Revealed! The inside track on Stewart Donald and what fans and the new manager can expect
From sitting next to supporters at games, serving fans in the club shop or helping out with a stadium rebuild, Sunderland's new owner-in-waiting is quite a character.
Charismatic Stewart Donald is leading the international consortium set to take control of Sunderland from Ellis Short, with EFL approval the final hurdle.
A man who knows him well is former Hartlepool United manager Ronnie Moore, having managed Donald’s Eastleigh in 2016.
The Oxfordshire-based multi-millionaire, also known to have co-commentated on games, had a dream of winning promotion to the Football League with National League Eastleigh having pumped more than £10million of his own fortune into the club.
Dual ownership rules mean he has had to put Eastleigh up for sale, but Donald is set to achieve his dream of owning a Football League club with Sunderland.
And Moore believes Sunderland will have the right man at the helm to turn the club around.
Donald was initially a makeweight in the consortium deal, but his role has upgraded significantly and will be the figurehead.
Moore has provided an insight into what supporters – and the new manager – can expect from Donald, who is hands-on and passionate about reviving Sunderland’s fortunes.
“Stewart is very approachable, a hands-on type of guy,” Moore said.
“What he did at Eastleigh was phenomenal, you can see the level of investment. He won’t skimp on anything – everything is done correctly.
“He will take a big interest in all parts of the football club, not just the playing staff but the staff and the matchday staff.
“When he was Eastleigh, he never went into the directors’ box, he would always pay in and stand or sit with the crowd.
“Sometimes that can be a good thing for the manager, though sometimes a bad thing if the chairman is sat with the crowd when you’re having a bad time!
“He may not do that at Sunderland, but that is how involved he was. He used to do the co-commentaries for the local radio, too, now and again. How many chairman do that?!
“Eastleigh was a Football League set-up.
“He oversaw that ground rebuild and was in almost every day. Customers used to come in sometimes and he’d be behind the desk in the club shop, ‘that’s a fiver, please’ – he’d even help out in there!”
An Oxford United fan, three years ago Donald purchased a 10 per cent stake in Oxford – who have since been taken over.
Donald lives in Oxford with his family and it remains to be seen whether he will relocate to the North East once the takeover is complete, a decision that could take anywhere from a few days to a couple of weeks.
But he will be a far more visible owner than Ellis Short.
Donald was hands-on at Eastleigh, the club understood to have one of the highest wage bills in the National League.
Moore added: “Eastleigh were not a million miles away from getting out of the National League under him.
“He always wanted to build the club. This opportunity at Sunderland must be too big a chance to let go, that is the only reason he has left Eastleigh.
“He was on a mission there to get the club into the Football League. Our relationship was spot on, he was great to get on with.
“Sometimes chairman can be hard work, when things are going well they are alright anyway, but he was just a decent person.
“He would help you settle in, he was fantastic to work for, never really put you under pressure.
“Mind, he didn’t like to be called chairman, he wanted to be called Stewart – he didn’t like it when I called him chairman he used to say ‘Don’t call me that!’
“With his investment and the consortium, it can only be good for Sunderland, especially with the debt being wiped out, starting afresh.
“If it is done right then the only way is up for Sunderland.”
Donald has public listed shares worth more than £8million and while his personal fortune is understood to far exceed that figure, an exact value is not known.
The consortium is led by Donald and believed to include Spanish investors.
Six years ago, Donald, who runs Bridle Insurance, became chairman and majority shareholder of Eastleigh, who back then had 32 season ticket holders and attendance averaged a couple of hundred.
The club now boasts more than 1,500 season ticket holders, with attendances topping 2,000.
He oversaw Eastleigh’s promotion from Conference South in 2013-14 and Sunderland fans will be hoping he oversees promotion from League One following successive relegations at the Stadium of Light.
Provided EFL approval is forthcoming, his first task will be to appoint a new manager following Chris Coleman’s sacking.
Coleman had famously never spoken to Short during his six-month spell in charge.
The new boss can expect a very different relationship with Donald. “It wasn’t so much him being on the phone all the time, it was more he was often there, most days at the training ground or stadium,” said Moore.
“The club was run like a Football League club anyway, the training ground was over the road from where the ground was.
“It was like being a League One club. They wanted for nothing, stayed overnight for away games, had the best bus.
“It was done in style and he won’t skimp on anything.
“He may realise he can’t be as hands-on at Sunderland, he may not need to be there all the time, but, knowing him, he probably will be!”
And what can the Sunderland fanbase expect?
Donald uses social media, has been replying to fans on Twitter and he prefers sitting next to supporters in the stand rather than in the directors’ box.
Moore added: “Of course, non-league is very different from league clubs, but what he did for Eastleigh was fantastic.
“All the volunteers who used to come in on a Monday – they’d get a match ticket for doing it – but they’d clean everything and helped out with the pitch.
“He let them use what was then the boardroom, with a pot of tea and biscuits and the dogs running around.
“My office was right next door, it was just the way he was. He would treat everybody the same. Some owners won’t even look at the staff.
“He was very hands on, even helping shift stuff when the rebuild was going on, he will be sadly missed at Eastleigh.
“He never managed to achieve his dream of getting them in the league, but he is now with Sunderland.
“Eastleigh was run properly, that is what he is all about. I tell you know, they will want for nothing at Sunderland.”
After a number of seasons in the doldrums and the humiliation of back-to-back relegations, Sunderland hope for a brighter future under Donald & Co.
Just don’t call him Mr Chairman.