The inside story of the Sunderland takeover and what happens next as American consortium close in on deal
A deal for a group of American businessman to take a controlling stake in Sunderland AFC is nearing completion.
There had been rumours swirling on Wearside that an announcement would be made on Friday, but that is understood not to be the case.
Nevertheless, significant progress has been made since news of the talks and bid broke a fortnight ago.
Two members of the four-strong consortium watched the Black Cats beat AFC Wimbledon at the Stadium of Light the following day.
Glenn Fuhrman, John Phelan and Robert Platek, all significant at the hugely successful MSD Partners group, will take a shareholding and an active role in the running of the club.
Michael Dell will be a passive investor.
Stewart Donald and Charlie Methven are expected to retain significant roles if and when the deal is completed.
So what can Sunderland fans expect from the new structure?
Here, we chart the story of Donald’s ownership so far and the clues that it gives for what is required from this next step….
Stewart Donald’s Deal
When Stewart Donald agreed a deal to buy the club from Ellis Short, it was initially announced that he would be leading an international consortium.
Of course, by the time the deal was over the line, Donald had 94% of the club and Charlie Methven 6%.
It simply reflected where the club was at.
Ellis Short wanted out and though he had recognised the need for flexibility on the club’s debts to get a deal done, the challenges were still spectacular.
The club needed a new manager, backroom staff and squad.
There were massive liabilities at the club the scale of which had never been seen before in the third tier.
On the first day of Jack Ross’ tenure, for example, the wage bill still stood at around £40 million. Few of the players responsible for most of that outlay could be relied on.
So whoever was taking over had to get started and fast.
Donald’s deal simplified the EFL process and allowed the rebuild to begin.
From the start, it meant that at some stage, further support would be needed.
Donald believed he could begin the process, fund the club to the level it needed in League One and also use the expertise he and Methven had developed through their respective associations with Oxford United in the division.
They ended up minutes away from promotion, but whatever the short-term result, further investment was on the cards from day one.
Juan Sartori was a natural early investor, given his close connections with the pair from a previous attempt to buy Oxford United.
Not long after taking charge, Donald flew out to Monaco and thrashed out the terms of the deal that would see the Uruguayan join the board.
He passed through the EFL process with ease and was announced as a minority shareholder the day before the season opener against Charlton Athletic.
He took a 20% share of the club and for the first half of the season, was a visible presence in the director’s box at home games, even darting into the Roker End in his away shirt to join in with the support’s most familiar chants.
Donald spoke of Sartori’s enthusiasm for the game and his outstanding connections. His father-in-law, Dmitry Rybolovlev, owned Monaco as they embarked on a remarkable European and domestic run. They have struggled in the last 12 months or so but their recruitment model was for a while the envy of the continent.
In December, he announced his intention to run for President of Uruguay, beginning a six-month journey to try and win his party’s nomination.
He was unsuccessful, but had begun the campaign as a real outsider and his comments afterwards suggested this would be a long-term ambition.
He continued to be spoken of as a potentially bigger player in the Sunderland story throughout the summer (Donald said he was ‘back and quite vocal in late July), and attended the opening game of the season as Sunderland drew with Oxford United.
How he will be affected by the potential deal remains unclear.
Such his obvious passion for the game and the club, it seems inconceivable that he will not retain an interest and a presence, but that the prospective new owners are taking a controlling share strongly suggests it will be no more than that.
Mark Campbell talks
There was, therefore, an openness to investment long before Sunderland’s fate last season was sealed.
For the early part of the summer, the frontrunner was real estate businessman Mark Campbell.
His vision for the club contained elements that has impressed the current hierarchy.
John Park, with a largely successful track record at Celtic, was to be installed as Director of Football.
Jack Ross was expected to stay as manager with evolution, rather than revolution, seemingly the order of the day.
Donald would be staying as a shareholder.
When the deal broke down, the Chairman was clear where he felt the issue lay.
“Would we have any more money to spend in the Championship under that proposal? I wouldn’t say so, no,” he told fans at a Q&A with the Wise Men Say podcast..
All of which spells out the key goals from securing investment.
A good level of financial capital to build up the areas of the club that have suffered from tumbling into the third tier, relative stability and continuity, plus the prospect of being able to compete if and when promotion back to the second tier is secured. Ultimately, Donald clearly did not believe that the deal on the table eventually satisfied either the former or the latter of those demands.
The potential deal and what comes next
On the face of it, this potential deal ticks those boxes.
MSD Partners are an investment group who surely spot in Sunderland a club with the potential to grow in value and stature significantly.
The infrastructure is already Premier League quality.
But rather than paying a premium for a club already established in the top tier, this offers a golden opportunity.
Though he was speaking hypothetically at the time, it’s worth remembering that when Red Bull supremo Ralf Rangnick discussed potential investment in UK football, he namechecked Sunderland and MK Dons.
Good infrastructure, a healthy financial picture and room for significant growth.
This is not the first time MSD have invested in sport but it may be their most active move, with Glenn Furhman, Robert Platek and John Phelan expected to be prominent figures in the running of the club.
Michael Dell will be a passive investor and the deal will see Donald and Methven retain significant roles.
If the deal goes through, the ambition is significant.
The long-term plan will be to establish Sunderland as top-flight regulars again.
The game, of course, is changing at a rapid pace.
Scrutiny on Financial Fair Play is growing and the recent crisis in League One is likely to make the EFL only more determined to enforce it.
In League One, the SCMP rules limit wage spend to 60% of turnover. This can be circumvented if an owner invests in shares, rather than loans, but whether that is wise or sustainable is another matter. It’s also likely to come under scrutiny after the EFL announced a review of their rules on Thursday.
In the Championship the rules are tighter, with clubs limited to a £39 million loss over three seasons under the Profit & Sustainability rules. Birmingham City were handed a points deduction for their infringements last season and recent attempts to circumvent this from other clubs via the sale of stadiums to the owner, are now coming under scrutiny.
So any investment, from any party, has to be considered in this context. Donald spoke of this in great depth with supporters before the season began, albeit unrelated to the potential takeover. He recognised the potential for Sunderland in this changing climate, given the significant turnover it can naturally generate from its support base.
This will be about investment, absolutely, but also a long-term strategy to realise the club’s potential.
That encompasses so much more than simply spending on players, with improving the club’s structures off the pitch key.
Plenty remains unclear as the deal edges towards conclusion, but the story of Stewart Donald’s tenure so far gives us a lot of clues as to what everyone will hope to achieve as a result of this potential takeover.