Sunderland are nearing a change in ownership that could see 51% of the Wearside club, and therefore overall control, pass into the hands of the American businessman Ellis Short. A reluctant public figure, Short is poised to become 'Sunderland's Randy Lerner'. According to chairman Niall Quinn, Short is "a Godsend" who will part-fund the club to an extent that, in Quinn's phrase, "he gives us almost an anti-relegation clause next year".
But Short's commitment is only one part of the equation Quinn has to solve: the other is Premier League survival and increased attendances at the Stadium of Light next season. Given that Sunderland are three points above relegation and face Manchester City away on Sunday, the second part of the equation is as uncertain as the first, which is why Quinn also said that manager Ricky Sbragia, the playing staff and himself are "on trial" until May.
In Sunderland's ideal world Short, who has invested around £25m so far, will deliver his verdict before May. If favourable, Quinn said Sunderland will be able to think about re-establishing itself as a solid top 10 club, a status it has held rarely since World War II.
Having the fifth-highest average attendance in the Premier League last season, when Short was first contacted, showed the potential that lies within. Sunderland's crowds have slipped this season and the deep recession on Wearside has led Quinn to introduce the groundbreaking £19 season-ticket for under-16s.
Quinn has spoken of what might be if ticket sales spike upwards. "In a way, we're asking hard questions [of fans]," Quinn said. "It's: 'How much do we all want it now?' We've a lot of great components and we're tantalisingly close. People will always point out where the team is, and the team are in 14th or 15th place – I accept that. I accept we're not there, but what I can't impress upon people enough is that we have a wonderful chance. This club has never had a chance like this."
Quinn's excitement regarding Short also takes in his awareness that the Drumaville consortium of Irish businessmen who came in with Quinn and Roy Keane in 2006 have been hit massively by Ireland's economic downturn. Keane brought Short into the spotlight following his December resignation but Quinn said: "Ellis is the type of guy who wants to stay away from the limelight. The writing was on the wall for Drumaville. They asked me to go and find somebody and I had known Ellis. He was intrigued by Roy [Keane], the story and felt it wasn't your average type of investment.
"But he is a smart guy. He wasn't about to go all gung-ho and start drinking pints with the crowd. [Drumaville] didn't take any of his money, extra shareholding was created by the money he put in. That went into the downpayments made for players last summer. He was in at a base. This summer, if he then says 'OK, I've had enough' the other guys are still involved. But I think the time is getting close to where he is beginning to enjoy what is going on behind the scenes. Randy Lerner, he went in behind the scenes [at Aston Villa] and devoured a business in his own way. That is the perfect model. He [Short] doesn't know Randy but we have mentioned him and how he goes about it."
Quinn said that he will remain the club's figurehead and will make the football decisions, but he is aware that Short is monitoring everything. Quinn's appointment of Sbragia has not pleased all on Wearside but Quinn explained: "We had five or six high- profile people and four didn't speak English. I didn't think that's what we needed in the dressing room when we were in the bottom three at Christmas."
Asked if the club is in safe hands, Quinn replied: "I think it is. But it has the chance to be in brilliant hands."Reuse content