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Sunderland AFC for sale: The story so far, why fans are still waiting for a takeover and the key questions that remain unanswered

COMMENT: After reflecting another uncertain summer in his column last week, Phil Smith now looks a little deeper at arguably the defining issue on Wearside. Will Sunderland be sold, when, and why hasn’t it happened yet?

Tuesday, 14th July 2020, 12:00 pm
Updated Tuesday, 14th July 2020, 12:01 pm

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We are approaching 200 days since Stewart Donald confirmed he would pursue the sale of Sunderland AFC.

A process that was set to take one or two months appears no closer to a resolution nearly seven later.

Since then, relations between supporters and the ownership have only worsened.

Sunderland fans have been waiting eagerly for an update on the sale of the club

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There has been an appallingly handled season card refund and renewal process; the club's failure to escape League One at the second time of asking has been confirmed and concerns over the financial structure of the club have only been magnified.

The sale process itself started badly, too.

An incendiary club statement pushed the blame onto fan groups who had urged Madrox to sell just over a week previous, suggesting that the move could threaten the club's on-pitch position and its work in the January window.

It did not acknowledge that the ownership had twice almost sold the club already, or that their footballing decisions had brought the club to a historic low in the table when the groups had opted to speak out.

The collapse of those two previous deals continues to hang over the process now, particularly when it was widely known that the FPP group had begun talks intending to take a majority shareholding (though Donald & Charlie Methven were due to stay on).

Fans have a number of concerns and are no closer to getting the answers.

Put simply, why has Sunderland AFC not been sold?

More broadly, is it because:

A) There is not a genuine willingness to do so

B) The financial terms are putting off buyers

C) The club's finances are putting off buyers?

Sunderland by all barometers look to be heading for a new season without a change in ownership.

In a sense, this is a positive when one considers the major repercussions last summer from the inertia that gripped the club as Mark Campbell seemingly moved close to a deal.

This time, there are at least staff and members of the board working towards a template for if the club does not change hands.

Sunderland needs new ownership, investment and a long-term vision but in the interim, it is also absolutely imperative that it is not simply allowed to drift.

The broader picture, though, remains confusing, and there are number of aspects of the sale process that has left fans with concerns and questions.

A look at the process so far, and some of the key questions still unanswered, highlights why...

THE TIMELINE SO FAR

January 3rd 2020

Speaking to BBC Newcastle, Stewart Donald publicly confirmed that he would pursue the sale of the club.

Donald said that there had already been ‘lots of interest’, and that he expected the process to take ‘a month or two’.

He said that at this stage, he could simply repay the money owed to the FPP group before a sale, as it had not yet been used in any capacity.

Asked if he would pursue a profit, Donald said he would prefer to avoid making a loss but that he would accept less than his asking price if it meant selling to the right bidder.

February 7th 2020

A report from football business website offthepitch.com claimed that a source close to the club had indicated the asking price to be £40 million, adjusted to £35 million if promotion from League One was not achieved.

This followed an article earlier in the week from US outlet Bloomberg, which had stated that the asking price was around the £40 million mark.

March 29th 2020

Almost three months on from Donald’s original remarks, Charlie Methven discussed the takeover as he promoted the second series of Sunderland ‘Til I Die.

Methven said that the COVID-19 crisis had thus far had ‘no material impact’ on takeover talks, which were ‘well progressed and productive’.

He said that the ownership at this stage believed the club would change hands before the end of May.

April 9th 2020

In an interview with talkSPORT, Donald now said the COVID-19 crisis had slowed the process.

While he said the intention remained to sell, he also suggested that both he and Methven would like to say.

Donald also said that he felt in the new landscape, he felt it would be easier for the club to compete under his ownership.

The chairman added that he expected to make a profit, but not one as substantial as some might expect.

May 11th 2020

Madrox told The Echo that due to the COVID-19 crisis, the club would not be sold by the end of May and that it was ‘impossible’ to put a timescale on the sale.

Madrox were responding to questions after reports in the national media had revealed that around £20.5 million of parachute payment money used to fund the purchase of the club from Ellis Short had been written off as ‘an exceptional operating expense’.

The questions that need to be answered

The timeline so far underlines why it has been such a fraught year on Wearside.

Goalposts and statements have seemingly changed within weeks, and there has been little clarity for fans on what comes next.

With a skeleton squad in place, the academy in need of urgent attention and with the COVID-19 crisis having a transformative effect on club finances, an update is due for supporters even if the daily running of the club has seemingly by and large been passed on by the current ownership.

For one, an outline of the current intentions of the ownership would be welcome.

Given the apparent lack of progress on a sale, the appointment of a new CEO and Stewart Donald’s comments in April, some have been left to, quite fairly, wonder if the ownership might have decided to have another attempt at securing promotion.

If that is the case, then supporters should be informed.

If it is not, then supporters should be told where things stand, and why progress has been slow. The COVID-19 crisis can only be one part of the story when Donald’s initial comments in January are assessed.

Madrox have said throughout that a sale would occur, and have continually indicated that a resolution is not far off.

Some parties that have expressed an interest have also indicated that they were informed another bidder had been lined up.

So where do things currently stand?

If they are advanced, then confidentiality must of course be protected past a certain point.

And if they are not, then it is fair to wonder, as a result, why not?

The aforementioned January club statement also suggested that there would be an update when a preferred bidder has been identified, which as of yet has not occurred.

Given Donald’s comments to talkSPORT in April, it is also fair to question whether any of the ownership group are seeking to maintain any level of involvement after a sale.

There are also a number of key financial issues surrounding the sale that have raised concerns.

When asked what the asking price for the club was in May, Madrox told The Echo that it was private but flexible within reason.

Given that it is widely known that two previous attempts at a takeover have collapsed at a late stage, an outline of the asking price would allow an assessment to be made on the intentions of the ownership, set against the commitments they personally have made so far.

It is particularly relevant because all would understand how the COVID-19 crisis will have had an impact on any sale, given the rapidly changing financial landscape football is now facing. The long-term repercussions are huge, both in terms of revenue immediately lost or set to be lost, and also the pending salary cap that is going to radically alter how Sunderland can and will have to operate in League One.

Is this now reflected in talks for any deal?

More generally, it has been increasingly clear that it will be very difficult for the club to move forward until the money used to fund the purchase of the club is repaid.

Madrox told The Echo in May that the balance had been paid down to around £11.5 million (how much FPP cash has been used to do this remains unknown).

It is a particularly pertinent issue when fans have made sacrifices to keep supporting the club financially, there have been clear and controversial moves to protect the club’s cashflow, and when there is a clear threat to the financial health of all clubs throughout the pyramid.

CEO Jim Rodwell has said that the money is being repaid at a ‘quicker rate’ than planned, and that the club was ‘absolutely not’ in financial trouble as a result.

The money should be repaid in full immediately, but if this is not possible, then it should be explained why, and exactly what the process for doing so will look like in full.

The ownership have consistently said that they are not, and have never been, in this for financial gain.

The way the process has developed so far has led many to fairly question whether that is the case and that will continue for as long as the process remains ongoing and the above concerns are not addressed.

An outline of the intentions of FPP, including why they opted against a full takeover, is also key for fans.

The summer ahead

Thus far, the sale process has been a microcosm of the gap between actions and words that has underpinned the breakdown in trust on Wearside.

Numerous deadlines, a fresh claim to call into question the one before.

For many, trust is too far lost to be rebuilt but clarity on the sale process is surely due all the same.

We have been here before and there cannot be another vacuum of clarity and information on Wearside.

*The Sunderland Echo will be launching a survey this afternoon to give fans the chance to have their say on the ownership and the future of the club