Back in 2008, Niall Quinn sold Ellis Short a dream. Sunderland was a sleeping giant. All that was required was a cash transfusion to re-awaken the giant from its slumbers, and on-field success and capacity crowds would surely follow.
Unfortunately the Drumaville consortium, headed by ex-Sunderland hero Quinn, that owned the club had fallen on hard times.
And that was where American billionaire Short came in.
Short immediately took a 30% stake in September 2008 and bought out the remaining partners in May the following year to take sole control, although the publicity-shy new owner preferred to remain out of the limelight and allow Quinn to be both his football advisor and the public face of the club. But Short’s four years at the helm on Wearside have been a bruising experience for a man who is used to success.
Because, despite investing in excess of £100m over that period to buy the club, refinance its debts and bankroll its forays into the transfer market, Sunderland are no further forward.
In May of 2009, a couple of weeks before Short bought the club lock, stock and barrel, Sunderland finished fifth bottom of the Premier League, with their top-flight status guaranteed only on the last day of the season.
And in May of 2013, for all the money Short has poured into the club, Sunderland finished fourth bottom with safety assured with just one game to spare.
For a man who cut his teeth in the risk-reward world of high-finance, hedge-funds and big business, this lack of progress has been a major frustration.
During Short’s time in full control, he has hired and fired two experienced managers in the shape of Steve Bruce and Martin O’Neill.
Bruce was given a large transfer budget and finished 13th in his first season and 10th in his second, but a poor start to the 2011-12 campaign saw Short show him the door in November 2011.
At around the same time Quinn was sidelined, with Short stepping out of the shadows and becoming chairman. Quinn eventually left the club entirely a couple of months later.
Short pulled off a coup by landing a highly-respected manager in O’Neill, whose track record at Leicester, Celtic and Aston Villa meant he was one of the hottest properties in football management.
The Irishman saved Sunderland from relegation and ended up 13th, with only an eight-game winless streak at the end of that season preventing him leading the club to another top-10 finish.
Hopes were high for O’Neill’s first full season in charge, and the £22m capture of striker Steven Fletcher and England winger Adam Johnson only fuelled the sense of optimism on Wearside. Reality did not live up to expectations, however, and Short wielded the axe at the end of March this year with Sunderland again battling relegation.
And with Sunderland’s Premier League status hanging in the balance and no signs that the club was moving forward, Short decided on a radical change of strategy.
Impressed by the way clubs on the Continent run their affairs, he has begun to import a European blueprint. The first stage was to appoint Paolo Di Canio as head coach, rather than manager. Di Canio was a high-risk appointment, not least because he had no top-flight managerial experience, but the gamble paid off as the Italian led Sunderland to safety.
And now Short’s plans will continue apace this summer. He has lined up Italian agent Roberto De Fanti as the club’s new director of football, to work with Di Canio and oversee the running of the football side of the club. And he will also bring in Inter Milan chief scout Valentino Angeloni as technical director to replace chief scout Bryan ‘Pop’ Robson. Short is known to have become disillusioned by the way his money has been spent in the transfer market, with a number of expensive new arrivals rapidly discarded – particularly under the Bruce regime.
The implementation of the Financial Fair Play rules will restrict the amount of money that rich owners can pump into their clubs, forcing the clubs to live within their means, and that has prompted a shift in emphasis. Already this summer Sunderland have concentrated their recruitment efforts on signing players available on Bosman free transfers, with three players set to join for no fee on July 1.
And the appointment of Angeloni is another major clue to the business model Short wants to adopt in future.
Angeloni forged his scouting reputation at Udinese, where he sourced talented youngsters for modest fees, developed them as they played for the Serie A club, and then they were sold on – often for large fees. Amongst others, Angeloni can claim credit for bringing on ex-Sunderland men Sulley Muntari and Asamoah Gyan, along with Alexis Sanchez, who is now at Barcelona, David Pizarro, now of Fiorentina and previously briefly of Manchester City, plus Vicenzo Iaquinta, who was sold to Juventus.
Will the new strategy pay off? Only time will tell. But Short has learned that football is a business like no other. Normal rules do not apply.
Investment is recorded on the teamsheet rather than the balance sheet and success is measured not in terms of profit, but through results on the pitch.