The lessons of the past that Sunderland AFC and Kyril Louis-Dreyfus must heed as fans ask for clarity over Madrox involvement

OPINION: There has been unease during this international break on Wearside and not just relating to matters on the pitch.

Tuesday, 16th November 2021, 12:58 pm

A picture shared by Uruguayan side Club Atletico Penarol, showing head of recruitment Stuart Harvey visiting alongside shareholders Juan Sartori and Charlie Methven, seemingly on club business.

The response, part confusion and part concern, has been sufficient to move the main supporter group, the Red & White Army, to contact the club seeking clarity on the daily involvement of Sartori and Methven.

With results on the pitch faltering for the first time this season in a significant way, it has perhaps served as a timely reminder of some old wounds that were, at best, patched up by Kryil Louis-Dreyfus' takeover.

Sign up to our Sunderland AFC newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Which is not to say that the past eleven months have not been a period of positive change for the football club, because they have undoubtedly have.

Louis-Dreyfus' arrival coincided with the overdue installation of credible day-to-day leadership at the club, primarily in Steve Davison and Kristjaan Speakman.

Both impressive and eloquent speakers, those two appointments could arguably have been used more to communicate the club's positive change.

They have overseen the introduction of a significantly superior club structure, one that has resulted in more targeted recruitment (even allowing for the recent dip in form) and, as one example, markedly better contract management. Renewals for Elliot Embleton and Dan Neil were handled entirely without fuss, reflecting the improved professionalism.

Kyril Louis-Dreyfus at the Stadium of Light

The women's team have successfully been promoted to the second tier and made an impressive start to the campaign, with the hope of long-term progression to professional status.

There has been investment in data analysis and the academy, and for the first time in a number of years there is a clear vision for how all sides through the club should play (again, allowing for some concerning recent teething issues).

There is of course on all of these fronts so much more to be done and to be demanded, expected.

But it explains why for plenty of supporters, the involvement of the club's previous ownership group is a one worthy of clarification.

The arrival of Louis-Dreyfus was widely welcomed, and the majority shareholder undoubtedly continues to enjoy the overwhelming support of the fanbase.

If Madrox would continue to hold a shareholding in the club, then for many that was perhaps not welcome but ultimately tolerable, providing the ultimate leadership of the club changed significantly.

It was easy to understand, too, why they would not have wanted to sell their shares in full at that stage. After all, they were sitting on an asset which could clearly grow rapidly in value over a fairly short period of time.

The deal was also welcomed because Louis-Dreyfus drew a clear line between himself and the rest of the 'ownership group', telling fans that it was a 'fresh start' and that he would oversee the rebuild of a club that had been 'asset-stripped' in numerous departments.

Whether or not he was referring to the former owners directly, the inference was obvious, and for most, very much welcome.

If there had been initially some concern that the deal might not be a marked departure from what had gone before, then this did much to allay it.

The concern over Methven's appearance on club business reflects the fact that there was subsequently a marked softening of this rhetoric, while Sartori and Madrox's lawyer were then appointed to the board.

This in itself is probably unsurprising. All members of the shareholding group would expect their voice to at least be represented, and Sartori's apparent work in building bridges overseas seems a worthy pursuit. The trouble there, of course, is that over a long period of time there has been significantly more rhetoric than result.

The Uruguayan has now taken a seat on the board at AS Monaco. Again, a potentially profitable development for Sunderland in terms of experience and expertise but one where the devil will be in the detail.

The terms of the deal itself that brought Louis-Dreyfus have never in any form been disclosed, which adds to the current unease.

We still do not know, for example, who actually owns what percentage of the club. Significantly, we still do not know where Madrox stands in their promised repayments of the parachute money used to help finance their purchase the club. The most recent set of accounts added little evidence of movement there, and how that progressed during the

COVID-19 pandemic (when heavy losses needed to be covered) remains unclear.

There is no doubt that these issues come into sharp focus when results on the pitch are not forthcoming.

It has been a bruising fortnight, in which the faith and optimism in the club's new direction has just been frayed at the edges. One or two important injuries have not helped, but in a few areas the squad has looked just a touch underpowered.

Confidence has dipped, and with it has gone the zip and vigour of the early-season play.

It is undoubtedly Lee Johnson's job to rebuild that, and he has insisted that we will see a sharper side after this international break, having finally had time to address some fitness issues amid a punishing schedule.

It would be remiss, though, to dismiss this relatively low-key episode as a reaction to a bad run of form.

Rather it should serve as a reminder of just how badly the relationship between supporters and club broke down only a year or so ago.

A breakdown caused not just by continued underperformance on the pitch, but by a string of unfulfilled promises and most crucially of all, by a rhetoric towards supporters that stood entirely at odds with their continued loyalty in the club's lowest period.

If Louis-Dreyfus is to progress his long-term vision for the club, those lessons will need to be heeded, or discussions on these issues will in future be significantly more fraught than this one.

A message from the Football Clubs Editor

Our aim is to provide you with the best, most up-to-date and most informative Sunderland AFC coverage 365 days a year.

This depth of coverage costs, so to help us maintain the high-quality reporting that you are used to, please consider taking out a subscription to our new sports-only package here.

Your support is much appreciated. Richard Mennear, Football Clubs Editor