These are strange times for Sunderland football club. Even though this is undoubtedly the Black Cats’ best season for many a year with the team comfortably ensconced in the top ten of the Premier League, there have been rumblings of discontent, not least from Niall Quinn, the club’s popular chairman, who said that he “despised” those fans who watched the team on dodgy foreign channels in local pubs instead of coming to the ground.
Matters have not been helped by the club losing its last four games, albeit in a tricky run of fixtures (at home to Chelsea and Tottenham, away to Stoke and Everton), with some blaming the departure of leading scorer Darren Bent to Aston Villa in the January transfer window, though the main problem seems to be at the other end of the pitch with the team’s inability to defend set-pieces. In most of those defeats, they have actually played very well in parts with Asamoah Gyan and Kieran Richardson forming an effective partnership and new signing Stephane Sessegnon looking the part as a creative midfielder.
The fact is that Sunderland are still in a pretty good position (eighth at the time of writing), especially if we consider their recent history, when they have been the very definition of a yo-yo club, suffering relegation to the second tier of English football before gaining promotion back to the Premier League three times in the ten years from 1997. Since the last elevation, the club has been steadily improving its status: 15th in 2007/08 under volatile manager Roy Keane, 16th the following year when Ricky Sbragia replaced Keane and 13th last season when they were guided by current manager Steve Bruce.
Although this is a famous old club with plenty of tradition, the sad truth is that its six First Division titles were secured a long time ago (three of them in the 19th century) with the last one gained back in 1936. In fact, Sunderland last won a trophy in 1973 when they memorably defeated Don Revie’s all-conquering Leeds United 1-0 in the FA Cup Final, largely thanks to an outstanding display by their goalkeeper Jim Montgomery.
Supporters might also have cast an anxious eye towards the club’s financial results, which revealed a thumping great loss for the second year in a row. After the £27 million pre-tax loss announced for 2008/09, last season’s figures were even worse with a £28 million shortfall. This should have come as no major surprise, as Sunderland have registered losses in five of the last six years, but the magnitude of the loss is of some concern.
Despite turnover rising by nearly 150% from £26 million to £64 million in 2007/08, following the club’s promotion to the Premier League, the losses have actually significantly increased. Since that positive occasion, revenue has been essentially flat in the last three years, while expenses (including player amortisation and depreciation) have grown apace from £65 million to £97 million. As Chief Executive Steve Walton wryly noted, “Our financial results do continue to reflect a continued period of growth and development for the club. There has been significant investment made to improve our playing squad and we are now starting to see the benefits of that investment.”
If there were any doubts over Sunderland’s strategy, the club’s accounts make it very clear that they are investing in players to reduce the risk of relegation from the (lucrative) Premier League. Of course, they are not alone in adopting this policy and it is true that a majority of clubs in England’s top tier push the financial boundaries, not so much to “live the dream”, but to avoid the nightmare of falling to the Championship.
"Cheer up, Steve. It might never happen."
However, there is a price to pay for this stance, which is reflected in the dramatic £52 million increase in player costs since promotion: wages up £30 million from £24 million to £54 million; player amortisation up £22 million from £5 million to £26 million. In fact, last year Niall Quinn claimed that the club “could easily have shown a profit”, if they hadn’t made so many new signings.
In a way, this strategy is perfectly understandable and you could argue that it is working on the pitch. In 2006/07 Sunderland’s wage bill of £24 million was, by the club’s own admission, “a huge figure” for the Championship, but it did achieve the desired result, as they secured promotion at the first time of asking. Similarly, the investment in the squad has not exactly hindered the club’s steady progress up the Premier League. Having said that, it is evident that Sunderland are living well beyond their means, so someone has to cover all these losses.
Step forward, Ellis Short, the Texan billionaire president of US investment firm Lone Star Funds, who has owned the club outright since May 2009. Short cannot be accused of not putting his money where his mouth is, as by my reckoning he has injected well over £100 million into Sunderland. The accounts show that he has capitalised £67.5 million of loans (£48.5 million in 2009 and £19 million in 2010) and provided a further £28.4 million of unsecured, interest free loans with no set repayment date. That gives a total of £95.9 million of free funding, on top of the money that Short paid to acquire the club, which has not been publicly divulged, but is estimated to be in the region of £10-20 million, as well as clearing the debts of the previous owners, Drumaville Limited.
"Asamoah Gyan - from the Black Stars to the Black Cats"
There’s no doubt that Quinn has been very astute at finding investors. Initially, he helped put together the predominately Irish-based Drumaville consortium, which bought the club from former chairman, Bob Murray, in July 2006 and helped fund Sunderland’s successful promotion campaign. Then, just as the recession adversely impacted the (mainly property) businesses of the Irish investors, meaning that they were strapped for cash, he found and delivered Short to help complete his “vision”.
However, the club’s reliance on Short, who is now based in London, is equally obvious. The conversion of the majority of the owner’s loans into equity is a powerful gesture, meaning that there would be no debt issues if Short were to walk away. As Steve Walton explained, “The money is effectively there forever and can’t be withdrawn.” This benefactor model is not dissimilar from those operated by Sheikh Mansour at Manchester City and Roman Abramovich at Chelsea, albeit on an altogether different scale.
That man Walton again: “The continuing support of our owner puts the club in a secure position, giving us a positive platform to build on.” More prosaically, the accounts admit that the club is only deemed to be a going concern, due to the willingness of the “ultimate controlling party” (that would be Ellis Short) to “continue to support the operations of the group for the foreseeable future.” To cut a long story short (see what I did there?), Sunderland will be fine as long as the man from Texas keeps bankrolling the club, but if he were to leave, then all bets would be off.
The need for the owner’s backing is underlined by looking at the club’s cash flow statement. Over the last four years, the owners have had to provide over £100 million of loans to compensate for the big cash outflows before financing. This is quite interesting, as, when discussing the results, chief executive Walton was at pains to emphasise the importance of cash, as opposed to profit, implying that the cash flow figures would be much better, “There's a big disconnect between cash and profit. The transfer fees of many of our players appear in the last published accounts even though we paid out the cash for them some years ago. Businesses don't get into difficulties because they don't make profits; they get into trouble because they run out of cash, which is a really important distinction that has to be made.”
It’s difficult to disagree with that view, though I can’t help noticing that Sunderland’s cash outflow is actually worse than the reported losses, e.g. £39 million cash outflow last season compared to an accounting loss of £28 million. What Walton is really highlighting is that the cash looks fine … but only after Short signs a large cheque.
The question is how long will this go on? Steve Bruce, of all people, got to the heart of the issue, “Without the owner's huge investment we would be perennial strugglers. I'm sure he hasn't finished investing yet. At least I hope he hasn't. The owner has been very generous with his funding, but we can’t expect him to keep putting his hand in his pocket for another £30 million a year.”
So what exactly is Sunderland’s problem?
Well, it starts with the revenue. On the face of it, this is perfectly respectable at £65 million. Looking at the revenue for Premier League clubs in 2008/09, this would put Sunderland in a comfortable mid-table position, which is fine, but is not really in line with the club’s aspirations. There are many ways of looking at this. From a negative perspective, four of the eight clubs with revenue lower than Sunderland’s ended up being relegated in the following two seasons (Middlesbrough, WBA, Portsmouth and Hull City), but, on the other hand, Fulham managed to reach the final of the Europa League with turnover almost identical to that of the Black Cats.
The real issue for Sunderland is that it’s almost impossible for them to challenge the leading clubs in terms of revenue. For example, Manchester United’s revenue of £279 million is more than four times as large, while even Manchester City (£125 million) and Tottenham (£119 million) earn almost twice as much, following their growth in 2009/10. While Sunderland’s revenue also rose last season, theirs was a miniscule increase from £64.6 million to £65.4 million.
In fact, the last time that Sunderland enjoyed any meaningful revenue growth was solely due to their promotion to the Premier League in 2007/08, when there was a major step-up in income. Since then: nothing, nada, zilch. Although both gate receipts and commercial income rose in the first season back in the top tier, by far the main reason for the jump in revenue in 2008 was television, thanks to the money-spinning deal with Sky, which lead to media revenue soaring from £8 million to £36 million. This is still nowhere near as much as the leading clubs earn, due to the money those teams earn from the Champions League.
In fairness, although Sunderland are clearly reliant on TV income, they are not as hugely dependent on this revenue stream as some other clubs. In 2008/09, 54% of Sunderland’s total revenue was derived from television, while many others sourced more than 70% of their revenue from the small screen with Wigan Athletic at an astonishing 81%. That said, following last season’s decline in gate receipts and commercial income, Sunderland’s dependence on the TV drug is growing and now stands at an uneasy 59%.
However, every cloud has a silver lining and television was responsible for the only revenue growth in 2009/10, rising 11% from £35 million to £39 million. This was largely due to Sunderland finishing three places higher in the Premier League, leading to a larger merit payment with each place being worth an additional £800,000.
Fans don’t always understand how the Premier League TV revenue is distributed, so this is how it works. Much of it is shared out equally, namely 50% of the domestic rights and 100% of the overseas rights, but not all of the money is allocated in this manner. As we have seen, merit payments, accounting for 25% of the domestic rights, depend on a club’s final position. In addition, the remaining 25% of the domestic TV rights comes from the facility fee, which is based on how many times Sky broadcast a club’s matches live.
In the last two seasons Sunderland have been shown the contractual minimum of ten times, while the viewing public was afforded the pleasure of watching Manchester United the maximum 24 times. That can make a significant difference to a club’s revenue with United’s facility fee of £13 million being more than twice as much as Sunderland’s £6 million. This is a “hidden” way in which the top clubs benefit from the structure of the TV agreement.
Even so, Sunderland’s turnover is heavily influenced by the timing of broadcasting deals, with the significant increase in 2008 revenue being partly due to promotion and partly due to the new Sky agreement. Happily for the Black Cats, they can anticipate a similar boost to revenue in next year’s accounts, as the central payments from the latest three-year deal, which kicked off in the 2010/11 season, will climb by around £7-10 million, largely thanks to the steep increase in overseas rights.
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Although the parachute payments paid to clubs dropping out of the Premier league have been increased to £48 million (£16 million in each of the first two years, £8 million in each of years three and four), this would still represent a drastic reduction for Sunderland. They can expect around £48 million revenue from the Premier League this season, so they would have to manage a £32 million reduction in their revenue, which is a big ask to say the least and might place an intolerable burden on their owner.
Relegation can therefore have a very real impact with the fears being articulated by Steve Walton, “It’s particularly an issue at this club, because when we got relegated a number of years ago, the decision was made to take an axe not only to the team but also the whole business to try to get it into a better financial position, so 90 of about 300 staff were made redundant.” Before supporters get too nervous about what might happen if such a calamitous event were to come to pass, they should be re-assured by the actions already taken by Quinn and Walton, who have ensured that every player’s contract contains relegation clauses with wage cuts of around 40%. A couple of players would probably still have to be sold to balance the books, but this would be completely different from the fire sale that was required at Portsmouth.
Of course, the focus recently has been on Sunderland’s crowds, but the chairman’s criticism of stay-away fans looks a little over-done. Examining the facts from a purely objective basis, Sunderland’s average attendance of around 40,000 looks pretty damn good. It’s the seventh highest in the Premier League and was actually the 31st highest in Europe last season, ahead of such noted names as Fenerbahce, Sevilla, Athletic Bilbao, Porto, Bayer Leverkusen and Champions League semi-finalists Lyon. For a club that has not won a trophy for nearly 40 years, that’s an impressive demonstration of loyal support and to my mind the fans do not deserve these disparaging comments.
In a way, though, there is some logic to Quinn’s comments, as Sunderland only fill 83% of the 49,000 capacity of the Stadium of Light. The only other club with a similarly low level of usage last season was their neighbours Newcastle United, though this has risen to 90% since the Toon’s promotion to the Premier League. In addition, Sunderland’s average attendance has fallen this season, though not by as much as Quinn would have people believe, with a decrease of just 2.5% from 40,355 to 39,351.
Furthermore, the Black Cats are by no means alone in suffering a reduction, as all clubs have experienced the impact of the economic downturn, which has been felt particularly keenly in the north-east of England. Indeed, Steve Walton admitted that the club was facing “challenging economic times both nationally and regionally.”
Despite the investment in the spanking new stadium, the club’s gate receipts are not particularly high. Indeed, they actually fell last season from £14 million to £13 million. To place that into context, both Manchester United and Arsenal earn over £100 million a year from match day income. Now, gate receipts are not exactly the same as match day income, but looking at the elements included in Sunderland’s commercial revenue, very little could be justifiably re-allocated to increase the match day figure, so the point remains valid.
"Stéphane Sessègnon - new kid on the block"
Those clubs may be in a different “money” league to Sunderland, but a more reasonable comparison would be Newcastle United, who generated twice as much match day revenue as them at £29 million. Furthermore, the three clubs just below Sunderland in terms of attendance all earned considerably more from match day. The implication is that Sunderland’s pricing is lower than at other clubs, though it might also be that there is a far smaller proportion of premium pricing at the Stadium of Light. For example, Arsenal make 35% of their match day revenue from just 9,000 premium seats at the Emirates.
That may be why Sunderland have just announced some (modest) price rises. The cost of the cheapest adult season ticket will increase 5% from £380 to £400, though younger fans will be harder hit with the cost of a season ticket for under-16s rising 40% from £49 to £69. To be fair, Sunderland’s season ticket prices remain among the most competitive in the Premier League, but the timing seems a little bizarre, considering the desire to attract bigger crowds. In fact, these are only “early bird” prices to reward fans that renew their season tickets early and prices may yet rise further.
Nevertheless, the club does need to do something to grow its revenue, if it wishes to remain competitive in the upper echelons of the league, as Quinn outlined, “I believe we strike a good balance with our prices in terms of making paying to watch their team as affordable and convenient as possible for our fans and bringing in the revenue we need to help the club continue to make the progress we all want to see.”
"The Mighty Quinn"
However, the price increase is not going to have a massive impact on the club’s turnover. Nor would revenue be greatly boosted by the crowds reaching full capacity, as Quinn himself has admitted, “Our missing 10,000 fans cost us £1.8 million over the season, so a figure like that won’t make a difference in allowing us to compete.” At the same time, Quinn is sending out mixed messages on this subject, as he has also claimed that the missing fans will have an effect on the club’s finances, “If I don’t win them back, the club may have to downsize and cut its cloth differently. It’ll be difficult to follow up on the current investment and players may have to be sold.”
Leaving the finances aside, there are other (linked) reasons why Quinn has embarked on his campaign. First, he is remembering his own days as a player, when the crowd acted as the proverbial 12th man, “What I want from our fans is their atmospheric input. That’s what makes the place special. It is those fans being inside the ground and making it a hostile place for visiting sides that makes the difference.”
This is part of the promise that he made to Short when he persuaded him to invest so much into the club, “I told Ellis that with a base of 44,000 we could build on that and take on the bigger boys – not with similar investment to the very biggest clubs, but with raw passion and emotion. It adds a different component and makes us a big club. It’s what makes Sunderland special and difficult to beat. That was my vision, that’s what I put to Ellis and he bought into that.” There’s a palpable sense of frustration here that while the American has been true to his word, Quinn feels that the Sunderland public (and by extension the chairman) has not delivered its end of the bargain.
Steve Walton, the chief executive, has adopted a more measured stance, “Our gates are marginally down, which to my mind is due to the economic climate we’re all currently operating in.” In the past, he has stressed that there are other aspects to the club’s business: “What everyone sees is the stadium over there, the 40,000 to 45,000 people who will be turning up to watch the Manchester United game – they think that’s the be-all and end-all of a football club.”
Another avenue for Sunderland to potentially increase it revenue is the commercial operation. Although this appears reasonable for a club of Sunderland’s size at £14 million, there is scope for future growth, especially if we consider that it actually fell £2 million last year with all three areas registering decreases: sponsorship and royalties £8.2 million to £7.9 million; conferences and catering £4.9 million to £3.8 million; and retail £2.3 million to £1.9 million.
In fact, Sunderland were one of only two Premier League clubs whose shirt sponsorship decreased this season (Newcastle were the other one), as the new two-year deal with online gaming company Tombola Sports is worth little more than £1 million a year. OK, you might not expect the deal to be at the same level as the £20 million received by Manchester United and Liverpool, but surely the £2.5 million earned by Everton and Newcastle should be attainable.
Part of the problem could be the club’s enthusiasm for local companies (Vaux Breweries and Sunderland car dealership Reg Vardy have been sponsors in the past), so it might be an idea to start looking further afield. Even the deal with the Irish firm Boylesports was worth up to £12 million over four years. That is one of the reasons that the club has brought in ex-foreign secretary, David Milliband, as a non-executive director in the hope that he can raise Sunderland’s profile on the international stage and leverage his overseas network to increase income. We shall see. At least it gave Steve Bruce an opportunity to stake an early claim for lamest joke of the year, “I did ask for a left winger, but I didn’t expect this.”
Of course, the easiest way for Sunderland to improve their financials would be to reduce wages. At £54 million, these now stand at 82% of turnover, which is one of the highest ratios in the Premier League, having rocketed up from a respectable 58% just two years ago. Only four teams now have worse wages to turnover ratios, while Sunderland’s figure is exactly the same as big-spending Chelsea. To get back to UEFA’s recommended maximum limit of 70% would mean increasing revenue by £11 million or cutting wages by £8 million.
As we have seen, revenue growth has proved difficult for Sunderland, but the trouble is that if the club were to reduce its wage bill, this would almost certainly make the team less competitive on the pitch. To be honest, it’s not as if wages of £54 million are tremendously exorbitant in the Premier League. In fact, this payroll places Sunderland tenth in the wages league. Given the very strong correlation between wages and performance, this would suggest that Sunderland should be challenging for a place in the top ten, but anything more should be considered as a bonus. Certainly, five clubs have wage bills twice as high as Sunderland’s, which is a major competitive advantage for them.
This may explain why Quinn last year called on the Premier League to impose a wage cap, so that the ever increasing spending on player wages could be restrained. It looks like the Sunderland directors are already following this noble principle, as payments to directors fell by £0.8 million to £1.1 million last season – in marked contrast to the trend at most other clubs.
In fact, Sunderland are keeping a close eye on the player wages too. Steve Walton has promised a reduction in the wages to turnover ratio, “We’ve received some criticism for the figure being above 80%, but that certainly won’t be the case next time”, while manager Steve Bruce was singing from the same song sheet, “Part of the overall strategy is to ensure that we don’t carry surplus players. There would be a significant saving in wages if we were able to move on a number or players.” There were signs of this strategy being put into practice in the last transfer window, when the likes of Andy Reid (Blackpool) and Paolo da Silva (Real Zaragoza) were sold for nominal sums, while David Healey (Rangers) and Matthew Kilgallon (Doncaster) were loaned out.
The other major cost booked by football clubs is the amortisation of transfer fees, which in the case of Sunderland has shot up from £5 million in 2007 to £26 million last year. Walton helpfully clarified this accounting treatment: “The outlay to acquire a player is spread each year across the term of the player's contract, after which it has zero value in the club's accounts. For example, a player purchased for £4 million on a four-year contract would be recorded in the accounts as costing £1 million per year, even though the club's may have paid all the £4 million in one amount on signing.”
Spot on, but he then added that the club’s losses are a little misleading, as “most of that is the result of amortisation of players.” Well, yes, but this is a fairly standard activity for football clubs, so it’s hardly out of the ordinary. Besides, as we saw earlier, Sunderland’s cash outflows are even worse, so his own explanation could be considered a touch disingenuous.
The point is that higher amortisation implies a high transfer spend and this is indeed the case. Backed by their owners, Sunderland have been one of the biggest spenders in the transfer market in the last few years. Since being promoted in 2007, they have spent around £125 million on bringing new players to the club, including Kenwyne Jones, Anton Ferdinand, Steed Malbranque, El Hadji Diouf and Lee Cattermole, though they have recouped £60 million of that in sales.
In that period, they have broken their own transfer record on no fewer than three occasions, paying £9 million for goalkeeper Craig Gordon, £10 million for the prolific striker Darren Bent and £13 million for Ghana’s Asamoah Gyan. On the other side of the coin, they have now also started making good money from player sales, notably selling Bent to Aston Villa for an initial fee of £18 million (potentially rising to £24 million) and Kenwyne Jones to Stoke City for £8 million.
With all this expenditure on buying new players, you would expect a loss-making club like Sunderland to carry a lot of debt, but this has been limited by Ellis Short’s willingness to convert his loans into equity. However, this does not mean that there is no debt at all. The accounts actually show net debt of £66 million, including external debt of £44 million, comprising a £10 million overdraft and a £35 million bank loan, which is secured on the stadium, repayable over three years and bears interest at LIBOR plus 3%.
When the books were closed, the debt also included the £22 million loan that Short made last year, though he made another £6 million loan in September 2010. Presumably, if he follows his earlier precedents, at some stage these loans will also be converted into capital, so this is likely to be a transitory balance. As Quinn so rightly said, “We’re in a fortunate position, as Ellis funds, but he doesn’t place the burden of that funding on the club’s books.” There’s also good news on the transfer front, as there is only a net payable of £5 million fees to other clubs.
In fact, this is a fairly strong balance sheet for a football club with net assets of £62 million, though if fixed assets are excluded, there are net current liabilities of £53 million. The stadium is valued at £91 million, while the playing squad is included in the accounts at £55 million, even though the resale value of the players is clearly higher in the real world. For example, a homegrown player like Jordan Henderson has zero value in the accounts, but a team like Manchester City could easily pay £15-20 million for him.
So what of the future? Steve Walton, for one, is full of confidence, “We are going to see a journey where we’ve peaked in terms of the losses and are going forward reducing that loss each year.” Actually, he’s got a point. Next year’s financials should show a significant improvement. First, there will be record profits on player sales, largely thanks to Bent and Jones leaving. Then, the TV deal could bring in another £10 million, though this is partly dependent on where Sunderland finish in the league. Wages may well also reduce after the clear out of a number of fringe players.
"Jordan Henderson - an asset in both senses"
Going forward, match day income should rise as a result of the price increases, while the commercial operation has to improve. Stadium naming rights are always a possibility, but many clubs have found this easier said than done, especially as the best time to do this is when moving to a new ground. Some clubs, especially those on the continent, adopt a policy of boosting their financials by making regular profits on player sales, which might well be appropriate at Sunderland, given the academy’s record of producing talent.
Qualifying for Europe would also help financially, though Birmingham’s surprising win in the Carling Cup may have made that beyond reach this season. Fans should also note that there is an enormous difference between the Champions League and Europa League in terms of payments. Last season, the four English teams in the Champions League received £29 million on average in prize/TV money, while Fulham’s run to the final of the Europa League only earned them £8 million.
There is also the spectre of UEFA’s Financial Fair Play regulations facing clubs like Sunderland. According to Walton, these rules represent a real challenge to “clubs like ourselves that are trying to make a step change.” In essence, UEFA will not allow clubs to compete in European competitions unless they live within their means, which could be tricky for Sunderland, as they have been supported by their “sugar daddy” for so long.
"Elmohamady - walk like an Egyptian"
It would be a bitter pill to swallow if Sunderland finally qualified for Europe, but were denied access on financial grounds. The first season that UEFA will start monitoring clubs is 2013/14, but this will take into account the losses made in the two preceding years, namely 2011/12 and 2012/13, so the accounts need to improve pretty quickly, which may be another reason for the desire to increase gate receipts.
However, all is not lost, as they don’t need to be absolutely perfect by then, because wealthy owners will be allowed to absorb aggregate losses (so-called “acceptable deviations”) of €45 million (£39 million), initially over two years and then over a three-year monitoring period, as long as they are willing to cover the deficit by making equity contributions.
Clearly, this strategy requires a wealthy owner and there are some questions over Ellis Short’s commitment to the club. Quinn has spoken of the Texan’s “emotional attachment” to Sunderland, while others have described Short as a hard-headed businessman, who will want a return on his considerable investment. To achieve that, the club needs to progress on the pitch, as this is the key to financial success. As Steve Bruce said, “Fair play to the owner. There's been a huge investment in the club, not just in my time here, but over the last three years. He's transformed it and it's time we paid him back.”
The benefactor model can work well, but there are always two sides to the story. While Short remains at the club and is happy to cover losses, everything is fine, but there is always the nagging concern that he will leave for whatever reason, which can leave a club struggling. Given the steps already taken by Sunderland’s management, this would not be life threatening for the club, but it would undoubtedly hurt its prospects.
"Ellis Short - the man with the money"
It would also be bad news if Niall Quinn were to become so disillusioned over the crowd issue that he decided to exit stage left. He has worked tirelessly to improve the status of the club and has achieved a great deal: securing investment, supporting his managers and establishing a special rapport with the fans, which is largely unshaken, even after his recent ill-advised words.
Despite the recent disappointing results, there is a prevailing sense of optimism at the club, which has even affected the chief executive: “We never want to dream too much, because we’ve had many false dawns. Well, I think it’s time to start dreaming.” That might sound overly positive, but the fans can look forward to an exciting end to the season, as Sunderland have a relatively easy run-in and many key players should return from injury, so there is still much to play for. On the other hand, pressure will surely intensify on manager Steve Bruce if he does not deliver a good return on Ellis Short’s investment, notwithstanding his new four-year contract.