During an often proud history, featuring the collection of six English league titles, Sunderland have variously been dubbed “the team of all the talents” and the “Bank of England club”.
These days the latter – attached in the 1950s – seems something of a sick joke. After a decade spent in the Premier League, the newly relegated Wearside club somehow find themselves at least £110m in debt, up for sale and managerless.
With 12, mostly out-of-contract, players having departed since the end of last season, the squad is looking skinny before the start of pre-season training next week.
A humiliating miscalculation dictated that rather than rubber-stamp the installation of Derek McInnes as David Moyes’s successor last week, Aberdeen’s manager had an 11th-hour change of heart, opting to remain at Pittodrie.
With Martin Bain, Sunderland’s chief executive, having spent weeks courting McInnes it was an embarrassing rebuff but the latter’s camp maintain that, rather then merely playing a game to secure enhanced terms at Aberdeen, the Scot was concerned that any prospective new owner might not have wanted him at the Stadium of Light.
It means that while Short continues to talk to both an unnamed German consortium and another fronted by representatives of Fulwell73 – a TV production company run by fanatical Sunderland supporters which envisages offering the former England defender Tony Adams a key role at the club – the football operation remains in limbo.
Sunderland were so confident of recruiting McInnes and his backroom team that they parted company with Paul Bracewell, Moyes’s former assistant, last week. His departure leaves Robbie Stockdale, the first-team coach, preparing to take the players to Austria for a pre-season training camp. Significantly, Stockdale is one of only three senior support staff –the others are the goalkeeping coach Adrian Tucker and academy manager Elliot Dickman – still in post.
There are shades of the chaos at Hull City last summer when fevered talks about takeovers which never materialised prompted a recruitment freeze which, in turn, prefaced Steve Bruce’s resignation as manager and ensured only nine first-teamers clocked on for a pre-season trip to Austria.
Short, who has been wanting to sell Sunderland for quite a while, appreciates the potential to cause enduring damage and has set a deadline – thought to be early July – by which time a purchaser must have reached an agreement in principle. Should no deal be on the table by then the American financier will abandon talks and accept he is stuck with the club for the foreseeable future.
This deadline, intended to determine whether the consortia are serious, could fire the starting gun for due diligence. A routine process likely to take some weeks, it would involve the would-be buyer going through Sunderland’s books with the help of forensic accountants. Should there be no nasty surprises, the new owner would then have to be approved by the Football League before completion, suggesting that, realistically, nothing is likely to be signed and sealed until early autumn.
More immediately, a price has to be agreed. Short – who has invested around £200m of his personal fortune in Sunderand since 2008 – is understood to have rejected a £50m bid from the German consortium and remains resolute that he will not sell for less than £85m, a significant reduction from last season’s £170m asking price. Fulwell73’s interest is believed to be bankrolled by wealthy American backers and they, too, are said to value Sunderland at around £50m.
If Short, who has hired the renowned football takeover specialist Dr Keith Harris to assist him, stays on, he is currently minded to allow Moyes’s successor no more than £15m-20m to invest in the squad. Considering Sunderland have just sold Jordan Pickford to Everton for £30m and will receive £47m worth of parachute payments this season alone, it seems a bit penny-pinching.
Short, though, has become fed-up of the transfer calamities his club specialised in as he worked his way through seven managers in five largely chaotic years. The latest example features last week’s court of arbitration for sport ruling that Sunderland must pay Internazionale £9.2m for Ricardo Álvarez.
Álvarez, signed by Gus Poyet, joined Sunderland on a season-long loan in August 2014. Ill-equipped for English football, the Argentinian winger made only made five Premier League starts but his contract stipulated the club would have to sign him permanently providing they avoided relegation. Sunderland claimed the clause became void, citing a knee problem which they said Inter had neglected to address, but the CAS effectively dismissed that argument.
Even so, it seems hard to credit precisely how Sunderland are in such a mess after 10 years in the world’s wealthiest league. As their Sweden Under-21 striker Joel Asoro recently put it: “Sunderland received £93m for finishing bottom of the Premier League. It’s crazy. Why don’t they have the money?”
The answer resides amid a catalogue of appalling buys by assorted managers. Damningly, Sunderland sold no player on for a profit between August 2011 and January 2017 and have made money on only five of the last 48 they have traded. As Asoro added: “Sunderland have had a lot of money, it’s just they haven’t used it properly.”
Repairing the resultant mess at a club where attendances somehow remained above the 40,000 mark last season seems daunting. At least the takeover talks-induced hiatus has bought Bain time to consider the candidatures of, among others, Preston’s Simon Grayson, Nigel Clough of Burton, Barnsley’s Paul Heckingbottom, Sheffield United’s Chris Wilder and the unattached Paul Lambert.
Those names fail to excite Sunderland fans in the way that the former CSKA Moscow and Russia coach Leonid Slutsky has enthused their Hull counterparts or the newly appointed Garry Monk is galvanising Middlesbrough. Indeed the suspicion is that Bain – advised by his fellow Scots Walter Smith and Graeme Souness – lacks imagination in the recruitment sphere.
The former male model turned chief executive of Rangers and Maccabi Tel Aviv is smooth and suave but needs to demonstrate that his undoubted style is underpinned by the sort of substance urgently required to rebuild Sunderland.