Sunderland’s rebirth begins, 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.

A new, less cavalier era beckons for Chelsea

SOME have called it a scattergun approach, others have described it as merely careless, but Chelsea’s transfer market activity since 2003 has been characterised by mass purchases, bold statements and knee-jerk decisions. No matter how many top players Chelsea acquired during the Roman Abramovich era – and there have been many that have worked well –  there have been many mistakes and tales of big-money signings failing to live up to expectations.

The list seems quite endless and includes Mutu, Crespo, Shevchenko, Deco, Torres, Remy, Ba, Rahman, Batshuayi, Morata, Drinkwater, Kepa and, dare we say, Lukaku. Chelsea have sometimes acted like a greedy kid in a sweetshop: “I want, I want, I want.” Perhaps there have been occasions where a big name has been signed to deprive others and there have been cases of downright poor judgement. If further evidence has to be provided as to. Chelsea’s carelessness, let’s just list three players: Mo Salah (Roma and Liverpool), Kevin De Bruyne (Wolfsburg and Manchester City) and Romelu Lukaku (WBA, Everton, Man.Utd and Inter Milan).

But this approach has undoubtedly been consigned to the past with the club on the brink of being taken over by the consortium led by American businessman Todd Boehly. Chelsea will be US-owned and that means a very different attitude to sports investment from the one taken by Abramovich and his entourage. Abramovich appeared to ask for little in return for his consistently committed patronage, thereby making him popular with the Chelsea faithful, but the US ownership team will surely demand a return and a more measured strategy around cash outlay and squad building.

It may have been Chelsea had seen the best of the Abramovich years, despite winning the Champions League for the second time in 2011. They had become a cup team over the past five years and since Pep Guardiola and Jürgen Klopp moved into Manchester and Liverpool respectively, Chelsea’s position had been on the decline. Their last title challenge was in 2017 and the past six seasons have delivered four trophies (it may be five if they win the FA Cup on May 14). Compared to the six seasons starting with José Mourinho’s appointment, when they won eight, and the second six-year period when they won five, it is clear Chelsea’s ability to win silverware has declined or rather, has been challenged by smart competition. Furthermore, their league placings have also fallen away and given they are likely to finish third or fourth in the Premier in 2021-22, their last top two position was in 2017.  

Given Chelsea have a reputation for being a hire and fire club with respect to managers, it is no coincidence the two most successful clubs at present have had their managers for some time. In six years, Chelsea have had Antonio Conte, Maurizio Sarri, Frank Lampard and Thomas Tuchel. In that same timeframe, Manchester City and Liverpool have had Guardiola and Klopp. At some point, the new owners may well question this strategy for its short-termism. It has worked to a point – witness the number of trophies – but less so recently.

Chelsea may have seen the best of the Abramovich era and had become a cup team while Manchester City and Liverpool slugged it out for the title.

Another aspect of Chelsea’s last 19 years has to be the number of young players being loaned out in the market. At present, there are almost 30 players on loan at clubs like AC Milan, Besiktas, Venezia, Rapid Vienna, Lokomotiv Moscow and Flamengo. Some, such as Michy Batshuayi and Baba Rahman, seem to have been at the club for years, but have little hope of making it at Chelsea. This is really inefficient player management and can destroy their careers, even if Chelsea might get a return on the continual lending of their services. Often, it is a way of off-loading a player who has been bought (Batshuayi cost £ 33 million) who hasn’t worked out. According to football finance professionals, the buy and loan model is very unsatisfying for the players.

As much as Chelsea supporters love Stamford Bridge, the harsh reality is the club needs to rebuild or move to remain competitive. The capacity is barely 40,000, capable of hosting 20,000 fewer people than Arsenal, Tottenham and West Ham. Abramovich tried to launch plans to build a new super stadium designed by prestigious architects Herzog & de Meuron, but the £ 500 million project was abandoned in July 2018 after he ran into problems with the UK government over his immigration status. In hindsight, this may have been the beginning of the end for Abramovich and Chelsea and he rarely saw the team in action from that point. It was probably unreasonable to expect him to continue his ownership when he couldn’t even enter the country. With regards to the stadium, it will be interesting to see if the consortium will revisit the possibility of a completely new home or will completely rebuild on the existing site. The club’s matchday income is generally way behind their chief rivals in England, so this revenues stream offers plenty of upside.

So Chelsea will, like some of their peer group, Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United, become influenced by US sports investor mentality. This may actually strengthen Manchester City’s hold on the English game but it will certainly mean success will become more irregular and Chelsea will have to adjust to a new type of ownership model. It is fairly certain that when the new management rolls into town, they will use many of the tools that are currently being adopted by the most successful  and intelligent clubs in world football. Data will be key, intelligent use of assets will be a prerequisite. It’s not bad news, because Chelsea’s previous model was the equivalent of a “sugar daddy” with cash to spend and few questions asked, at least that what it seemed to resemble. It was never going to last forever, because it couldn’t – football finance expert Kieran Maguire commented that Chelsea were losing £ 900,000 per week, a situation that was completely unsustainable. Nevertheless, Stamford Bridge regulars will forever consider Roman Abramovich a “good owner”, but it is possible Chelsea will be more sensibly run going forward.