There will always be a Sunderland Football Club, but it is worrying to think about what sort of shape it would be in without the backing of owner Ellis Short. Chief sports writer Luke Edwards reports.
ACCORDING to Ellis Short, Sunderland “is one crazy ass football club.” Then again, given that he is the man responsible for bankrolling it, what does that make him?
When Sunderland survived their Premier League relegation scrap on the final day of last season, this was Short’s bewildered response to the sight of fans dancing in the street in celebration.
Yet some would question his own sanity in buying a football club which has not won a domestic trophy since 1973 and competes with Newcastle United, not just as local rivals, but also for status as English football’s biggest underachievers.
You can still buy plastic signs in shops containing the adage “You don’t have to be crazy to work here but it helps.” Perhaps they should make one for the owners of football clubs as well. As a hugely successful businessman, Short is clearly not short on intelligence or business acumen, but surely there is little sense in buying a business which will announce losses of more than £26m next week and a wage bill which accounts for almost 80% of its annual turnover. These are the same sort of figures which led to the financial implosion of Portsmouth and give Sunderland a similar sized turnover to the likes of Bolton Wanderers and Blackburn Rovers, despite their vastly superior attendance figures.
Football, though, does funny things to people. It can turn the calm and collected into ranters and ravers and it can turn normally cautious business men into bold speculators.
The books show Short has pumped in £77m in a little over 12 months, but the real cost is far higher and these are not loans, it is money he can not take back out when the mood suits him.
We are still not entirely sure why Short decided to buy Sunderland, ease its debts and fund the extravagant transfer policies of both Roy Keane and Steve Bruce. We have never been able to ask him. But one thing is for sure, it was not to make any money and that is something every single Black Cats fan should be grateful for.
Football has always needed wealthy benefactors, but they are no longer the ‘local boy done good’ or a prominent local business. You do not need a few million quid to bankroll a top flight club, you need tens of millions.
Short has spent more than £100m to buy Sunderland and players to play for it and they are not even an established top ten club. Presumably it will cost him tens of millions more to get them anywhere near Europe.
Without Short’s cash, Sunderland would not have Darren Bent, Lorik Cana, Lee Cattermole or Michael Turner. They might well balance the books, but they would be little more than another West Bromwich Albion, bouncing up and down between the Championship and the Premier League. “Ellis has allowed us to retain Jonesy, he has allowed us to keep on buying,” said chairman Niall Quinn, sensibly retained by Short to run the football side of the operation on his behalf.
“Darren Bent is the most expensive this club has ever bought and the third, fourth and fifth (most expensive) are out there as well. Ellis has put more money into this club than all the previous owners put together in the short time he has been with us, so it has kicked us on in terms of the quality of the squad.
“Last summer and the last two transfer windows, we did 21 out and seven in. Without Ellis, we would have got 14 or 15 out and kept the rest and maybe done one or two bits of business.”
Sunderland are not completely reliant on Short’s money, but given it is the American’s money which funds their transfer strategy it is hard to see where they would go without him.
Quinn continued: “You will have to ask him face to face how long he is prepared to continue with that. You have to understand that he is a winner. The vast majority of that money has gone on transfer fees, not on balancing the books for wages. I don’t think he will just be satisfied with keeping us up, but he wants to do things in a smart way.
“You might be saying when will it stop. We might be saying now do you want to get in the real world. Do you want to take a real gamble, a bigger gamble. That is what we’re hoping for.”
Sunderland are gambling. They are gambling on Short’s continued interest and willingness to spend money on players when the manager asks for them, but they are far from alone in the Premier League in that respect.
But with every gamble there is a risk and Portsmouth and Leeds are a reminder of what can happen. Quinn, though, is adamant the club is on a sound financial footing.
He said: “If you are saying to me Ellis will get fed up and you’ll not live within your means any more, hey we could sell a player, but that is not in the plan.We are still aggressive and we are still trying to get into that top ten area. And then there is a decision to make.
“I don’t know exactly what Steve wants in the summer, but if he says to me I want these five and these four can go, and there is a difference of £10 million, yeah we will live outside our means. But we will only do it if Ellis Short says ‘I will do it’ and the debt is not in the business. So the business doesn’t live outside its means, in theory, Ellis takes the hit.”