After promotion comes relief as long-standing clouds over Sunderland clear again

Date published: Thursday 23rd June 2022 1:45 - Ian King

Sunderland supporters at Trafalgar Square before the Legaue One play-off final

Kyril Louis-Dreyfus is now confirmed as biggest the shareholder in Sunderland, and that will be a huge relief to the club’s supporters. 

 

Perhaps the clouds will finally lift from the Stadium of Light. It’s not quite the closing of a chapter, but the confirmation that Kyril Louis-Dreyfus and Juan Sartori have increased their combined stake in Sunderland to 81% is welcome news for the club’s supporters. Promotion back to the Championship through the play-offs had been greeted with huge celebrations, but in true Sunderland style this moment of sunshine was followed by weeks of uncertainty after some extremely unwelcome takeover news indeed.

It didn’t take long for the promotion glow to wear off, though the club had already announced that it had sold more than 28,000 season tickets for the new season after beating Wycombe Wanderers in the League One play-off final – a timely reminder of Sunderland’s untapped potential – when the news broke. Eighteen days after those Wembley celebrations, it was confirmed that minority shareholders and stars of the Sunderland Til I Die Netflix series Stewart Donald and Charlie Methven were in talks with a cryptocurrency group known as The Fans Together (TFT) to sell their combined 39% shareholding in the club.

It was a pattern that has started to feel familiar. TFT released a 102-page white paper of aims and objectives ending with QR codes for ‘donation links’, with talk of being ‘an organisation dedicated to bringing large scale widespread fan ownership to reality’ (they didn’t mention that the majority of these fans would likely be fans of other clubs), all against a backdrop of increasing disquiet from the club’s actual fans at the possibility of Methven and Donald offering one last flourish, leaving a substantial shareholding in the hands of a group with no previous connection to Sunderland, taking experimental decisions based on highly volatile and speculative alternative currency.

The club’s largest shareholder, Kyril Louis-Dreyfus, initially stated that he was happy with his 41% shareholding, although he did seek to distance himself from the TFT interest. But something has changed, and it has now been announced that Louis-Dreyfus is increasing his shareholding to 51%, while Juan Sartori will be increasing his from 20% to 30%. Of the previous owners, Methven will finally now be leaving the club altogether, while Stewart Donald retain a reduced 19% shareholding. TFT said themselves that they were in ‘advanced talks’ to purchase the 39% shareholding from them, but pre-emption rights under the club’s shareholders agreement allowed Dreyfus and Sartori to step in ahead.

Although the percentage increases aren’t exactly massive, they are significant in terms of how the club is owned. With a 51% shareholding, Louis-Dreyfus moves from being the club’s single biggest shareholder to being its majority shareholder, giving him greater control. And while the involvement of Sartori at The Stadium of Light remains something of a mystery, the increase in his shareholding also put Louis-Dreyfus and Sartori in a significantly advantaged position in terms of controlling the club. Now that they hold over 75% of the shares they could, should they choose, issue further shares and further dilute Donald’s shareholding. Regardless of what may or may not happen in the future, these changes put them in a powerful position.

But if Methven has gone and a 19% shareholding doesn’t give him any control over how the club is run, why is Donald hanging on? The most likely answer is ‘potential’. The vast number of season tickets sold already this summer mean something. They tell the story of a club with the size, the history and the potential to get back to the Premier League and flourish there. And while the possibility of back-to-back promotions is slight, it’s not completely out of the question, either. Since the formation of the Premier League, three clubs have gone from League One to the Premier League in successive seasons: Watford in 1999, Norwich City in 2011 and Southampton in 2012.

And for Stewart Donald, a 19% shareholding in Sunderland would shoot up in value, were the club to be promoted again. The difference in value that comes from getting promoted into the Premier League is a yawning chasm. Just getting promoted is worth a minimum of £170m to a football club over the next three years, and surviving that first season back could see that figure rise to more than £300m. Small wonder Donald wants to hold onto a shareholding. If there’s one thing that would guarantee those shares dramatically increasing in value, it would be promotion to the Premier League.

The appointment of Alex Neil in February has proved to be highly successful. Remember when it looked as though they might appoint Roy Keane? A comfortable play-off final win – when Sunderland’s miserable previous record in the play-offs was only ever likely to have a nerve-shredding effect upon their supporters – has earned him substantial goodwill. His previous record in England is mixed, mediocre at Preston North End and, while he took Norwich City into the Premier League in 2015, he couldn’t keep them there. But he is experienced in this division, the supporters are behind him, and now it looks as though the club’s long-running ownership issues may be finally coming to a satisfactory end. So we may even be treated to a rare sighting of optimistic Sunderland supporters at the start of next season.

And that love sure does run deep. That ‘more than 28,000 season ticket sales’ figure comes from June 7, and there are still five weeks before the start of the season. At noon on July 31, Sunderland will kick off against Coventry City in front of television cameras. Things can always go wrong; the Championship is a highly competitive division, as Sunderland already know to their cost, and all football supporters know the flip-side of hope – that kick to the stomach that sends your heart up into your throat. Kyril Louis-Dreyfus is young, and he could yet be a disaster. But Sunderland supporters know about new dawns and false hopes better than most, and for now they have a foot in the door and things are looking up. The clouds that have hung over the Stadium of Light for so long might just have cleared a little further.

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