A scorching Sunday afternoon in early May afforded Sunderland a glimmer of hope. Relegation to League One was already confirmed, but a 3-0 victory over promoted Wolves seemed to set a precedent for a different time.
The new owners, Stewart Donald and Charlie Methven, watched on from the executive areas of the Stadium of Light, and were afforded a panoramic view into the scope of their project while witnessing a glimpse of what could be.
Since then, change has been afoot on Wearside. A region steeped in footballing pride, but one whose connection with its people had been cut adrift in the midst of the riches of the Premier League, has begun its recovery to a former, more glorious state. The duo of new leaders, football businessmen rather than solely white collars, opting not merely to apply a plaster, but to undergo life-changing surgery.
And a significant part of that is handing the football institution back to its roots, to its supporters, who, as new manager Jack Ross eluded to on his first day in office, will be there through the thick and thin long after his or any of the new regime’s tenure is up.
Well, apart from one man; new managing director and life-long supporter Tony Davison.
With his appointment, not solely for the expertise he brings to Sunderland from over 20 years in football, including a successful spell at Tottenham Hotspur most recently, there is a sense of reincarnation throughout the football club. As if, the history and facilities have remained standing tall, yet Wearside possesses a side reborn.
And while speaking exclusively to 90min, Davison admitted he sees the situation in very much the same way, and it was a primary reason as to why he returned to his beloved Black Cats for a second spell after leaving in 2005.
“Like all Sunderland fans, the last few years have been hard to take,” he said. “So, when someone you know and trust asks you to help them do something about it, it’s very difficult to say no.
“This genuinely feels like a new beginning for the football club. This is an opportunity to regain our identity and start enjoying going to the match again with a new regime who understand football and what it means to the city.”
Davison will be the “boots on the ground” man, and one whose remit falls under anything on the non-playing side; however, he knows the importance of having a man leading on the pitch who also knows his way around off it.
“The new manager is also a perfect fit from a commercial perspective,” he added. “Not only is he a highly credible football manager, he also has an economics degree and commitment to rolling up his sleeves to help all areas of the club. It is the perfect match.”
For several years now, Sunderland has been known as a ‘free ride’ – with Methven’s already famous slogan of “the p***-taking party stops now” something that has been yearned for in the surrounding pubs and clubs on matchdays for some time.
The over-inflated transfer fees, even paying significant sums for players who are not part of the football club; there is little wonder as to why spending at the Stadium of Light, even in the Championship, was dwarfed by those around them.
However, there is now the opportunity for the “new beginning” to span all lines of income, and Davison pledged that, with the support of those around them, the new regime will indeed utilise every penny to get Sunderland back to its former glory.
“In the short term, we will have a new season to prepare for, and the existing team have been working hard, in difficult circumstances, to keep the club ticking over,” the new managing director affirmed.
“The key pre-season period is essential if we are going to ride the current wave of enthusiasm to generate the kind of revenue we need to pay for a winning team on the pitch. Make no mistake, every penny we generate ends up on the pitch.
“If staff, fans, players, board, Foundation and the business community all buy-in to that concept and engage with the club, there will be no stopping us.”
And Davison’s vision is also with the future in mind, adding: “The commercial side of the business needs to operate independently from the football side.
“This may sound mad. Clearly, we are going to sell more seats if we are winning football matches but there is no reason why you still shouldn’t do the right things from a commercial perspective regardless of the performances on a Saturday afternoon.
“Over the past few years, we seem to have turned our nose up at profitable enterprises because, in Premier League terms, the revenue is dwarfed by the TV money.
“I don’t understand this mentality, the best way to de-risk poor football performance or relegation is to ensure that the club is sustainable regardless of the level of football.The concerts are a great example of this – imagine what that revenue could buy in League One!”
It seems, then, that this is indeed a “new beginning” at Sunderland. One which is overseen by a football-minded duo – soon to be trio with Juan Sartori currently undergoing EFL checks – upon high, but a regime guided by an exciting, up and coming manager on the pitch, and an experienced head off it.
In truth, nobody knows what League One will bring for the Wearsiders. However, for the first time in a long time, there is excitement in anticipation for what the next 12 months will bring.