The Sunderland owner is set to depart in the coming months as he actively seeks a new buyer to the club and, in an interview with BBC Radio Newcastle, offered an insight into the groups he is approaching regarding a deal for the club.
Donald also spoke about fan protests, the January transfer window and Phil Parkinson in a bumper interview.
Here’s everything Donald (SD) said to presenters Simon Pryde (SP) and Nick Barnes (NB) during his appearance on Total Sport:
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SP: So, why have you decided that you want to leave?
SD: I don’t really want to leave, but I made a promise – as has quite widely been commented on – that I wasn’t keen to outstay my welcome and that I’d try to get it right. Following the Boxing Day, I’ve been contacted and I’ve obviously seen the requests from all the fans’ groups, including the Red & White Army, which I think is a big portion of the Sunderland fanbase, and they’ve all said they would like me to leave. I think on that basis, I’ve got to do what I’d promised to do.
SP: Do you not feel like contesting what they’ve said? They’ve said in the statement that you must admit the enormity of the task and cut your losses. They say for the club to move forward that change needs to happen on the pitch, in the dugout and in the boardroom. Do you not feel that you can contest that a bit and actually prove them wrong?
SD: I don’t agree with that, no. Clearly I don’t. We changed the manager obviously, and we would like to have two or three more wins I’m sure. The way the league has shaped up, two or three more wins, we’d be right up there and if we win our next few games we will be – with a game in hand. I think the performances are improving. I think when you change the manager and style of play and you want to get the players a little bit fitter, a different type of fitness, I think sometimes within the club you accept things might not carry on the way you want them to in the very short-term but you think it’s the right long-term decision. The supporters group, the Red & White Army, they don’t particularly comment on footballing issues so their commenting about the state of the club. I would contest the state of the club, there’s an awful lost changed in the last 18 months. You’re talking about Jack Rodwell, Djilobodji, Ndong, you’re talking about being projected to lose £3million a month, you’re talking about a team that won one game at home in twelve months. They don’t just fix overnight. We wanted to try and get it fixed quicker. We got off the field, I think, fixed quicker. There’s a lot of things behind the scenes which we talk to the Red & White Army about, about the investment we’ve now got, and putting that into the scouting network and the refurbishment of the ground. But despite all those things, the feeling of the fans is that we haven’t quite got it right and the job is too big for me. I know how big it is when that club pulls together, I saw it last year, and the last thing I want is to be the reason why the club doesn’t pull together now. Do I think we would get it right? Yeah, I think so. But I’m always going to take that view being positive. If the fans don’t want you, you can’t really stay.
SP: It does sound like you do have quite a lot of regret about this, though. But you have made your decision and presumably now you are actively trying to sell the club? So at what stage is that at?
SD: I think the important thing, and the reason I’ve come on, is to tell the fans where it is. The reality is that it’s a critical time. The fans have come out and said this seven days before the transfer window and I get that with where the results are, because it’s all about the results. I think maybe if results just changed a little bit, because the performances are hopefully starting to come, that might be actually all that the club might have needed. If you’re told it a week before the transfer window then the biggest concern is what are we going to do in January, what does it mean for Phil, what does it mean for the players? And I think the most important thing the fans need to know is that we’ve got our targets. We believe, the players believe and the football management believe that if we have a strong back end to January, we have every chance. The way the league has shaped up, teams beating each other, if we can get ourselves with a strong January then we have a chance. I think the fans have laid some concerns about whether we’ll have a strengthen, and we absolutely will. I think that’s the most important message I want to give to the fans. I’m committed to try and make sure that when I leave, I leave the club in the best possible condition and that means having the best possible January we can have. I’ll do that and then, reluctantly, the most logical thing to do was to get back onto the people who expressed an interest when we were looking for investment through the summer. We had lots of interest through that period and I thought the best thing for the club was to get the investment from the American guys, invest that and try and do it the way we thought was best – but the view that the fans have is that they would prefer something different. I’ve gone back to some of the other options and I’m now talking to them about whether or not they would like to re-visit taking the club on. And of course the financial position of the club – the other thing to confirm to the fans is, there’s a lot of chat about it, but the club is debt-free, there’s no charges being made on it. All the money being put into the club has gone in and there’s no debt. The club’s in a cracking position with quite a lot of money in the bank to have a strong January.
SP: You mentioned then the American investors, the FPP group. So you seem to be saying now that you aren’t looking at them as people who might potentially buy the club from you?
SD: I think if they were going to buy it, they would have bought it already.
SP: Are they submitting an offer?
SD: No, no. They invested the money so that we could…we sold them our vision of what we wanted to do. They invested their money on the basis that we would be there to oversee it. Their view is that they’re 3000 miles away and they invest in management teams, so their investment was in me. So if I’m not there it’s unlikely, I think, that they’ll want to take it on.
SP: So to clarify, they haven’t put in an offer?
SP: You hear different stories, and one of those stories is that an offer came in but you wanted more money and turned that offer down. That hasn’t happened?
SD: Not a chance on this Earth. That’s categorically untrue. The process for their involvement was that we were close to concluding on another deal, and when their interest became known – which was substantially less than what we were looking at – we dropped it because we believed they were the right partner. I believe they are the right partner, but their preference was to invest and potentially further investment in the club, not own it. It was never a control transaction. Even if they had bought it, they wanted to leave the management team in place. So it’s unlikely that they will look to do anything, probably other than just depart when the deal is done.
SP: So they money they’ve invested then, which to all intents and purposes is a loan, isn’t it? What happens to that money if someone else buys the club
SD: I just pay it back.
SP: So you’ve got it, and you can pay it back just like that?
SD: I haven’t spent any of it yet.
SP: So that’s not an issue or a problem?
SD: No. The club has done unbelievably well financially. I know there’s a lot of talk about this, but we are the biggest spenders in the league – both in terms of budget and transfer budget. As a board, we have facilitated the biggest-spending team while also balancing the books and creating a surplus of cash. That has meant that the money we’ve managed to attract from our investors is for another day. That will probably, then, just return to them.
SP: You’ve mentioned there are a number of other parties who are interested in buying the club from you. What is the process as far as your concerned now then?
SD: The reality of it is, I will re-visit what I perceive are the worthiest offers and the people I think will do the best for Sunderland. As soon as the fans said they would like me to move on, I knew that is what I would to have to do so I began that process. It won’t happen overnight, but of course these people have got a good idea about Sunderland and the financial shape of it. And it is in good shape.
SP: Are you looking to make a profit, and holding out for certain amount of money, or is it that you now want to leave and take a loss, if that’s the easiest way?
SD: Ideally I would not like to take a loss, because I’ve put a lot of hard work into it and I think it’s in better condition than it was when I bought it so that would feel like a bit of a failure. I did the deal with the guys from America not because it was a good financial deal, it’s because it’s what was best for the club. I know people can turn round and can’t believe that, but I just ask them to look at my track record. I left the football club that I spent £15million on and sold it for a pound so I could come to Sunderland. So in effect, I gave that club £15million. It’s not about the money, it’s about the footballing challenge. I don’t want to lose money on it. When we were looking for investment, it was never about what the valuation was, it was always about who would bring the best for Sunderland. I don’t have to hold out for top dollar – that’s why I don’t expect the sale process to take a long time. I just want to find somebody who will do the right thing. What I want to do in the meantime is just see if I can get the club close to where I wanted to get it to on the pitch. I think off the pitch that is happening, and I just want to try and leave it in good shape so I can come back and enjoy it with some good friends I’ve made. I love the club and I’m immensely proud to be the chairman of Sunderland. It’s a huge honour and it’s something I would have loved to keep doing. I’ve just got a desire just to try and get the back end of the season right for everyone so we can have a strong finish. In that process, I’ll sell it – hopefully to the right people – and whether it ends up being £3million, £5million, £10million less than ideally what its worth, so what? I didn’t do it because I need to make money. I did it because in the rest of my working life I make money. This is a challenge. I love football, I love the thrill of trying to do it and unfortunately it doesn’t look like I’ve done well enough for people to want me to stay. I just have to take that on the chin that I’ve got that wrong and in my exit do the right thing. The exact amount of money of that, I think all I can do is point to my previous track record.
NB: One of the trends on social media is that the club has always been up for sale, but in the past you’ve always said you wanted to remain part of the club. Is the difference now that you are actually cutting off all ties with the football club?
SD: Yeah, and that’s hard. It’s been a hard 18 months and there’s a lot of nice people and I’ve met some terrific fans. I want to stay and try and go to the games when I can. I absolutely love the atmosphere and the passion of the fans, and hopefully I’ll be able to go in the away end without anyone pointing their finger at me. What I need is to actually make that happen is to conclude the sale for them, for the fans, on the right basis. I’ll try and do it as quickly as I can so that the fans get what they want, but they just have to understand that it’s not always quick. I think it will take a month or two. I’m absolutely gutted because it was a week before the transfer window, and I was hoping and praying we could keep in touch and that the signings we get and Phil getting the team he wanted them – it takes a bit of time. He wasn’t the cheap option, he was the best option. Fans can say that but his CV for me was right. The atmosphere within the playing group is the best its been. The togetherness, and if you want a team that is going to achieve something in the long-term then sometimes you have to take a step back. But I see a squad there that really want to achieve and hopefully with the right additions we’ll get there.
NB: The atmosphere at the club overall over the last few weeks hasn’t been great. Do you think your now leaving is like 18 months ago, when it was clearly time for a change? Do you think this is the right time and maybe a good thing?
SD: No, I don’t. If I’m honest, I think that there’s an awful lot of hard work that has gone on behind the scenes. People talk about the scouting and recruitment, we’re well organised for January. What people are seeing is a bad ten games in the league, which sometimes happens when you’ve got a manager. You know what it’s like – when you’re on a bad run the burgers are awful, the queues are bad and everything is wrong at the club. The reality of it is, if we win our next two home games we’ll be six points off top with a game in hand. Now, that might not happen, but if it did happen then a lot of things that people think are wrong wouldn’t be. Talk about the football and where we’ve got it wrong, but sometimes it just needs time. The club can’t keep changing everything – managers, owners – sometimes it needs stability. I don’t think it’s right that if I’ve said I would leave and the biggest fans organisation that represents the support – I don’t know if they’ve balloted their members or whatever – they’ve said I’m killing the club. I can’t stay on that basis. So I’ve got to do what they want me to do. I don’t think it’s the best thing for the club, in all honesty, but I’m going to say that because it’s me, isn’t it?
SP: I just wanted to clarify one more thing. Would you be comfortable walking away from the club with a small profit, any profit, with the way those parachute payments were used in the purchase of the club?
SD: Yes, I would be comfortable with that because I think in honesty when I looked at the club, had a conversation with the owner and sat in front of the EFL at Salford – I took a huge, huge gamble. People talk about the lack of money I’ve got, but the EFL requested £53million of my personal money to be seen. That’s what I had to put on the line to show that I would take the gamble to run the club for the next two years. I have done that and financially I think I’ve done well for the football club. I’ve sorted all the issues that were laid out in front of me, I’ve made the club sustainable. We’ve been inspected by one of the highest accountancy companies in the world who have given us a grade A, when they haven’t given any other club they’ve looked at – and there’s 25 of them, big clubs – anything better than a D. We’ve got a wonderfully sustainable, progressive football club. I’ve done that, and people can argue with that, but I’ve done that without creating debt or taking loans. The loan I took from the Americans I made sure came back to me, not the football club. That morally is what you want from a football club owner. I will make less money out of Sunderland, if I make any money, than Jack Rodwell did, than Dider Ndong did or Papy Djilobodji did. It’s not a sob story, I’m just gutted that the fans want me to go.