Stewart Donald’s Sunderland ownership in stark contrast to Bolton Wanderers under Ken Anderson but there’s still long way to go
Bolton Wanderers’ brush with death on Wednesday probably didn’t resonate too deeply with Sunderland fans.
The Trotters, one of the founding members of the Football League, appeared in the High Court faced with a winding-up order over unpaid debts. They were granted a fortnight-long reprieve, on the basis the judge felt there was sufficient evidence that a new owner willing to clear said debts was waiting in the wings.
That was their sixth winding-up order in around a year and a half, all of which have came since Ken Anderson assumed the chairman’s role in 2016. Anderson is reviled in the north west, not without good reason; players have regularly had to wait for overdue wages to be paid, the club has amassed a lengthy list of creditors and, throughout it all, Anderson has given misleading statement after misleading statement.
The juxtaposition between Anderson and Stewart Donald could not seem starker. Where Anderson arrived at an ailing club and made things demonstrably worse, Donald turned up on Wearside and set about steadying the ship. There have been missteps and pitfalls but, up to now, few could argue the new owner has done a bad job.
From the devastation that enveloped the club last spring, now the mood at Sunderland is largely positive. A cup final victory and promotion would seal a remarkable turnaround.
But while there are few parallels to be drawn between the two owners, the same might not be true of the two clubs. Bolton were promoted in that League One season and, though Sunderland still have plenty of work to do to achieve a similar feat, Wanderers’ tale is strong evidence that there will remain lots to be done even if the Black Cats go up this summer.
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Bolton stayed up at Sunderland’s expense last year, but such are the barmy economics of the Championship that they still find themselves in dire financial straits. That owes a lot to Anderson’s dreadful running of things, but it remains that almost all clubs in the second tier haemorrhage money at an alarming rate. Even survival last season hasn’t kept the wolves from the Bolton door.
Does this mean Sunderland will go the same way as Bolton? Of course not. Donald & Co have worked hard this season to make the club self-sustaining. A parachute payment of around £15m next year will bolster club coffers further. Yet Donald himself has continually hinted his own pockets won’t be deep enough to take the club especially far and, if the likes of Bryan Oviedo and Lee Cattermole remain on the wage bill, it will be difficult to trim costs while simultaneously overhauling a squad for a Premier League push.
There is still much to be done before that should even enter most fans’ minds, but the fate of Bolton is instructive. A bad owner has led them to the brink of destruction.
Sunderland appear, on public evidence so far, to have a good owner. But such is the craziness of football these days that any club wishing to make it to the Premier League must be either exceedingly well-managed or have exceedingly deep pockets.
In Stewart Donald and Sunderland’s case, it will need to be the former rather than the latter.
Whatever happens over the next two months or so, it will only comprise the very beginning of Sunderland’s long road back.