At the time of writing, rumours abound that Rafa Benitez is on the verge of quitting as a result of broken promises from the club’s owner on available transfer funds. Sunderland on the other hand have dropped out of the Premier League and are nearer the bottom of the Championship than the top.
It’s fair to say that neither clubs’ owners are universally popular amongst their respective supporters having served up almost continuous tripe on the pitch during their regimes.
Ellis Short took full control of SAFC in May 2009. Ashley a couple of years earlier. But who has been the most disastrous for their respective clubs? Who has the edge in hopelessness? Who triumphs in the battle of mediocrity?
Let’s take a look.
What did they inherit?
To establish how successful, or more appropriately how crap, each owner has been, we must first ascertain the state of the clubs when they bought them. How had they performed for the 5 seasons before Ashley and Short gained control?
Newcastle, prior to Ashley taking over, had been in the top flight since 1993. They finished a respectable average position of 8th in the 5 seasons immediately prior to purchase and were an ever present in European competition. Less than 5 years prior to purchase, NUFC had progressed beyond the Group stages of the Champions League beating the likes of Juventus, Leverkusen and Feyenoord on the way. Seems a very distant memory now.
But what about off the pitch? The perceived wisdom is that NUFC were a financial basket case when Ashley took the reins and there’s no doubt that the club had financial problems in 2007.
They were making record losses and mortgaged to the hilt securing loans on virtually all the club’s assets (training ground) and future income streams (TV, sponsorship).
However until 2005, Newcastle were actually quite financially sound. They consistently had a turnover in the top 15 of European clubs, a healthy wages : turnover ratio, weren’t overly reliant on broadcasting income and Shepherd has argued quite justifiably that the (relatively modest) debt had financed stadium development. And then came Graeme “the fans are to blame” Souness and things started to go wrong …….!
SAFC on the other hand, it’s fair to say had suffered more than their fair share of turbulence in the years immediately preceding Short’s buyout including a relegation. They averaged a distinctly average 19th position and failed to progress beyond the 4th round of any domestic cup completions. Europe? Don’t be silly.
Sunderland had embarked on a huge rebuilding programme following the Drumaville buyout in 2006. To support their managers, they made unprecedented transfer funds available. This resulted in the club starting to make big losses and their debt increase to £73m.
So we can safely say that Ashley inherited a club which was performing infinitely better on the pitch than Short did. Financially, both clubs had problems. Both were making big losses and carrying an increasingly large debt.
How much of their personal wealth have they invested?
Both owners boast considerable personal wealth and whilst this tends to go up and down depending on the state of the stock market, neither are likely to call upon the services of the local food bank any time soon. In the 2017 Forbes Rich List, Short’s wealth was valued at roughly £1.25b. Mike Ashley at £2.1.
So whilst Ashley is “considerably richer” than Short, what has been their personal contributions to their respective clubs? We need to put aside the actual cost to purchase the clubs as that money went to the previous owners, not to the club (the Halls and Shepherds making a small fortune). It is the money they have invested in the club after purchase which is key here.
Both have loaned their respective clubs considerable amounts of money and, to be fair to both Ashley and Short, these loans are interest free. Additionally, unlike previous owners, neither Ashley nor Short has taken a single penny out of their clubs in the form of dividends or salaries.
However where the owners differ is that Short has converted over £100m of his loans into capital (£48.5 million in 2009, £19.0 million in 2010 and £33.4 million in 2013). This means simply that the club does not have to pay that money back to Short. It’s a gift. The only way Short will get that money back is if he sells SAFC.
It’s a generous gesture but not uncommon among Premier League owners. However Ashley has steadfastly refused to do this and has in fact looked to use club funds to reduce his loan (from £150m in 2010 to £129m in 2012).
It should also be noted that Ashley is personally benefitting through the free advertising of Sports Direct which somewhat compensates for the interest he is foregoing on his loan. Short receives no such benefit. Mysteriously, the £20m a season that he once upon a time promised that he would give to NUFC has failed to materialise!
Verdict: Short win.
It is for the owner to appoint those people that they entrust with running their club. They must make a judgement on their competence and ability to manage the day to day running of the club. The responsibility for their success or failure ultimately sits with the owner. These appointments do not just include the football manager but also the executive roles.
The simple fact that Ashley appointed Joe Kinnear, Dennis Wise and Steve McLaren should make this an easy win for Short! However Ashley has gone someway to redeeming himself with the appointment of Benitez.
Most of Short’s appointments had a successful track record prior to joining Sunderland and were welcomed, in the main, by their supporters. Whilst it could be argued that those appointments have squandered huge sums of money and achieved comparatively little in the Premier League, he has also been very decisive to sack managers and quickly appoint replacements to provide a short term lift which proved successful in keeping SAFC in the top flight for successive seasons.
A single relegation for Short and two for Ashley suggests that Short has been marginally more successful with his appointments.
Verdict: Short win
How much have they made available for players?
Most supporters would assert that this is the key responsibility of the club owner. Whilst there are some honourable exceptions, generally the more money made available to invest in the team, the more successful the club is on the pitch.
Whilst Ashley has actually made more money available on average per season than Short (albeit skewed by the panic spending in the latest relegation season), it is the net spend which is key here. That is building a squad rather than selling your best players which Ashley has continuously done as reflected in the figures.
Taking player sales into account, Short has on average made more money available (net) for his managers than Ashley.
Verdict: Short win.
So how has this spending impacted the team on the pitch?
The average position for both owners is the same. But that doesn’t tell the whole picture. Ashley has managed to squeeze in a couple of relegations during his tenure whilst Short has seen a rather unprecedented run (for SAFC) in the top flight which only ended last season. The only bright spots for both owners have been a Wembley visit for SAFC and a single UEFA Cup qualification for NUFC.
More importantly, prior to Ashley and Short taking over their respective clubs, NUFC had averaged 8th place in the preceding 5 seasons whilst SAFC averaged 19th place. NUFC had also made frequent trips to Europe and managed to make the latter stages of the Champions League.
Since Ashley took over NUFC, we have seen our average position tumble whilst Short has seen SAFC’s average position rise.
Verdict: Short win
How are the clubs performing financially compared to when they took over? We’ve seen the financial problems that both clubs experienced in the 5 years prior to their purchase.
Using the same financial indicators as before, we can see that Ashley has transformed NUFC into a profit making machine.
However we have also seen NUFC become much more reliant on broadcasting income (both Match Day and Commercial income have actually fallen under Ashley), our turnover plummet relative to other top clubs and debt rocket (albeit all owed to Ashley). Despite the massive amounts of broadcasting income which has been lavished on Premier League clubs, Ashley has made far less cash available for transfers than his predecessor.
Short on the other hand carried on much the same way as the Drumaville consortium before him. Lavishing huge sums of money on multiple managers to squander, racking up losses of over £150m in only seven years and seeing gross debt rocket.
The only positives for Short is that Sunderland now feature in the Deloittes world’s rich list. And the gross debt would be nearly ¼ of a billion if he hadn’t written off over £100m of it!
Verdict: Ashley win
How has the reputation of the clubs fared during the respective owners’ tenure? Difficult to choose between the two owners as to who has seen the most PR disasters.
Let’s start with Ashley – a Tribunal finding that he had lied to Keegan, the comedy appointments of Wise and Kinnear, the Sports Direct Arena, cringeworthy sponsors. I’ve probably only scratched the surface here.
Short has also seen Sunderland become somewhat of a national laughing stock. The appointment of a self-proclaimed fascist as manager, Adam Johnson, FTM badges, Margaret Byrne, Alvarez, Robert De Fanti.
Can’t choose between them here. They’ve dragged the proud names of both clubs through the mud.
Verdict: Score Draw
If social media is an accurate indicator of public opinion, Sunderland fans are very upset with Ellis Short. And who can blame them? A club that appears to be in absolute free fall with apparently less money than a BHS pensioner.
But over their tenures, the facts show that Short has been an infinitely better owner than Ashley. He has put more of his own money into the club, made more money available for transfers and has improved the average position of the club.
Ashley on the other hand inherited a club that was competing at the upper levels in England and Europe and has ripped it apart. He has drained the hope and expectations out of the support. The facts show the on-field performance has basically collapsed on his watch. He has simply been catastrophic for NUFC.
Overall verdict: Short win
Andrew Trobe – Follow Andy on @tfandy1892