Sunderland fans needed something to believe in.
The club had just been relegated to League One, but their new owners were ready to inject some optimism into a beleaguered set of supporters.
It has been just shy of 550 days since Stewart Donald, along with Charlie Methven, addressed the media and ushered in a new era at Sunderland, promising a bright and prosperous future.
The pair also spoke of their desire to match the aspirations of supporters. In financial terms, they were nothing compared to predecessor Ellis Short, (who had an estimated £1bn net worth in April 2018), but they were keen to stress they could afford to fund the club.
Donald claimed he had shown the EFL £50m to prove that fact, and reiterated claims he could fund Sunderland as recently as six months ago.
“I can look after this club in the Championship,” he said. “And potentially beyond, depending on how well the money is spent.”
That is just one statement that feels like it requires revision.
“From day one they have set about moving the goalposts,” Chris Weatherspoon, a football writer and Sunderland fan told Oddschecker. “They have changed the story around how they bought the club and have failed to come through on any number of promises and commitments made. They appear to be a lot of talk, little action.”
While discussions about the running of the club have been ambiguous, things on the pitch have also been frustratingly inconsistent.
Last season the club finished 5th in League One and suffered two depressing defeats at Wembley. The first came on penalties to Portsmouth during the final of the Checkatrade Trophy. A little over two months later the Black Cats were back in London, only to lose the playoff final to Charlton Athletic in injury time.
Eager to bounce back, the owners stated the aim for this season was to get “100 points” and earn promotion to the Championship. Instead, the team currently sit in 7th. The club have lost six of the previous ten games, and last month saw manager Jack Ross sacked. The expected century now seems fanciful.
“Another season in League One would be disastrous for the club financially,” Weatherspoon added. “It would require significant support from either the ownership or external lenders. Promotion this term is absolutely pivotal to the club’s long-term success.”
There was a brief reprieve for supporters recently, but as has often been the case it was only momentary. September saw reports of a prospective takeover involving John Phelan, Glenn Fuhrman and Rob Platek, operating as part of MSD Partners - the private investment firm of American Billionaire Michael Dell.
They formed FPP Sunderland Limited group on September 16 to facilitate a deal. What at first seemed a straight forward agreement quickly became complicated. Talk of ‘any day now’ was replaced by silence, and eventually, The Sun broke a story that the deal was off.
Once again, a cloud of uncertainty filled the room.
By the end of October FPP were back on the scene amid news they had loaned £9million to Madrox Partners, Stewart Donald’s holding company which owns the football club. Described initially as an ‘investment’ by Methven, he was unwilling to go into greater detail when asked about the specifics of the agreement.
“The arrangements between FPP and Madrox are entirely private,” he said. “They have no financial connection with Sunderland AFC, and that’s the way it will stay.”
What has since become apparent is that it is, in fact, a loan from FPP, and the money is secured against the club’s assets. That includes the shareholding of Sunderland AFC, the Academy of Light and the Stadium of Light. The fact Methven claimed there was ‘no financial connection with Sunderland’ cannot be considered accurate given Madrox’s only asset is the football club.
“The only exposure, in reality, is for Juan, Charlie and I,” Donald said this week. “If we don’t make good on the repayment, the guys who have lent the money have control of Madrox, and we lose the money that we’ve invested.”
Once again, the consistently inconsistent approach is angering supporters, but can things improve?
“That would depend on whether there is a change in ownership,” Weatherspoon said. “If there isn’t, I see no real upturn in fortune. Phil Parkinson may get the side promoted but, under these owners and within this setup, it would come straight back down. If they go, it would really depend on who replaces them. As I say, just like the last half-decade, everything feels up in the air again.”
Once again Sunderland fans are questioning not just the present but also the future of their club.
Billed as saviours, both Donald and Methven have fast disintegrated that reputation. Whether it’s their message or their actions, Sunderland’s owners aren’t stacking up, and the only constant in all this is the suffering supporters.
Eighteen months ago, they were promised something fresh and bright, but right now, this latest struggle feels all too familiar.
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