Businesses don’t get into difficulties because they don’t make profits; they get into trouble because they run out of cash, which is a really important distinction that has to be made.”
It’s difficult to disagree with that view, though I can’t help noticing that Sunderland’s cash outflow is actually worse than the reported losses, e.g. £39 million cash outflow last season compared to an accounting loss of £28 million. What Walton is really highlighting is that the cash looks fine … but only after Short signs a large cheque.
The question is how long will this go on? Steve Bruce, of all people, got to the heart of the issue, “Without the owner’s huge investment we would be perennial strugglers. I’m sure he hasn’t finished investing yet. At least I hope he hasn’t. The owner has been very generous with his funding, but we can’t expect him to keep putting his hand in his pocket for another £30 million a year.
* So what exactly is Sunderland’s problem?
Well, it starts with the revenue. On the face of it, this is perfectly respectable at £65 million. Looking at the revenue for Premier League clubs in 2008/09, this would put Sunderland in a comfortable mid-table position, which is fine, but is not really in line with the club’s aspirations. There are many ways of looking at this. From a negative perspective, four of the eight clubs with revenue lower than Sunderland’s ended up being relegated in the following two seasons (Middlesbrough, WBA, Portsmouth and Hull City), but, on the other hand, Fulham managed to reach the final of the Europa League with turnover almost identical to that of the Black Cats.
* In fact, Sunderland were one of only two Premier League clubs whose shirt sponsorship decreased this season (Newcastle were the other one), as the new two-year deal with online gaming company Tombola Sports is worth little more than £1 million a year. OK, you might not expect the deal to be at the same level as the £20 million received by Manchester United and Liverpool, but surely the £2.5 million earned by Everton and Newcastle should be attainable.
Part of the problem could be the club’s enthusiasm for local companies (Vaux Breweries and Sunderland car dealership Reg Vardy have been sponsors in the past), so it might be an idea to start looking further afield. Even the deal with the Irish firm Boylesports was worth up to £12 million over four years. That is one of the reasons that the club has brought in ex-foreign secretary, David Milliband, as a non-executive director in the hope that he can raise Sunderland’s profile on the international stage and leverage his overseas network to increase income. We shall see. At least it gave Steve Bruce an opportunity to stake an early claim for lamest joke of the year, “I did ask for a left winger, but I didn’t expect this.”
Even these longish extracts do little justice to the full analysis.
The article has a mixture of encouraging and disturbing news and is headlined, with due reference to Niall Quinn’s much debated complaints about stayaway supporters, Sunderland’s Problem Is Not Their Fans.
It can be seen here.