As Sunderland prepare for one of the most defining seasons in the club’s history, to the outside eye things at the Stadium of Light would appear to be as rosy as they’ve been for over a decade. Not since days of Peter Reid have the Black Cats embarked on a Premier League campaign with such confident aspirations and with manager Martin O’Neill at the helm, fans are expecting big things from their beloved side. This apparent upturn in the club’s fortunes can be attributed to Chairman Ellis Short whose unassuming involvement has largely been greeted with admiration from the terraces but that hasn’t stopped some questioning the motivations of their Texan billionaire.
For every fan who believes his cost cutting is merely streamlining the club after heavy spending, there’s another who is concerned that Short is merely safeguarding his own investments. As the club’s reputation teeters between being known as a bottom half team or a potential European challenger, is the American really the right man to take the club forward?
Having begun his North East affiliation in September 2008 when buying a 30% stake in the club, Short soon replaced previous owners the Drumaville Consortium before taking full control of the club in May 2009. His initial influence came courtesy of Sunderland legend Niall Quinn whose Irish connections could only take the club so far and he was soon heavily involved with more than just boardroom finances. It was reported Roy Keane’s exit was in part due to Short’s controlling interest in the club and when the former Manchester United captain’s overspending needed to be curbed, he was typically unyielding and left the post with the club sitting in the relegation zone. Short’s intentions were clear and by refusing to humour Keane’s demands, his reorganization of the club had already begun.
The eventual appointment of Steve Bruce was not hugely popular with supporters but despite his acrimonious departure last season, the current Hull City manager actually turned a profit during his time at the club while improving their league position year on year. Whether that record would’ve continued last season is questionable considering O’Neill transformed Sunderland’s stuttering season but Bruce still kept the club financially viable during his tenure. He may not have littered the squad with exciting talent but he built a strong enough foundation for O’Neill to build on without overspending. Eventually his inability to impress the terraces meant he had to leave but from Short’s point of view, the club had improved financially and in terms of league position. Clearly he has a strong business mind and even if the majority of fans will not look back fondly at the Bruce era, many still appreciate the work done behinds the scenes to make the club sustainable. If the appointment of Bruce was purely for financial reasons, his sacking must illustrate Short’s concerns for on field results as well as off. Despite FIFA’s Financial Fair Play Rules sitting at the forefront of most club owner’s minds, clearly Sunderland’s chairman will not suffer a downturn in the team’s performance either. He also bowed to fan opinion when appointing their new messiah in O’Neill so anyone who felt ignored when Bruce was given the hot seat can now feel their views have been heard.
So far so good but the coming season will define the intentions of Ellis Short and prove whether he’s working for himself or the club. By placing O’Neill in charge he has signalled his intent to make the team a genuine European challenger but the Northern Irishman doesn’t have the best record when spending big in the transfer market. Though a repeat of his misspending at Aston Villa cannot be afforded, given the impression he made when turning the club around back in December, Short must be willing to trust him with more funds if he wants to establish the club in the top 10. It may be a difficult to time view his motives fairly because the majority of clubs are trying to spend more wisely nowadays but fans will hope that isn’t just an excuse to fatten his own wallet. After all his reformation was meant to be for the club’s future as a business model so now the bank balance is looking healthier, if Short fails to use the money he’s been saving up on better players then fans will wonder what he’s been keeping it for.
The key element is patience. If Short has simply recouped his own expenditure by streamlining the club then he will happily turn a profit while they struggle to progress with their hands tied behind their back. On the other hand, if he’s made the club financially stable and it continues to evolve under a strong business model while bringing in exciting talent then fan’s trust in Short will have been vindicated.
Despite the majority of fans having no contractual obligations and being fairly uneducated in boardroom politics, it’s always difficult for them to hand over the responsibility of their treasured club to a mysterious businessman whose objectives are unknown. If Sunderland fans are to feel assured that Short has their best interests at heart then the level of backing given to O’Neill in the coming window will signal the club’s intentions loud and clear.
Should Sunderland fans trust his judgement even if league finishes don’t improve?
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