Buyer beware! How to solve the crisis at Sunderland (and other clubs besides)

Sunderland is all at sea. I don’t need to add to the reams of writing about Ellis Short and the demise of his interest in the club. It’s a sad sight for any team to be bottom of a division largely on the basis, it seems to me, that it’s all gone bad behind the scenes. Even in a less than imperfect World, football should always be about what happens on the pitch.

The problem for everyone involved is, I’m sure, helplessness. I’ve advised enough people during protracted takeovers and crises to know that fans, the staff (often a forgotten bunch) and yes, players, feel the tension. They wouldn’t be human otherwise. And it’s all well and good pretending that the downward spiral isn’t a reality, but it all too often is. And managers – in this case Chris Coleman – can only hold things together for so long. They’re people, and have a limit to their tolerance. They’re there to manage, not to lead the club, Moses like, out of the desert.

So what’s the future at Sunderland? Your guess is as good as mine, which is part of the problem. But there are some important considerations for anyone thinking about a takeover – there, or anywhere else.

1. Look for those in the know

One of the big problems that still happens with new owners is that – understandably – they come in, full of optimism, ideas, and a ‘new’ approach, and forget that the optimistic tone can quickly change when results or promised changes don’t materialise. It’s too easy to come in and promise that a new broom will sweep things clean. What you need is to have a plan to pull together the club in all its facets as it is, not as you want it to be. On the staff side, every club always has one or two people who are the constant. At Luton Town it was Cherry Newbery (seen most famously in this brilliant and quite disturbing at times, documentary about the brief reign of John Gurney). Very often it’s often the (football) secretary – the one who makes the football side tick, knows the business, and ensures that the club complies with the rules – who knows a lot of what’s going on. Seek these people out, and bring them in – they matter, and they’ll give you the lowdown and greater credibility.

2. Treat the fans like grown ups – but don’t treat them all the same

When you’ve just taken over, there’s a tendency to issue a series of reassurances to supporters, and then forget that they – ‘they’ very often being the activists who have campaigned on the problems under the former owner – need to remain involved in some way, and are also a valuable potential source of intelligence. Many new owners throw all the fans together in a big mix, and some even force groups to justify their existence. I remember a particular instance, not long after a club had exited administration, where I received emails from the Chief Executive, investigating how many members the supporters’ trust had, which I knew was on the basis that the intention was to exclude them for not being ‘representative enough’. And that wasn’t an uncommon tale. That either creates enemies, or makes you look petty. Don’t do it. It doesn’t mean you have to have the same type of relationship with every group. It does mean that you should work with the various groups – and individual fans – as you would stakeholders in any other business, but remembering that they won’t be taking their business anywhere else. All the best club CEOs do it that way.

3. Don’t over promise. You’ll always under-deliver

Fans can be a fickle bunch, but more’s the point, fans are not homogeneous. They are united by their love of a club, but as Millwall CEO Steve Kavanagh says, “It’s a sport where two people watching the same game can emerge with a completely different view of what happened.” Strategists like me can bore everyone silly with their droning on about taking a step back and thinking through the problem, but do it. I can’t promise you won’t avoid errors, but you’ll find fewer will occur if you think through things in a strategic way, e.g.: what type of football club are you intending on/have you just taken over (there are all sorts)? Who cares about this football club and why? What is it they want? How can you help them learn to trust what you do and say?

If you want to know more, including how I can help in communicating effectively with your fanbase, or setting up and running effective structured dialogue, why not drop me a line?

The image attached to this article was originally posted to Flickr by Mrs Logic at

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