Exclusive: Charlie Methven discusses FPP investment and what's next for Sunderland in wide-ranging interview
An investment from FPP Sunderland arrives at a critical juncture for the current Sunderland hierarchy, bringing to a conclusion months of uncertainty over the extent of their future involvement in the club.
It also comes at a time when an underwhelming start to the season means frustration and concern over the future direction of the club is higher than it has been at any point in their 18-month tenure.
There is at least now clarity.
The onus and the responsibility is now firmly on Stewart Donald, Charlie Methven and Juan Sartori to push the club forward and they will be aided by this investment from the US, believed to be approaching an eight-figure sum, as exclusively revealed by the Echo.
Methven describes it as marking the start of ‘phase two’ in their ownership.
Phase One, he admits, saw a significant cutting back to adjust to the brutal reality of consecutive relegations.
Throughout that, he and Donald admitted that to get to the next level, further investment would be needed.
This, it was said, was primarily about getting to the grips with the potential challenge of the Championship.
Just under a fortnight ago, a club statement insisted any potential investment would be about ‘future requirements’.
So with an end to parachute payments on the horizon, will this deal do that?
Methven insists it is a crucial step, allowing the structures to be put in place that can make Sunderland competitive in the medium to long term.
“If you go up to the Championship it's not suddenly about throwing money at players. What you need is an embedded structure,” he said.
“There is no point doing it once you have achieved promotion, you need to be already looking and identifying players now and that's why we will be putting these structures in place with the new investment.
“That is the same with bringing talented players into the academy, one to help your first team and two to potentially sell on, as there's a significant demand for these players.
“At some point, will there also be a need to potentially spend a bit more? Probably, but it's not either or and you will need to spend less if you put effective structures in place.”
Methven has said that Sartori will be increasingly visible despite his first steps into Uruguayan politics this year.
On more than occasion this summer, it has seemed likely that control of the club would pass to another party, including FPP.
They have ultimately decided against that but Methven says that the backing in this form is ‘tremendous’.
“It is [a different arrangement to a controlling stake] but Stewart and I never set out to sell the club,” he said.
“That wasn’t the aim. The aim was to make sure that Sunderland had a sufficient capital base to be able to move forward.
“Before now nobody has come to us and said: we’re willing to put a large chunk of money into your management of the club
“Everyone else has been very much, it’s a takeover or nothing. Either we buy it and you guys [leave] or else we don’t do the deal.
“The conversation with FPP was more multi-faceted, they said they were interested, that they thought we’d done a good job and got things into a good shape.
“They have an interest in investing into European football clubs that they think have potential, so that was the opening conversation,” he added.
“They then looked at a variety of different ways of doing that. It’s for them to say why they’ve ended up making this choice, but from our perspective, to have an internationally regarded financial institution saying that they want to back our management, is tremendous.
“We are also really looking forward to having them as mentors, and to be introduced to their wider circle of contacts in the sports and entertainment worlds.”
It has been a significant few weeks for the club, marked initially when Donald made the call to remove Jack Ross from his post.
It had been a mixed start to the campaign but the team still held a relatively strong position in the table.
The belief in the boardroom was that performance levels did not reflect a team likely to be challenging the top two over a long period, and that is a squad that should be doing exactly that.
Methven does concede, though, that some movement in January may be required.
“It’s a fair assessment [we expect promotion with this squad],” he said.
“With the caveat that whether it be Jack Ross or a new manager, there was always going to be support in January for changes as the manager sees fit.
“But the managerial situation was a judgement that the board made and there’s no point pretending it was a cut and dried judgement.
“Sometimes it’s clear to everyone that a manager has run out of road at a club, and I don’t think that’s the case with Jack.
“Jack did such an enormous amount of good work at the club, and he won’t be remembered as a failed manager here. He came in at a moment where the amount of emotional energy required to stabilise the club [was huge] and even to just get a competitive side out on the pitch in a position to win games was a considerable task.
“If he had pulled off promotion last season, that would have been a pretty alpha bit of management.
“We’re fully aware it was a judgement call, one based not so much on results, which were so-so, but on underlying trends that we felt weren’t pointing strongly enough in the right direction.”
Donald was clear after sacking Ross that promotion was an absolute minimum requirement.
In his first interview since making the decision, he made reference to Sunderland’s budget and facilities, saying he believed this was ‘the most professional League One club there has ever been’.
The pressure, then, is on Parkinson, with those expectations posing the question as to whether Sunderland were taking a short-termist approach that has proved so damaging in the past.
Methven rejected that, saying Parkinson would be not be judged ‘in a short-term way’ and said that the two-and-a-half year deal was a sign that he had been identified in the recruitment process as someone who could drive the club forward beyond an immediate upturn in results.
“As a board, you look at performances and whether things are moving in the right direction,” he said.
“We want things to move in the right direction quickly, just like the fans, and we believe that they can and hope that they will.
“At the same time, you can’t guarantee things in football, it’s a febrile and competitive sport and there are other clubs who have their own strengths that they play to.
“Perhaps they’ve had stability for some time, have been able to build up a system, a way of doing things, a way of playing over a number of years.
“There’s a short term aim, but we won’t view our assessment of the playing side in a short term way.
“Sunderland fans are very knowledgeable and will see whether there’s progress being made, a style being put in place that can deliver success, and that’s what we’re aiming for. That’s where results come from.
“It’s very important when you appoint a manager that you believe in that manager and demonstrate that.
“If you give a manager a short-term deal, the clock is ticking straight away. It’s really important as a board that you make a decision and put your money where your mouth is. The recruitment process that went on was very, very thorough.
“An enormous amount of people were spoken to for detailed references and the judgement that the board came to was that this particular skillset and experience set that Phil Parkinson has is appropriate for where the club is right now.
“We were utterly unanimous as a board that it was the right decision. The references were unbelievably strong, that this was an utter professional. Players, board members and peers who worked with and know him all see him as a very professional manager and that his 17 years in management has armed him with a huge amount of experience.
“He has demonstrated that he can manage situations. We believe he’ll bring professionalism, a calm head, clarity of thought.”
Future success will nevertheless be determined not just by this managerial appointment, but whether the whole footballing operation functions effectively.
It was a source of frustration for Ross, who talked openly about his desire for more structure in key departments.
Methven accepts there is work to be done, saying criticism of recruitment and strategy, in particular Richard Hill and Tony Coton, is ‘unfair but understandable’.
He believes they will now have the chance to implement a robust and well-funded strategy, with new appointments to the department imminent.
“Richard Hill [Head of Football Operations] has done an awful lot of work in 18 months that will probably never be adequately realised,” he said.
“As Stoke City has proven recently, it’s very, very difficult to sort out a failed playing-performance department. Very, very difficult.
“When teams that come down from the Premier League who have been there for a long time, it often turns into a shambles and that’s what it was here. It’s extremely difficult to move players on with big, established contracts who don’t think they’re likely to get them somewhere else. Richard Hill did a mammoth piece of work in getting that wage bill down in that first year.
“On the recruitment side, the department in the Premier League era had failed and it was not down to a lack of investment. That was mid-table Premier League level, but the results were continually bottom end.
“When we came, we took a decision to strip everything back to try and make things sustainable, to then assess where we need to go forward. We’ve had a pared-back structure for a year while we decide on a strategy going forward and that has now happened and is being funded. We weren’t in a position to do that last June, July.
“In recent months, Richard Hill and Tony Coton [Head of Recruitment] have understandably but unfairly taken a lot of flak for having to manage, on their own, a very complex and difficult situation.
“It’s been about taking a step back to try and take two forward and that’s why this investment is important, so we can get on the front foot in these areas.
“I’d ask that people judge the results of Richard and Tony’s work over a 3 year period, not making them take the blame for a structure that simply had to go.
“There’ve been a lot of discussions [behind the scenes] about the types of places and players that Sunderland need to attract.
“The structure of the new recruitment set up will reflect that.
“I believe that we’re right but only time will tell on the pitch.”
The task, in both the short and the long term, is to make Sunderland’s budget go further, Methven insistent that investment must underpin the club’s goal to be sustainable.
“We have a sustainable model in League One that sees us spending three times the average wage bill,” he said.
“So I don’t agree with the allegation that we’re not spending enough money.
“It’s legitimate to ask how that is being spent and until we get promoted they will continue.
“It would be, in my view, irresponsible to be spending more than what we are.
“We’ve got to turn our attention to how efficient we are in bringing our budget to bear and that’s been recognised, invested in and substantially.
“We will be bringing in substantial recruitment staff to improve these processes, but that only comes off the back of being sustainable and being able to attract investment.”
The academy is another crucial area where successful investment is required, with results in the age groups poor this season and a number of the brightest young talents leaving for top Premier League clubs.
“Paul Reid [Academy Director] was handed a very challenging task,” Methven said.
“I’m told that Sunderland is only the third club in history to take a category one academy down into the third tier. The cost to the club of running a is about £3 million a year, and that is a huge proportion of our budgeted revenue of £18 million or so.
“So we had to make things at tight as possible, whilst committing to retaining our category 1 status, for the good of the future of the club.
“People see our U23 and U18 teams losing to Premier League opposition, but that has to be put into context.
“Those clubs, because of the TV revenues they enjoy, are able to invest huge sums into players from all over the world aged 16-21.
“At the age groups up to the 16-year-olds – in other words, the groups where you are relying on your home-grown players - last year we were probably the top academy in the country.
“The investment we have coming in will enable us to get back on the front foot again at U18 level, but academies are long games. Things have to be built over time.
“Paul is in there all hours, flogging himself to keep things going on a shoestring compared to the other category 1 academies he is competing against.”
The departure of Tony Davison earlier this month also leaves the club without a managing director on the commercial side.
As such, there are obvious calls for more day-to-day presence at senior level across the club.
Methven said that was being considered, but does not believe that a Chief Executive is the answer.
“In terms of senior management, we’re assessing the structure,” he said
“There’s Stewart and I who are heavily involved on a part-time basis, along with Neil Fox, and then Tony and Richard who are in full-time roles.
“We want to put in place the changes that we think are the right ones to make, and to start seeing how they play through and where the holes then are. The holes now are obvious to us. There’s a hole in the numbers and expertees on the recruitment side. That’s clear, as is a need for investment in the academy to incentivise our young players to stick around because they can see we’re going places, as well as bringing in good young players from elsewhere.
“I’m sceptical about Chief Executives in football, because the job that gets done on the non-football side of the club bares no resemblance in skillset to the football side,” he added.
“It implies that someone is as at home at devising commercial and marketing strategies as they are directing transfer business.
“I don’t buy it and most top clubs don’t operate that way.
“The majority who are really succeeding have a managing director-type who looks after the commercial side, and a director of football-type who looks after the football side.”
Methven acknowledges frustration with the first team are currently at, insisting the hierarchy are at ‘one with the fanbase’.
He bristles, however, at what he claims are a ‘fringe’ who have levelled ‘totally unreasonable’ claims at Stewart Donald regarding his time in charge.
He said it had been a ‘brutal’ six months for the Chairman who he says has put ‘the thick end of £20 million’ into the club since taking over.
Donald has not attended recent league games, which Methven says is due to the abuse he has suffered online.
In a passionate defence of his tenure, Methven said Donald had rejected more lucrative offers to him personally that would not have been as beneficial as that which they have secured with FPP.
“Without the tenacity and loyalty of our support base, this club simply would not be sustainable in its current format,” he said.
“The vast majority of supporters who have legitimate concerns, worries and anxieties about the way their club is being run is absolutely fair game, and Stewart will have those conversations all day long,” he said.
“To question his integrity is a different thing and if the club is going to move forward, it has a much greater chance of doing so if there is a tone of reasoned debate rather than antagonism,” he said.
“Football clubs at any one time, some will be succeeding on the pitch, some will not and some will be somewhere in between. The debate as to why that is drives the industry and somebody might look at our scouting system, for example, and say, why are you doing it that way, that’s not how I’d do it, fair enough.
“But to then move from there into saying the owner is a charlatan is totally unreasonable.
“I understand the frustration with the first team this season, of course.
“As the board we have to take responsibility for that, and absolutely we should be questioned on that,” he added.
“We feel you have to go a long way in football to finding people who are as open to questions and criticism on all parts of the club strategy.
“That’s taken a number of different forms, whether it be talk-in with supporters, fanzines, interviews with the media.
“We do it because we feel we should be held accountable for what happens at Sunderland, the decisions that are made, the way in which the club is run.
“All of those issues are fair game for debate and that happens, all the time, in a civilised and decent way.
“So to the people who spout bile and abuse, if you’re really interested in the answer to questions, why not join the Red & White Army and get yourself in the supporter collective meetings, or go to talk-ins and ask your questions live. Of course, all that only makes sense if you are actually interested in what is happening.”
‘Phase Two’ of their ownership, and the success of this investment deal, will clearly be pivotal to the club’s longer term fortunes.
With crucial appointments and decisions looming, it’s an apt moment to reflect on the work done to this point in a challenging environment.
“The last 18 months were unbelievably hard work,” said.
“You only see a very small part of that on a Saturday or a Tuesday night.
“For the people right in the middle of it, and I’m talking about Jack Ross and Tony Davison, it’s probably the most exhausting 18 months you could have.
“The club has an enormous debt of gratitude for the enormous amount of emotional energy that went into stopping the bleeding, getting things done in the right way again and making sure that this club is no longer a laughing stock.
“It’s tiring and the analogy I use is of a big rock coming down the hill. The job of stopping it as it gathers momentum is the most tiring bit. That’s what they were having to do, it’s a huge ask to expect the same people to push it back up again.
“I think that’s tough.
“The truth is the person who stops it tends not to get thanked, but you can’t enable the whole thing to be turned around without it.
“We owe a huge amount of gratitude to what is probably three years of work in terms of emotional energy.”