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.

The Trotters turn a corner and look forward

BOLTON WANDERERS are one of the grand old names of football, a club that hasn’t always achieved as much as it should have and one that was overtaken by the rise of bigger clubs from bigger cities in the north.  As a founder member of the Football League, and participants in that first campaign of 1888-89, Bolton have never been considered a title-chasing club but have enjoyed considerable success in the FA Cup, notably in the 1920s when they won the competition three times.

But in recent years, Bolton have had a rough time, suffering relegation to the bottom tier of the EFL for only the second time, in 2020. For all their recent problems, Bolton have spent And it is easily forgotten that when they were relegated in 2012, they ended an 11-year stretch in the Premier League, a period which saw them finish in the top half four times, including a top six position in 2005.

However, not many people anticipated that once Bolton were relegated, it would be unlikely to see them bounce back immediately and regain their Premier place. Being part of the elite was never something Bolton could sustain once the bubble had burst.

Many students of the game have feared for Bolton’s future in recent years, notably when their collapse into administration could have seen them expelled from the Football League. Their financial condition was certainly an existential threat.

The plight of Bolton underlined the perils of smaller clubs playing at the highest level and attempting to remain competitive.  Once the riches of the Premier League disappear, unless costs and wages have been reduced dramatically, the cost can be catastrophic for clubs who have come down the other side of a golden period, unless a quick return to the top can be guaranteed, of course.

Bolton’s income fell from £ 58 million in 2012 to £ 28 million in their first season after relegation, but their wage bill, although cut from £ 54 million to £ 36 million, was still 128% of income. By 2015, the club was reputedly £ 173 million in debt and two years on, income had slumped to just £ 8.3 million. In 2019, Bolton went into administration, which came with a 12-point penalty and, consequently, relegation to League Two. 

Bolton were taken over in August 2019 by Football Ventures (Whites) Limited, a group led by Sharon Brittain with involvement from various business people from the worlds of property development and finance. Bizarrely, Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason also had an interest. 

The arrival of Ms Brittain, a dynamic individual, heralded the end of the previous regime and sparked renewed hope at Bolton. She has praised local people for the way they have reacted: “I have been made to feel very welcome here by the fans, the community, the University, the town, and I have met some delightful people through all the challenges and difficult times.”

In 2019-20, the club lost £ 3.9 million, but this was a fraction of the amounts lost in the past. In 2020-21, a lockdown season, Bolton managed to climb back to League One, but the pandemic still impacted the club’s finances – “we lost 70% of our income overnight and that was a huge challenge,” said Brittain.

Bolton’s overall revenues for 2020-21 were down by 34% to £ 6.15 million, but the annual loss was reduced to less than 1.5 million. The club also had half a million pounds in the bank. But the wage bill, at £ 6.9 million, down from £ 7.4 million, was 112% of income. Losses would have been worse but for the government’s furlough scheme

Bolton’s finances remain a little complex and ultimately, the club may continue to need fresh funding from shareholders and owners. They raised £ 4 million via a share issue and £ 12.5 million of loans have been converted to equity.

After finishing ninth in League One in 2021-22, Bolton could make a challenge at the top end of the table and start to think about promotion. The club has the potential to draw decent crowds; they averaged 15,400 in League One in 2021-22, higher than their last Championship season. Moreover, season ticket sales have been buoyant this summer, with 13,000 sold by the end of June, the sort of momentum not seen at Bolton since their Premier League days. They start the 2022-23 season at Ipswich on July 30 and their first home game is on August 6 against Wycombe Wanderers.