State of Play: Stoke City – a club in exile

STOKE CITY have been in a better place than they are today and not many people are predicting they will win promotion from the Championship in 2022-23. The “experts” believe Stoke will finish just above mid-table, which will be progress on the past four seasons and the best placing since they were relegated from the Premier League in 2018.

The current campaign will be their fifth since then, there is a danger they are getting too comfortable at that level. The pandemic hasn’t helped them, but then it has been a struggle for many Championship clubs given the trend of the second-tier clubs paying far too much out in wages in a bid to win a place in the promised land of the Premier. Stoke, in 2020-21, saw their wage-to-income ratio jump to 119%, their second successive season when player expenses went above 100%. Again, the pandemic has to be considered, but it underlines the precarious nature of football club finance.

Despite having one of the Championship’s highest wage bills, Stoke were 14th in 2021-22 and 2020-21. In their four Championship seasons since relegation, they have never finished higher and have seldom looked like promotion candidates.
To see our latest State of Play, click here

Sunderland are reborn, but there’s a way to go

SUNDERLAND regained Championship status at the end of 2021-22, winning a play-off final at Wembley against Wycombe Wanderers. Since then, there has been some boardroom activity, with the club’s owner, Kyril Louis-Dreyfuss, strengthening his hand by raising his stake to 51%. This may not sound like complete control, but he now has the majority stake in the club, which will give him the freedom he needs to drive his own agenda. His acolyte, Uruguayan senator Juan Sartori, has a 30% holding, so everyone should more or less be singing from the same song sheet.

This is important, because if Sunderland are to get back to the Premier League and rediscover the elixir that returns the north-east to hotbed status, then the club needs direction, a strategy and a vision of how it can be achieved. In 2022-23, the club will be marking 50 years since they last won a trophy, that legendary 1973 FA Cup triumph against the mighty Leeds United. How appropriate would it be for the Black Cats to win a place in the Premier at the end of a landmark campaign?

Take away that shock win in 1973, and there’s scarcely anyone alive who remembers a Sunderland success. Their last league title was secured in 1936 and a year after they won the FA Cup for the first time. Sunderland’s real glory days were in the late 19th and early 20th century, five championships between 1892 and 1913, including the famous “team of all the talents”. In fact, this period was really the north-east’s footballing belle epoch.

Sunderland are part of a small group of clubs that enjoyed their best moments when football had grown out of the industrial revolution – Newcastle United and Aston Villa are also members. These clubs suffered when the inter-war years brought depression and recession to Britain, and needless to say, it was the working class and back-breaking industry that suffered more than most. Sunderland’s crowds went from 25,000 in 1929 to 17,000 in 1933, while Newcastle United saw their attendances fall from 33,000 in 1930 to 20,000 in 1935. Middlesbrough, meanwhile, were drawing 12,000 in 1934, a third down on the 19,000 averaged at Ayresome Park in 1930. Whereas pre-World War One football saw Newcastle United and Sunderland win eight league titles, only two have been won since – 1927 and 1936.

Generations of fans have forgotten what a truly successful Sunderland looks like

Some of this has undoubtedly been attributable to the decline of Britain’s industrial heritage and the over-emphasis on London, and in the case of Sunderland, shipbuilding, which had been so crucial to the town’s growth, declined until the last shipyard closed in the late 1980s. How much of this impacted on the football club is uncertain, but there’s little doubt a poor economic climate in a town or city can be reflected in the performance of a club. There are exceptions, of course, but for a football institution with huge potential support and a pivotal role to play in the city, Sunderland have become one of English football’s great underachievers.

The club has had many false dawns, the term “sleeping giant” has been used so much that generations of fans have forgotten what a successful Sunderland looks like. And yet, their loyalty is undeniable, the recent television documentary, Sunderland ‘til I die, demonstrated just how important the club is to the local 175,000 population. The club has had too many owners in the 21st century, including Ellis Short, Stewart Donald and Bob Murray. Kyril Louis-Dreyfuss, who is part of the famous French family that has business interests in finance, agriculture and shipping, also has a stake in Olympique Marseille.

From a financial perspective, Sunderland’s current position illustrates how much ground they have to make-up on Premier League clubs even at the bottom end of their own food chain. In 2020-21, their revenues totalled just £ 10.7 million, a 63% drop on 2019-20. Since 2017, their income has dropped alarmingly (it was £ 123.5 million in 2016-17) due to two relegations and the pandemic. However, their wage bill of £ 13.4 million represents an astonishing 125% of earnings. Louis-Dreyfuss has prioritised the task of making Sunderland a more sustainable business. Promotion back to the Premier League would transform the club’s finances dramatically.

With Louis-Dreyfuss snapping-up the shares owned by now departed Charlie Methven, any prospect of a crypto-currency driven group acquiring a stake – via the shares of Methven or Stewart Donald – has gone. The local media reported that rumours of a crypto group’s possible involvement “has gone down like a lead balloon with Sunderland fans”. While some may consider the club has dodged a bullet, this has underlined the growing presence of a largely speculative and volatile form of finance gathering momentum in the football world. Louis-Dreyfuss distanced himself from talk of and emphasised any transfer of shares must not compromise the club’s integrity.

The fans will be hoping that the Louis-Dreyfuss regime will bring stability and the chance to build with a longer-term view. In the past decade, Sunderland have employed 12 permanent managers, ranging from Martin O’Neill to current boss Alex Neil. The average tenure has been just 40 games. Neil was appointed in February 2022 and the team has lost just once since he arrived. Again, for the Black Cats to be successful, they need some consistency and solidity in the dugout.

The current team is largely a young squad, with only a couple of players over 30. The leading scorer, Ross Stewart, has earned the nickname, the “Loch Ness Drogba” from Sunderland fans, owing to his style of play. He scored 26 goals last season and won two caps for Scotland. The club has added to its forward power in the summer by signing former Bayern Munich striker Leon Dajaku from Union Berlin. Furthermore, Sunderland have been boosted by Lynden Gooch’s decision to remain at the Stadium of Light. The 26 year-old USA international has impressed since Alex Neil joined the club. Winger Patrick Roberts, who featured in the promotion run-in on a six-month loan, has signed a two-year deal to stay with the club.

The Championship is a highly competitive league and Neil’s team will do well to make a mark in their first season back at that level. They may need a year or two to consolidate and then mount a serious challenge for promotion. Sunderland need to look beyond 2022-23 if they are to transform their status and create real value for their owner.