Exclusive: Mark Campbell reveals why his Sunderland takeover failed - and whether he could return with another bid
Mark Campbell has revealed why his takeover of Sunderland failed to materialise - while hinting that a return bid isn’t completely off the cards.
Speaking exclusively to the Echo, the real estate expert opened up on the four months of talks that saw him come agonisingly close to purchasing the Black Cats from current owner Stewart Donald.
Campbell, who was confirmed to be leading a group set to take over at Scottish side Falkirk on Friday, entered advanced talks with the club’s hierarchy.
And the businessman has now opened up on the talks for the first time - revealing how he came to learn that he could have the opportunity to purchase a ‘massive club’.
“I’ve always wanted to get involved with a football club,” admitted Campbell.
“Football business management is something that I’ve always been passionate about and I was in my office in New York and I received a phone call from someone that I was working with on real estate in the UK.
“He just asked me a question - do you know anyone in the US who might want to buy a football club?
“I said ‘who’s for sale’ and he just listed off club after club - Aston Villa, Charlton, Bolton, Swansea, West Brom, and then he said Sunderland.
“When the name Sunderland Football Club comes out, it’s a massive club with a great support base and great facilities.
“I’d been there a few times to watch a few games and I said ‘are you sure Sunderland are for sale?’.
“I was recovering from surgery and while I was recovering I watched the Netflix documentary, and at the end of the programme it said new owners.
“I’m sat in my office counting with my fingers how many months ago it was when I watched it, and I was sat thinking ‘why are they looking to sell?’.
“So I said to him ‘if they’re looking to sell, I would be interested in that’.
“That was on the Thursday, and by Monday morning I was sitting down in Oxford with the owners.”
Those preliminary discussions were held with Neil Fox - described as Donald’s ‘right-hand man’ in the past - and quickly advanced.
Indeed, the club’s current owners made a quick impression on Campbell, who was keen to ensure Donald remained part of the club.
“They [the owners] were very positive from the very early days,” he said.
“The first discussions I had were with Neil Fox, who was absolutely brilliant.
“He was a really nice guy, really open and explained to me what the situation was with the club and what they wanted to do.
“Stewart Donald was going to stay as a shareholder as part of our deal.
“I wanted Stewart to stay. I’ve got a great relationship with Stewart and we get on really, really well.
“I wanted him to stay and I had to fight for that, but that was agreed.”
But what of the deal mentioned by Campbell?
There were conflicting claims as to whether the offer was for investment or a full-scale buyout, but Campbell insists the former was not an option.
“It was for a full takeover,” he claimed.
“There was a lot of talk about investment. It was not investment, it was a takeover.
“We would have become the majority shareholders of the club.”
Talks progressed at a rapid rate.
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By the time Sunderland had lost the Checkatrade Trophy final in March, heads of terms had been drawn up.
Then began a period of due diligence, which saw Campbell’s group allowed access to the club’s intimate financial details while waiting on a key answer.
He said: “The question [we had] was ‘why are you looking to sell?’. We never got a definitive answer until further on down the line.
“We got given a set of accounts by the club and with those accounts we went away, gave them to our law firm and accountants and said ‘this is what we’ve got so far, we need to get to due diligence’.
“Within about four weeks we had heads of terms drawn up and we were coming towards the end of March.
“That’s when you start the financial due diligence, we had access to the data room and were able to start looking into the club’s accounts and the running of the club.”
But despite talks reaching such an advanced stage, a deal could not be struck.
And Campbell has now revealed what caused his party to take a step back from the deal as it looked to edge over the line.
“We had the club valued and our price that we agreed to buy the club at the very start, when we first made the bid, dramatically changed as time went on,” he explained
“There were certain components of the deal at the end that weren’t going to work for the club.
“It was irrelevant what we were going to do.
“I went to this club in March and basically moved to the city. I was there three or four times a week to try and get this done.
“You’ve got two people in the consortium who are massive Sunderland fans, we had a robust business plan that the likes of serious people in football were blown away by because they had never seen anything like it.
“Anyone can own a football club, but if you don’t run it right you’re going to go bust.
“For us, it came to a point at the end where we had to make a decision.
“We’ve had a number of other clubs approach us since we’ve lost this in the last ten days, which is when we said ‘we can’t do this, if we do this we’re going to bankrupt the club.’
“I was putting in in excess of around £20million of my own money and there were other people looking to join our bid.
“But you get to a point where you have to take a step back.”
So is a deal completely off the table?
‘“Look, if I got a phone call tomorrow that said ‘do you want to go back again?’...
“You can never say never, because you don’t know what’s around the corner.
“I was going to move from my apartment in New York to Sunderland, people thought we were mad.
“You can never say never though. I love the place, the people and I think the city is an unbelievable place.”
Sunderland, meanwhile, are continuing talks with potential investors in the background - but executive director Charlie Methven stressed earlier this month that investment is only for the longer-term.
“At this stage there are no changes to the board,” he said.
“We’ve been open that we’re looking for investment but, for now and because of the time of year, we’ve decided to get on with the job in hand and keep talking to interested people in the background.
“We're approaching the stage where there are things that, for the club to grow longer term, will need to be invested in, so we need a good base of available capital to ensure the club can invest appropriately.”