Stewart Donald on the challenge of turning Sunderland's finances from a burden into an advantage
At his first press conference Stewart Donald told the assembled media that the new manager, at that stage still unconfirmed, would have a '˜hefty budget' to work with.
The new directors were equally eager, however, to stress that no one should assume such a budget will lead to an easy season in League One.
For that reason they spoke of ‘budget capability’, referring to the fact that while Sunderland would have the biggest resources in the division, there was much work to be done in ensuring that money was used productively.
While work has been done to reduce the onerous running costs from the Premier League era in the last year, and Ellis Short’s decision to wipe the debt has clearly been a significant boost, there is still a way to go.
In a nutshell that is Donald’s biggest challenge, turning Sunderland’s financial burden into an advantage ahead of what will be only the club’s second ever season in the third tier.
Donald said: “Obviously the [club’s] numbers didn’t surprise me because I had them to formulate an offer but was I surprised how bad they were? Yes. You look at Sunderland, the fanbase, the stadium, the potential, you think it should be functioning pretty well.
“Then you look at the cost base and you find that excluding players, running this club costs more than 20 teams in League Two turnover, and that’s before we pay a footballer.
“That is quite scary,” he added.
“You could put together seven or eight teams in League One and that would cost the same as the cost base here, before you pay a player. So when you go into League One you think you’ve got a massive financial advantage, well we’ve actually got a financial burden that we have to deal with in a sensible manner.
“We have all these fans paying their money and the trick is to get that working so that we can use to our advantage, rather than paying costs which in all honesty is a hangover from the club thinking it was going back to the Premier League when it didn’t. That’s a job to do.”
Work has already begun on that front with a restructure announced alongside the appointment of Jack Ross last week.
Tony Davison has been appointed managing director, with Martin Bain’s role as chief executive made redundant.
A number of senior executives have left the club, including the ‘director for change’, with some staff taking pay-cuts to stay on.
Executive Director Charlie Methven said: “As we move forward, it is important to place on record our thanks to those people leaving the club. Decisions of this nature are never taken lightly.
“However, when we arrived it was abundantly clear that the infrastructure and team that we inherited was not aligned with our clear goal of ensuring each and every opportunity at this football club is realised and maximised.
“This is not a reflection on the specific individuals who have departed, who leave with our sincere good wishes, but on the inflated and therefore inefficient infrastructure that developed over a number of years and the resultant culture which grew around it.
“Fundamentally, every pound that supporters put into their football club has to influence positively its future success. Fans need to see their hard-earned money being used wisely and in the right areas and to do that we have a responsibility to be lean, productive and focussed. Ensuring that we are ready for the challenge of League One is our priority and the club’s operation will reflect that aim.
“Stewart and I have moved quickly and decisively to pull together a tight, driven group of people to serve the interests of Sunderland and its fans. We are excited by the opportunity to get this club back to what it should be, and the hard work starts now.”
While some staff have left the club, Methven and Donald are looking to strengthen some areas. Commercial and marketing is seen as crucial to getting the club’s foundations back on track and Methven in particular is eager to improve links with the local community.
That means a renewed emphasis on working with local business, boosting revenue streams and morale in the city.
If successful, it will offer Sunderland a big advantage on their third tier rivals, as will an increase in attendances.
Matchday revenue may have lost some of its importance in the Premier League era, with TV and media money dwarfing all other income, but now it will be crucial to Sunderland’s revival.
The potential power of the Stadium of Light was underlined when Donald and Methven paid their first visit to the ground, Sunderland blowing Wolves away on a wave of goodwill.
New manager Jack Ross has already identified it as key in turning the club around, saying: “Mistakes will happen – I’ll make them and the players will make them – but it’s about how you react to them and how you learn from them.
“If we’re going to get over that element [of fear at home], and it was very similar when I took over at St Mirren because we had a horrendous home record, we can become a real force at the Stadium of Light.
“If we can get it right, what a powerful place it will be to play.”
Cutting down on waste and making every penny count is the ultimate goal for the new regime.
In doing that, they also believe they can help to reconnect Sunderland with the values of its city.
It is a big challenge but one they have wasted no time trying to get to grips with.