Sunderland announced Martin Bain’s appointment as their new chief executive on the evening of FA Cup final day. Considering this was a Saturday night dominated by the news that José Mourinho would be replacing Louis van Gaal at Manchester United, it looked as if the Wearsiders had something to hide.
If such timing was all about a desire not to rake up memories of his predecessor, Margaret Byrne, and her springtime resignation in the wake of the Adam Johnson child abuse case, Bain has since adopted a resolutely low profile.
He has said nothing publicly following his installation on 1 July, during which time he has been confronted by unexpected drama. Instead of a gentle transition from life at Maccabi Tel Aviv, Bain quickly found himself powerless to prevent Sam Allardyce defecting to coach England.
He cannot have envisaged spending part of his first month haggling over compensation for the outgoing manager with the Football Association before eventually brokering a £3m compromise – around £1m more than the governing body had hoped to pay – between a fuming Ellis Short, Sunderland’s American owner, and the governing body.
Allardyce’s exit also left him helming the search for Sunderland’s seventh manager in five years and helping identify – and swiftly secure – a fellow Glaswegian, David Moyes, with the former Everton, Manchester United and Real Sociedad coach installed on Saturday morning. Yet, even before the FA came calling, trouble was brewing on Wearside.
Not only had Allardyce complained that “my patience is wearing thin – very, very thin indeed” when none of the three or four swift signings he had wanted were made but Ryan Sachs, the club secretary, suddenly stepped down with no explanation offered to the media.
If club secretaries can come and go without calamitous consequences Sunderland’s failure to make a transfer breakthrough represents a genuine concern, particularly as Allardyce was adamant that, without strengthening, the team would be destined for yet another relegation struggle. It does not help that 35 miles down the road at Middlesbrough, Aitor Karanka has recruited virtually an entire XI of new players.
Undeterred, Short – whose similarly cautious transfer market approach this time last summer dismayed Allardyce’s predecessor Dick Advocaat – can only hope Bain replicates his success in Tel Aviv. During a two-year stint the 48-year-old oversaw one of the most successful periods in the club’s history while also helping Israel’s leading clubs negotiate an unprecedentedly lucrative television deal.
An earlier stint in Scotland, as CEO at Rangers, proved somewhat more turbulent for a former Glasgow University student who supplemented his grant by working as a male model before abridging his undergraduate days and emigrating, briefly, to Africa.
“I’d left to start a new life in South Africa before completing my degree course,” Bain has recalled. “But I contracted malaria and returned to Scotland to recover.
“When I was fully fit again I attempted to enter the world of publishing by producing a marketing magazine but that venture went belly up. Then I became an accounts manager with a company who were handling a sponsorship involving Rangers.”
Bain did such a good job that Rangers offered him a position in the commercial department at Ibrox. During his rise to chief executive he gained a reputation for driving hard bargains while also joking that the pressures of football life in Glasgow explained his premature baldness.
Things became seriously stressful when, in 2011, David Murray sold Rangers to its majority shareholder Craig Whyte. Bain had raised serious concerns about the takeover and attempted to block the sale. He was later suspended by Whyte and departed before later suing for damages, alleging a breach of contract following the takeover – a lawsuit he dropped in 2012.
After a three-year sabbatical from football during he was head-hunted by Mitch Goldhar, Maccabi’s Canadian owner. Two years in Israel, in which he swapped his stiff British suits for considerably more casual attire, proved thoroughly restorative. On the pitch Maccabi secured a domestic treble in 2015 and Champions League qualification, while off it Bain earned plaudits for strong commercial growth.
With Sunderland having recorded a series of worrying losses in recent years, Short seeks a similarly transformative performance on Wearside. It is high time a vicious circle of annual relegation battles and whopping debts was broken.
Part of the healing process will need to involve Bain improving communication with supporters and the media, a sphere in which Byrne – who very rarely gave interviews or spoke in public – proved an enormous disappointment.
The days when the former chairman Niall Quinn invited fans to accompany him on a “magic carpet ride” feel a distant memory at a time when many supporters feel increasingly disconnected from the club.
Encouragingly Bain’s mantra at Maccabi was all about “fan engagement” with “interaction” between club and local community carefully nurtured as supporters were encouraged to “buy into the badge”.
Bain was the subject of unfounded Rangers-related bung allegations in a French newspaper which claimed in 2006 that he had used £150,000 deposited in his Monaco bank account by a Serbian football agent to buy a £300,000 holiday home near Cannes. Lawyers described the accusations as “sheer hogwash” and David Murray defended Bain to the hilt. Rangers’ then owner explained that the cash received by Bain from the agent Ranko Stojic in fact related to the purchase of a property from the former Manchester City defender Laurent Charvet. Murray said of Bain: “At no time has he acted illegally or improperly.”
Bain, meanwhile, adopted a strong stance in the fight against sectarianism in the Glasgow area, taking the bold step of criticising Rangers’ fans in certain instances. A comparable blend of diplomacy and sometimes brutal honesty will be required at a club at times bedevilled by internecine internal politics during Byrne’s watch.
Despite the gargantuan new Premier League television deal – which presumably helped persuade him to swap Tel Aviv’s Tzuk and Metzitzim beaches for the somewhat chillier, slightly less sophisticated, sands at Roker and Seaburn – Sunderland’s last set of accounts highlighted a £25m deficit and there is a pressing need for a club kept afloat by repeated cash injections from Short to finally become self-sustaining.
Despite departing Israel with a “heavy heart”, Bain clearly wanted a new challenge. He is already discovering it to be significantly more sizeable than originally envisaged.
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