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Will the youngest chairman in English football propel Sunderland back to the Premier League?

Kyril Louis-Dreyfus
(Image credit: PA)

Billionaires buying a slice of the ‘Beautiful Game’ is not a new phenomenon.

Yet, at a mere 23 years old, Kyril Louis-Dreyfus has become the youngest well-heeled chairman in English football, following his recent takeover at Sunderland.

Boasting an eye-watering fortune, Louis-Dreyfus has the potential to purchase any number of big clubs from around the globe. Why, therefore, sprinkle some European glamour on the Black Cats, and what challenges lie ahead for Sunderland’s new bon vivant?

Anyone unfamiliar with the club’s history may be wondering just what attracted the young businessman to a side languishing in the very unglamorous EFL League One. For supporters with red and white DNA it’s plainly evident. The club has a habit of getting under your skin.

Louis-Dreyfus has swapped partying with the likes of Floyd Mayweather, Lewis Hamilton and Nicolas Sarkozy for the once industrial heartland of Wearside for one reason. There’s untapped potential in quantities that would rival his bank balance.

Few teams offer vast financial rewards should an owner find the right alchemy. Sunderland, a sleeping giant, is one of them.

Sunderland

(Image credit: PA)

However, distilling the purchase of the club to a purely ‘business transaction’ risks reducing football to a sterile commodity. Placing emotion to one side though, and the takeover of Sunderland makes perfect sense - ‘buy low’, as the saying goes, with the Black Cats unquestionably at its lowest. 

While Sunderland may not offer the champagne lifestyle, the terraces can certainly rival any continental passion. Possessing a sentimental connection to the north-east club, Louis-Dreyfus’ acquisition of Sunderland isn’t purely economically motivated either.

“The fervour of the people [in Sunderland] is reminiscent of that of Marseille”, he stated. “There were more spectators on average than in half of the Premier League clubs. You can’t buy this! In cities like Zurich, Monaco, nobody is interested in football, it limits the possibilities of expansion.”

Kyril’s father, Robert Louis-Dreyfus, presided over significant investment and success at Olympique Marseille. The youngster now needs to replicate this for himself, on his own terms, forging his own legacy.

Many of the ingredients for success are already in place. Sunderland is not the doer-upper project some would have you believe; a first rate stadium and an academy with category one status are prime examples of the club’s infrastructure. Instead, finding the right blend of these ingredients is what has eluded most previous incumbents. 

With the red and white faithful bearing witness to many a false dawn on Wearside, Louis-Dreyfus’ arrival leaves supporters in something not unlike the Schrödinger’s cat paradox - elation is simultaneously caveated with tentative caution. 

Lee Johnson

(Image credit: PA)

Previous owner Stewart Donald’s arrival heralded much fanfare too, but little substance followed. This is not lost on supporter and editor of Sunderland fanzine A Love Supreme, Paul Dobson. 

“Having had our fingers burnt with the last regime”, acknowledges Dobson, “fans were divided between latching onto Kyril Louis-Dreyfus with open arms and applying the rule of ‘once bitten, twice shy’”.

Supporters questioning whether they can let their guard down and get behind Sunderland’s new era were duly answered, after the 23-year-old appeared in the stands in February.

“Anyone prepared to spend however long in quarantine to watch Sunderland at Shrewsbury on a Tuesday night in February would appear to have our best interests at heart”, concludes Dobson. 

It’s against this backdrop that Louis-Dreyfus inherits a club in the midst of an identity crisis - a Premier League club with a League One squad. However, the rebuilding has already started in earnest.

The arrival of Kristjaan Speakman as Sporting Director from Birmingham City appears instrumental in instilling the new owner’s own modern methods. Reputable Head Coach, Lee Johnson, has also joined, having already cemented his status as a shrewd tactician with fluid formations and methodical planning. 

By strengthening homegrown young talent and establishing a data driven approach, the club is in a better place to make more intelligent decisions – something sorely lacking in recent times.

Supporters now wait to see whether Louis-Dreyfus’ battle plan has the requisite ‘je ne sais quoi’. Overnight, the club emerged as one of the richest clubs in the country, but billions are meaningless without success on the pitch.

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