Our question-and-answer discussions with Sunderland’s executive director, Charlie Methven, continues with a series of detailed points put to him by Salut! Sunderland‘s deputy editor, Malcolm Dawson. I called Malcolm’s efforts speeches followed by questions, Charlie thought “lectures” the more appropriate description while appreciating the depth of his thinking.
And each ends with a highly pertinent question. Let the pair of them speak for themselves (and see the series in full at this link). Many thanks to all the readers who came here yesterday to see what Charlie had to say; we wish only that a few more had also taken the trouble to put their own views across or respond to
his comments …
Malcolm Dawson: the North East is often described as a hotbed of soccer and with perhaps the exception of Liverpool and Glasgow, the passion of the fans for their club is unrivalled anywhere in the British Isles.In a radio interview Stewart tried to liken the Wear/Tyne derby to that of Swindon and Oxford and was quickly made aware that comparison did not hold water. Do you think you are beginning to get a feel for the area as well as the club and what has impressed you about Sunderland and its environs so far?
Charlie Methven: in my last answer I alluded to the passion of football fans in the North East, so won’t labour that point – there are quite simply a far higher percentage of people in this part of the world who are into football than in other parts of the UK.
I will, though, respectfully defend Stewart’s comparison to the Oxford-Swindon derby, which is vicious and – I believe – the only derby other than SAFC-NUFC to date from the Civil War.
Not many games these days get patrolled by police helicopters as well as the horses and dogs, but that one still does. Which is useful, because it’s harder to punch a chopper than a horse.
Or so I’d imagine! So I would venture that the fact that the comparison doesn’t hold water with you doesn’t necessarily mean it doesn’t hold water in general. For the people from Oxfordshire and Wiltshire, it’s a ferociously passionate match.
In general I have found Sunderland fans utterly delightful – really fantastic, friendly and open-hearted, even to a southern farmer boy like me.
But if I were to enter a very slightly, very gentle criticism, it’s that compared to fans I have met over the last 20 years, the 1000+ SAFC fans I have now met don’t tend to be quite as knowledgeable about clubs and football outside the Premier League as some. Understandably, I guess, given that that’s where the club has spent much of its recent history. I’m a great believer, though, that part of the recipe for winning at this game is a battle-hardened humility and that is a walk that we hope to walk ourselves in our time up here and persuade SAFC fans of the merits of appreciating the game up and down the country, and recognising that every club matters intensely to those who support it – respecting that is both important, I think, and rather unifying.
Malcolm: several people who had no prior connection to the club or the region have become legends on Wearside because they have fallen in love with the club and the area and won the respect and the hearts of supporters.
Gary Bennett, Niall Quinn, Kevin Ball are names which obviously stand out but there have been plenty of others throughout the club’s history.
Vito Mannone and especially Jermain Defoe’s relationship with Bradley Lowery and his family was the one bright spot in what has been a succession of dismal seasons. Too many players in recent times have not shown any desire to be at the club or to do their best for Sunderland AFC. Although we would expect the manager to ultimately decide upon the type of player brought in, how much of an influence will you as owners have on signing players with regard to attitude and personality type as well as footballing ability?
Charlie: I think that it played a big part in the choice of manager. It is then up to him to reflect his personality in the choice of players.
Jack Ross could have earned more money by managing in the Championship but wanted to come here.
Tony Davison emailed me the day we bought the club and ordered us not to give the MD job to anyone else. He has taken a pay cut to come here from Spurs.
Chris Maguire got in touch as soon as we took over. He was texting, desperate to come to play here and took a pay cut from a contract he still had a year to run on because he was so keen to be at Sunderland.
These are the kind of people who are going to turn around the previous culture of people coming here to take the p***.
Once you have a training ground full of people who actively want to be at SAFC, and for the right reasons, then half the battle will have been won. Respect and love for the institution needs to be a consistent theme in those of us lucky enough to serve this great club. Once you’ve got that in your bones, you will enjoy working very, very hard. Stewart and I certainly are….
Malcolm: the North East is a passionate area. It is passionate about its heritage and passionate about its football teams.
Unlike previous chairmen like Bob Murray and Niall Quinn, this is an area which I feel Ellis Short failed to appreciate and one which the people he appointed to advise him also failed to appreciate. This led to many supporters who see Sunderland as their club, feeling alienated and was in part a reason why many stopped attending in person.
More so than the football and the poor results. There came a point where many fans felt their views and feelings were seen as irrelevant and the club were treating them either as idiots or peripheral to the organisation.
Charlie: Yes, and as a fan it makes me angry when a club treats me in that way so we get it. Ellis was an absentee landlord and I’m just not sure that that works well in a football context. Football clubs need a lot of love…
Malcolm: one seemingly minor incident (but a telling one in my view) was the launch of a charcoal grey third kit. It was actually quite a nice shirt, better than the abomination that was the seaside rock inspired home strip at any rate, but the marketing men actually insulted our intelligence by trying to say it was created to reflect our mining history and the men who worked underground on the site where the Stadium now stands and in coal mines around the North East. They launched it with pictures of a supporter posing at Beamish museum but no one fell for this crass marketing ploy.
When the stadium was named, when the Davy Lamp was built next to the ticket office, supporters were made aware of the reasons well beforehand. With this shirt it was more that having created it in a colour that hadn’t been used previously, some marketing executives were charged with the task of selling it to the fans and after a brainstorming session came up with the mining link. Whether it was an afterthought or not is irrelevant. The damage was already done and supporters had lost any faith that the club was taking their concerns on board.
You seem to be going a long way to repairing that damage as far as you can and have certainly been much more open about things with fans. I am wondering what kind of relationship you would like the club to see develop with its supporters, what ethos you are hoping to create at the club and how important is it for the players who are brought in to buy into that ethos?
Charlie: the ethos we want is a “one club” ethos. We are all members of the same club; we just have different roles. Those in the paid/full-time roles are not superior to the other paying members. They are the servants of the paying members.
Without the paying members of the club they would be quite literally pointless. This is a big cultural change to effect, because the ethos of football clubs talking down to their supporters has set in pretty deep.
But we are convinced that if we remain steady and true with the one club ethos then it will end up being very powerful indeed.
Interestingly, some SAFC fans feel rather uncomfortable by being treated with respect – it’s almost like Stockholm Syndrome. When Ellis was here they complained bitterly about his lack of communication…. But when we communicate they say we are too open. My “take-out” from that is not that, to repeat the old cliché, “you can’t win with some people”… I just think that it is going to take some people a little while to get out of the default mode of disliking their own club and everyone who works in it.
Malcolm: when our previous owner (who is obviously a very successful businessman) decided he would take sole responsibility for the running of the club by assuming the role of chairman, he made several appointments who he expected to help with the running of a business in which he had no experience.
Whether or not he tried to implement a business model which had worked in other sectors I don’t know but I do know that many of those he appointed made a succession of disastrous decisions with regard to contract negotiations, player recruitment and public relations.
A succession of managers ended up with expensive players who hardly ever played for the club and certainly did not provide value for money. I lost track of the number of loan players who were eventually signed on permanent deals only to be sent out on loan.
Of the many such instances the Ricardo Alvarez situation was the most ludicrous but we could name a first team and a reserve team of such signings who barely played a handful of games for us and yet two of the more successful loanees, DeAndre Yedlin and Yann M’Vila who was a kind of Alvarez in reverse were not signed. Neither was Marcos Alonso.
As the new men in charge what will be your attitude towards loan players and especially the signing on clauses that seem to have been part and parcel of recruitment in the Ellis Short era? And as a supplementary will you seek to avoid the punitive contracts that have seen so many well rewarded signings, continue to reap the rewards without contributing to the cause?
Charlie: not my area, thank heavens! Stewart is a great believer in employing people he absolutely knows he can trust. That matters more to him than anything else, as he believes – rightly, I feel – that a lot of people in football are on the take and that this damages clubs more deeply than one could ever imagine….. financially, yes, but also the entire moral fibre of a place.
I agree with him on that. I’m not sure that that quite answers the question, but maybe goes some way to demonstrating how we plan to avoid making decisions that damage the club in the medium to long term.
Taking a zero tolerance approach to people who do not 100 per cent have the club’s best interests at heart lies at the heart of our strategy to turn SAFC around.
If anything, we will err on the side of harshness in achieving that – hence Stewart calling out agents, and players making ridiculous demands.
The message needs to go out loud and clear to the football community that Sunderland is a place that doesn’t give out freebies. If the downside of that is that some of the more egregious and greedy agents don’t want to deal with us then we view that as an upside for the club in the medium and long term.
Malcolm: how much of a “hands on” approach will you have with regard to player discipline in an attempt to ensure that your employees do not bring the club under unfavourable public scrutiny?
I am thinking of situations such as the Lee Cattermole/Nicklas Bendtner vandalism incident, the Phil Bardsley casino incident as well as the inconsistency in the treatment of Cabral (found not guilty but dismissed before trial) and Adam Johnson (convicted but allowed to play despite certain club officials being aware of the accusations against him)?
Charlie: I think the board will have to judge issues like this on an individual basis.
But we are setting out our store to be a strong, tough, successful club. And I don’t know of many such organisations that tolerate ill discipline. These things are best dealt with first by the dressing room; if not then by the manager; and, ultimately, if they have to be, by the board.
Malcolm: one of my concerns is that during your time at Eastleigh there was a high turnover of managers. I feel that what we need now, and what most fans will be happy with, is a consistent approach that will allow the club to consolidate and rebuild.
The supporters I know feel that we need to be realistic and patient as we need to build the club up, virtually from scratch and this will take time. They would like a manager who can develop a work ethic that we can admire as well as a successful and hopefully entertaining playing style and who will be given the time to do so.
They also understand that there are some disruptive elements within the club and hope that these can be dealt with. Jack Ross seems to be making all the right noises but in the past so have Martin O’Neill, Dick Advocaat, David Moyes (though not for long) Simon Grayson and Chris Coleman but none was given sufficient time to sort things out.
Do you have any minimum expectations for the manager and how much grace will he be given if results are not immediate?
Charlie: at Eastleigh, Stewart had one manager for quite a while, and it was only later that he went through a couple… Ronnie Moore retired (as opposed to being fired) and then there was Martin Allen who is quite a character. I certainly would not characterise Stewart as a “sacking chairman” and his former managers speak fondly of him.
Jack Ross sets his own targets and, rather unusually for a manager, declares what they are. At St Mirren, he took over when they were bottom and certainties for relegation and immediately declared that he would keep them up and get them promoted next season. Everybody said he was mad or arrogant … but he delivered.
In his opening press conference here, he said quite clearly that he has come here to deliver promotion. So we haven’t even had to talk to Jack about targets.
That said, I think that it’s a matter of record that at our opening press conference, Stewart spoke about making the playoffs being par for the course, given the upheaval. Automatic promotion would be a hell of an achievement, and missing out altogether would be a failure. An understandable and explicable failure, but a failure none the less, given the resources.
Please return for the fourth and final instalment of this series. All items can be accessed by clicking on the image below …