Incredible claims, sale update and resignation pledge: Inside the heated meeting with Stewart Donald and supporter groups as fans grill under-pressure Sunderland owner
Under-pressure Sunderland owner Stewart Donald was grilled by fans over his sale plans, asking price, club finances and the future of the academy during a heated three-hour meeting.
Donald met with representatives of supporter groups in the boardroom at the Stadium of Light on Thursday and this is a summary of what happened during the tense meeting.
There were a number of remarkable, candid claims from the Sunderland owner as the pressure grows on him to sell - but to sell to the right people/group with the club’s best interest at heart.
Donald hit out at the ‘attitude’ of the fans claiming it was making a sale harder, made reference to telling a fan concerned about the future of the club to ‘shut up’ and admitted he would resign as chairman if fans wanted that
Representatives from Red and White Army (RAWA) - who provided a summary of the meeting for fans - The Branch Liaison Council and The Supporter’s Liaison Group all attended alongside Donald, club CEO Jim Rodwell, Neil Fox, Angela Lowes and Tom Sloanes.
You can read the summary in full here:
Sale, takeover update and club finances:
Donald confirmed he is still looking to sell, with a price tag of £37.6million but no one has yet shown they have proof of funds, with Mark Campbell, Sammy Yu and Michael Gray’s consortium among the names known to be interested.
Donald told fans ‘negative messages on social media and family intimidation’ had led to him taking a step back.
A RAWA statement, included as part of the summary, read: “The Red and White Army committee would like to place on record that we do not condone any form of abuse of the owner and club staff. We urge fans to be respectful at all times and refrain from abusive behaviour.”
Providing an update on the takeover situation, the summary added: “He [Donald] believes credible bidders are reluctant to proceed in the current climate, unsuitable bidders are happy to proceed.
“Initial bidder contact is usually via an agent, the club identify the potential bidders, advise the group of the price and ask for a letter of intent proof of funds. If they prove they have funds, they get access to data room. No-one is in the data room now.
“SD said he can only sell if there is a buyer, he is not interested in money.
“The effect on his family is enough to make SD want to sell, the club is safe and is not obstructive to potential buyers.”
The fan groups stressed it was important to distinguish between people writing abuse on social media and the members of the fan groups while also pressing Donald on his asking price and a need to sell to a credible owner with the club’s best interests at heart.
A significant portion of the money - more than £20m - used by Donald & Co to buy the club from Ellis Short was from parachute payment money but Donald and Madrox insist that will be paid back by the time the club is sold.
The summary added: “DR [Dave Rose, of RAWA) questioned whether SD has put in £37.5m as it has been reported that a large part of this was club parachute payments.
“SD stated Madrox will have put in £37.6 million into the club by the time it is sold. Most of the £20 million has already been repaid and will continue being repaid. All monies will be repaid before it is sold.
“DR asked, hypothetically, because a portion of the £37.5m has yet to be paid back, if a reputable buyer were to come in tomorrow with £27 million, which includes repaying the FPP loan would that be acceptable? The club stated that they would prefer to repay all monies and sell at £37.5m but in theory yes although it would be up to Madrox what they did with regards to repaying FPP.
“DR asked why SD believes the club is worth what it was 2 years ago as now there are no parachute payments to come and we are going into a 3rd season as a League One Club?
“SD said the club is in a better position than it was when he bought it. It is more efficient with only £5 million losses per year, compared to £30 million at the time of the takeover and he has shown that 25,000 season ticket holders is possible in league one. Potential buyers see a better run club than the one he bought.”
Donald confirmed that prior to the Covid-19 pandemic a deal was close with a potential buyer in a period of exclusivity and they were now trying to contact previously interested parties.
“Investors are pushing an open door. SD is happy to work with potential investors,” the summary added following claims Donald was being obstructive.
Donald on the Sunderland fans:
Sunderland have a huge and passionate fanbase and that will be one of the key features for any new owner yet Donald has incredibly claimed the ‘attitude of the fans is putting off investors’ given the criticism he is coming in for.
The summary added: “SD said the attitude of the fans is putting off investors. There will not be a more committed or positive owner of SAFC than SD. SD commented that RAWA has a responsibility to challenge these negative assumptions.”
Fans hit back.
“DR said everything gets analysed in this age of social media. We cannot influence the opinion of masses reacting to the current situation and it’s RAWA’s job to reflect supporter mood as best they can. There is a high level of frustration, we have had our 2 lowest league finishes in history and the relationship between the club and fans is broken.
Sunderland fans won’t need reminding that Donald had twice tried to sell the club last summer, first to Mark Campbell and then to the American investors FPP, well before any protests against the owners.
The summary added: “SD said Sunderland AFC can only be successful if we are united. He wants his family to be safe at the point of sale.”
Donald was also asked by fans whether anything ‘can be done’ to keep former executive director Charlie Methven quiet - Donald admitted Methven had ‘apologised personally for recent comments.’
There was an admission that the owners had previously been ‘too open’ and that mistakes had been made.
And Donald also revealed he ‘will do anything the fans want including resigning as chairman.’
Then shockingly Donald took the highly unusual step of singling out and making reference to a concerned Sunderland supporter Chris Wetherspoon, a regular on the Wise Men Say podcast, who wasn’t even at the meeting but had previously voiced concerns over the finances and direction of the club under Donald.
The summary added: “SD reiterated he was trying to sell the club and will do what is asked, including resigned. RAWA has a massive influence on the fans. Tell Chris Wetherspoon to shut up or check his facts.”
Future of the club’s Category One academy and the 2020-21 campaign.
Supporters also grilled the Sunderland officials on the future of the academy given increasing concern over the number of young players being sold and poor results. Paul Reid, the academy manager, also left last week.
The summary added: “DR raised fan concerns about young players being sold and is it for cashflow reasons.
“JR said that there are always vultures circling your best talent. It is very hard to keep young players when Manchester United comes knocking. The Premier League’s Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP) denies lower league clubs a market value rate for young players.
“NF said it was unique to maintain category 1 Academy in league 1, but it is wrong to suggest that Sunderland AFC are hawking young players to aid cash flow. The policy is to keep young players and to create a genuine pathway to the first team if they are good enough.”
It added: “NF revealed that for each of these sales, the club negotiated with the buying club and have got more than EPPP allow, by including sell on clauses.”
Meanwhile, furloughed staff are expected to return to work in the next few weeks including the players.
There is no set date yet for when next season will start but September 12 looks the most likely.
The summary added: “JR [Jim Rodwell] has no idea when season will start but believes Sunderland AFC cannot start the season without fans or financial assistance.”
They added they remain committed to the Sunderland Ladies team while they also defended the recent appointment of new club secretary Ray Murphy.
Murphy - formerly of Donald’s former club Eastleigh - joined from Swindon Town following the departure of Brett Baker.
The summary concluded: “NF responded to criticism of staff recruitment from Eastleigh FC. The new secretary is already receiving stick. He worked at Eastleigh went to Swindon, but he independently applied for role.
“He was interviewed along with others by outgoing secretary, who gave him the job on merit. In business, people use who they know and value. The new secretary has already made an excellent start to the job. Give him a break.”