THERE’S simplicity to Joel Asoro’s appraisal of the nightmarish situation that has slowly engulfed Sunderland AFC. Perhaps it’s a simplicity that could be dismissed as naivety, the ill-informed comments of a teenage academy graduate still coming to terms with the realities of professional football. Perhaps the young forward, speaking to the Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet, should have focused instead on his own fledgling career, his rise from unknown youth prospect to first team regular, rather than calling into question the capabilities of the suits paying his wages. Perhaps the boy from Stockholm should leave the business to the grown-ups.
Or perhaps, just maybe, Joel Asoro was entirely justified in his summation of the catastrophe that continues to unfurl itself at the Stadium of Light. In truth, Asoro’s appraisal is simple because the root of the problem is simple: “Sunderland have a lot of money, it’s just that they don’t use it properly.”
The Black Cats spent ten years in the top flight of English football before finally succumbing to the quicksand pull of relegation at the end of last season. Over that decade regression became the norm, with the inevitable drop narrowly being held off year on year by a series of managerial fire-fighters; a ragtag gang of nearly-men in shining armour whose suits would begin to creak and rust as soon as August rolled around once more.
To make matters worse, or at least more bemusing, this miserable Groundhog Day routine coincided with the astronomical financial injections brought about by the hyperactive bidding war for TV rights. Between the club’s promotion in 2007 and their relegation in 2017, Premier League revenue from broadcasting deals more than trebled to in excess of £5b. During the most transformative period of economic growth ever seen in British sport, Sunderland somehow found a way of stagnating.
Much blame, justifiably so, has been apportioned to American owner Ellis Short. The Missouri billionaire took control of the Black Cats in 2009 and wasted little time in breaking their transfer record, parting with £10m for Darren Bent that summer. A year later he spent big again, bringing in Ghanaian international Asamoah Gyan from Rennes for £13m on deadline day.
Evidently, Short was, at least in the early days of his ill-fated reign, willing to speculate in the hope of accumulating. Of the reported £140m debt that the Wearsiders owe to various sources, £69m of that is owed personally to the businessman. That debt, however, only scratches the surface of the financial rot eating away at the club. Factor in running losses of £33m per season and it becomes clear that the albatross around Sunderland’s neck is not just heavy, it’s positively leaden. The situation is so toxic that Short has admitted he is willing to give the club away for free, providing any potential owner is willing to deal with the side’s spiralling debts.
To fully understand how this monetary situation came into being it is useful to look at Sunderland’s woeful transfer dealings during the Short era. Between the summer of 2009 and December 2016, the Black Cats sold 46 players. Of these 46 players, just three were sold for a profit. It’s a damning statistic that is wholly indicative of a transfer policy that could easily have been conducted with a dart and a world map.
The first time this blatantly reckless method of recruitment became obviously apparent was under the regime of a certain Paolo Di Canio. Di Canio is a man who hunts match officials for sport, and whose political hero was reportedly dragged through the streets of Milan by a depraved mob upon his death. He also banned ketchup from the training ground. Perhaps all of these should have been viewed as red flags, but an iconic knee slide down the St. James’ Park touchline in a stunning 3-0 derby day victory, and a subsequent great escape from relegation, were enough to convince Short that the Italian firebrand was the right man to lead the Black Cats back toward the halcyon days of mid-table obscurity.
It was only with Paolo’s first, and ultimately last, transfer window that the honeymoon began to resemble more of swinger’s holiday. That summer Di Canio brought in 14 players of varying degrees of quality. While the likes of Duncan Watmore and Fabio Borini would go on to be relative successes at the Stadium of Light, the vast majority of the Italian’s recruits were abject disappointments. Ondrej Celustka, Charalampos Mavrias, and David Moberg Karlsson are the sort of players googled by their own mothers before they visit. Even those new additions given a decent opportunity to prove themselves often failed to do so. US national team poster boy Jozy Altidore joined from AZ Alkmaar for a fee of around £9m, but could only muster a single goal in 42 league appearances.
Looking back, Paolo Di Canio’s tenure, while not the sole harbinger of Sunderland’s tailspin, represented the first genuinely destabilising force on the club’s finances. From that point onwards the Wearsiders were drawn into a shambolic game of economic catch-up, underpinned by austerity and panic.
The appointment of Gus Poyet in 2013 would prove unremarkable in the sense that it did little to alter the Black Cats’ propensity for disastrous transfer dealings, or to arrest their steady downwards trajectory.
Admittedly, things weren’t all doom and gloom on Wearside during the Uruguayan’s time in charge. A bafflingly good run in the League Cup saw Sunderland dispense of both Chelsea and Manchester United before finally being undone by a rampant Yaya Toure at Wembley in the final. Poyet also masterminded another implausible escape, and pulled off the most lopsided deal since the Treaty of Versailles by offloading the superlatively bad Altidore in exchange for the supposedly past it Jermaine Defoe.
Unfortunately for Gus, with the good came the ludicrously bad. There are two grave errors in Sunderland’s recent past that act as perfect case studies into the financial misguidance at the core of the club, and both happened while the placid South American prowled the dugout.
Jack Rodwell was an England international. He’d played for the Premier League champions alongside the famously rampant Yaya Toure. Maybe Jack had learned a thing or two.
He also had a questionable injury record and had never quite reached the heights he’d threatened to as a precocious teenager, but there was nothing to suggest that he couldn’t turn things around. In fact, the suits with control of the purse strings at the Stadium of Light were so convinced that he could, they offered him a five-year, £70,000 a week contract.
Except, they forgot one detail. There was, and still is, no relegation clause in Jack Rodwell’s contract. This meant that when Sunderland succumbed to the inevitable and every other player in the squad took an involuntary 40% pay cut, Rodwell didn’t have to. The former Everton man has even refused to have his deal ripped up so he can go in search of the first team football he claims to crave.
Sunderland, a club flirting with relegation from the Championship, are paying £70,000 a week to a player who has made just two appearances this season.
Rodwell has cost the club £282,000 for every hour of first team football he has played. To put that in perspective, Fatboy Slim will perform a two-hour set at your private function for £125,000.
Sunderland’s other misstep was the loan signing of Ricky Alvarez from Inter Milan. Like Rodwell, the Argentinian was deemed of international standard once upon a time, and as with Rodwell, the club’s board dived headfirst into a wildly overcommitted deal.
If the Black Cats avoided relegation, which they did, they would owe I Nerrazzuri £9m for the pleasure of his permanent signature. Alvarez, however, picked up a knee injury that limited his playing time during his stay in England. At the end of his loan, Sunderland refused to pay the fee, Inter said they had to, and a protracted legal saga was set in motion.
To cut a long story short, the Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled in 2017 that the Wearsiders had to pay, and Sunderland were forced to cough up £9m, plus legal fees, for a player they never wanted. Alvarez would never play for them again.
And the club never learned it’s lesson. Under the management of a spectral David Moyes Sunderland broke their transfer record to sign Didier Ndong. The Gabonese international’s brand of bombastic omni-pressure was reminisce of a temperamental chainsaw: occasionally useful, usually not worth the risk. Spending big on Ndong proved that even as late as their relegation campaign, the Black Cats could just about scrape together notable transfer fees, but all too often these fees were allocated to the wrong causes.
Even more bewildering was the purchase of Chelsea reject Papy Djilobodji. A £4m deadline day present from Roman Abramovich to a less than grateful José Mourinho, the centre back was shipped out on loan to Werder Bremen just four months later. The Senegalese international did a decent enough job in the Bundesliga, but produced nothing that would logically cause his value to, say, double.
On Djilobodji’s return to England, however, Sunderland paid £8m for him, despite him having never played a minute in the Premier League. To use an analogy, this is like buying a lawnmower, lending it to a neighbour for five months, getting it back, and then selling it on Gumtree for double it’s original price. Roman must have laughed himself to sleep the night Papy was sold.
In many ways it’s arguable that the signing of Djilobodji represented the death knell for Sunderland as a credible business negotiator. How can a club expect to be taken seriously, or communicate with their peers on an equal footing, when it openly makes such poor decisions and exhibits such financial naivety?
All of this; the inflated fees, the evidently flawed scouting system, the inability to shift deadwood because of unjustifiably hefty wage packages, means that now Sunderland are drinking last orders in the last chance saloon, in genuinely desperate need of funds, there simply aren’t any.
This could be seen last January when instead of the defensive overhaul clearly required to ensure survival; fans were presented with a tubby Joleon Lescott.
And now that Sunderland have dropped down to the second tier, with the very real danger of successive relegations looming, there’s barely enough left in the coffers to pay the electricity bill. So far this season the Black Cats have brought in 20 players for a combined fee of £1.26m. There’s an old adage about quality and quantity, and Sunderland are finding out the hard way that it’s all too true.
Now, with attendances understandably in decline, the club have announced they will close the top tier of their 48,707 capacity stadium to ‘help save on staffing costs and improve match atmosphere’. It doesn’t feel like a temporary measure.
Regardless of which division they’re plying their trade in this time next year, you can’t help but fear that it’s going to be a long, long way back for Sunderland.