From Sunderland's saviour to #donaldout - how failing to deliver on lofty promises has led to angry calls for Stewart Donald to go
Phil Smith charts the change in mood on Wearside and how Sunderland fans were brought to their lowest ebb
A collection of Sunderland fan groups on Friday night took the extraordinary step of launching a joint campaign to urge Stewart Donald to sell the club.
The Black Cats have dropped to the lowest position in the club’s history, 15th in League One and with seemingly little prospect of an upturn in fortunes.
The club looks to be facing a third season in a division they had only once played in before.
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In the early months of his time on Wearside, Donald and his regime was arguably one of the most popular in the country.
Fans delighted in the sense of a fresh start and at the high watermark of their tenure, the Stadium of Light was almost sold out for a Boxing Day fixture that seemed to mark the rebirth of a proud football club.
This is a fan base who feel their concerns have not been recognised, and that the gravity of the club’s situation is not being grasped by those in a position to do something about it.
So what’s gone wrong, and what comes next?
We take a deep look at the club’s woes that have brought us to this remarkable moment…
The owners won a huge amount of goodwill in their opening weeks and months on Wearside, communicating directly with fans, launching a facelift of the Stadium of Light that fans were thrilled to take part in, and overseeing the departure of a number of bitterly unpopular players from the Premier League era.
Supporters felt they had strong voices in the boardroom acting firmly in the best interests of their club.
The arrival of Juan Sartori, whose financial power and connections in the game were lauded, added further to the positivity.
When the trio mingled in the fanzone before the opening day of the season, and Lynden Gooch snatched three points with a stunning last-minute header, fans felt they had their club back.
The goodwill continued through much of the season, the owners joining fans in Trafalgar Square before the Checkatrade Trophy final in what was a remarkable display of unity and community from the Sunderland fanbase.
Key errors, though, were beginning to show on the pitch.
The cuts behind the scenes had been significant, something generally accepted as a necessary consequence of the club’s ruinous Premier League legacy.
What did not follow, however, was investment in key departments, particularly a recruitment team that was left badly understaffed.
With Premier League parachute payments declining and Donald candid about the kind of financial firepower he lacked in the long term, it was a major error not to prioritise the implementation of a recruitment system that could make the Black Cats smarter and more effective than their rivals.
The results have been clear and a lack of effective structure behind the scenes was highlighted in the Josh Maja saga that did so much to derail the promotion push.
Even if the extent of his explosion onto the scene had come as something of a surprise, the club’s best young player had been left without a contract extension for too long.
By the time Sunderland got round to it in the early winter, it was arguably already too late.
Manager Jack Ross was left frustrated by the lack of planning.
On more than one occasion, he referenced in the press a similar situation he had been through with Lewis Morgan at St Mirren.
Then, a deal was brokered with Celtic that saw the club cash in, but Morgan returned on loan until the end of the season, powering the remarkable league win that brought Ross to Sunderland’s attention.
The Black Cats had no such preparation and eventually, with the fear of a pre-contract hanging over them, Maja was sold to Bordeaux.
The first-choice replacement, Will Grigg, was signed in the dying moments of the window, but at an inflated price and after an unedifying dash for reinforcements in the days previous.
Few would have predicted the struggles that Grigg would go on to have in front of goal, but it highlighted the significant gaps in the club’s footballing operations.
Ross would repeatedly call for more structure behind the scenes, but the message was not heeded until after his departure.
A WOEFUL SUMMER
In the aftermath of the club’s second Wembley heartache in a matter of months, Donald and Methven told the Roker Rapport podcast that the club should be targeting 100 points this season.
Methven went as far as to say that only automatic promotion should be considered good enough.
The root of the anger the hierarchy now face can be highlighted here. What followed left the club with no chance of achieving that goal.
Sunderland over promised and completely under delivered.
Ross lost some key players, experience and quality in the likes of Lee Cattermole. He understood and indeed was ultimately satisfied with those calls, conscious of the need to balance the profile of the squad and move Sunderland’s recruitment model to prioritising younger players with value.
Yet the structures to do that were still not in place and even as that major target was set, the club faced complete limbo.
Real estate businessman Mark Campbell had begun takeover talks and Sunderland’s incoming business was minimal.
Ross returned from a summer break with the club seemingly on the brink of complete overhaul.
Former Director of Football at Celtic, John Park, was spending time at the Academy of Light, making plans and assessing the situation.
The talks with Campbell brought no resolution, and the threadbare recruitment team that thought their time on Wearside was at an end had to spring into action alongside Ross.
Only one fee was paid, a nominal sum spent to bring George Dobson to the club from Walsall.
Sunderland started the season with the expectation of finding 15 more points when in truth, they had gone backwards.
ANOTHER FALSE DAWN?
This became increasingly apparent in the opening weeks of the season, Ross’ position under growing scrutiny as the team made an underwhelming start on the pitch.
Despite that, there was considerable excitement off the pitch as news of the potential takeover from the FPP group broke.
This looked like and was presented as the potential major step forward that had been promised.
Extremely wealthy, highly respected businessmen capable of taking the next step.
Ross was dismissed after a 2-0 defeat to Lincoln, Donald stating on BBC Radio Newcastle that more should be expected from the best squad in the league, with the biggest budget. He added that Sunderland were probably the most professional operation the third tier had ever seen.
He also denied that FPP’s takeover had fallen through.
A club statement days later said fans could look forward to ‘an exciting few months’.
Supporters, many of whom had welcomed changed in the dug-out, hoped to kick on from a decent, if uninspiring position.
Phil Parkinson was appointed and when Charlie Methven announced via the Echo that a deal with FPP had been reached, he said the terms of the deal would remain confidential.
This was restated on the Roker Rapport podcast days later, Methven adding that the deal was not related to the football club.
This mixed messaging raised major concerns for fans, particularly given the inconsistent explanations surrounding the purchase of the club the previous summer and the role of parachute payments from the Premier League.
CONTINUED DECLINE & THE LOWEST EBB
The ‘exciting months’ have seen Sunderland exit all cup competitions and win just two games, both against sides in the bottom four of the division.
The search for Ross’ replacement prioritised League One experience above all else, but the result so far has been a squad seemingly ill-fitting to the style of play of the new manager.
The Black Cats have been a woeful attacking force in recent weeks and the lofty ambitions for the season have been significantly redrawn.
January is now presented as an urgent month of overhaul for what was said to be the best squad in the division.
The change in manager, a major gamble that entirely altered the club’s trajectory, has sent the team and the club backwards. Supporters are concerned that has not truly been recognised and appreciated.
Ross’ departure was put down to ‘underlying data’.
That was a bizarre rationale, given that Sunderland’s performance data generally compared favourably to last season. They remained a side resilient after defeat and had knocked two Premier League teams out of the Carabao Cup.
It was, Donald admitted, a gamble, and the inaction now is difficulty for many to fathom, given the general direction of travel under the new manager.
Two directors left the club, managing director Tony Davison still not replaced.
Methven departed citing family reasons, his relationship with fans becoming increasingly fractious as the season unraveled.
Donald has spoken of the benefits of the deal with FPP, not just in the £9million injection of funds, but also in the likes of analytics, sponsorship and concerts.
The group are yet to make any public comment themselves and having not taken a seat on the board, their intentions remain impossible to truly discern.
Donald has taken some steps to address the recent malaise, appointing two non-executive directors and boosting the scouting network so underpowered during Ross’ tenure.
It has been a wretched six months that have ultimately left supporters concerned about the long-term direction of the club, concerned about the organisational structure of the club and with an overwhelming sense that an opportunity to reset has been missed.
Sunderland are fifteenth in the third tier and they are there entirely on merit.
The ownership has so far been unable to deliver the lofty promises set over the last year.
Fans, at their lowest ebb, have been left feeling compelled to act.