Roker Report's Michael Graham looks back on 5 years since Niall Quinn's second coming at Sunderland AFC on his 'magic carpet' and asks 'Are We There Yet?'...
Cast your minds back to a sunny August Saturday afternoon in 2006. At the Stadium of Light, the game between Sunderland, managed by Niall Quinn, and Plymouth Argyle was meandering towards an uninspiring draw that would have granted the home side their first point of an uninspiring season in front of an entirely uninspired crowd of fewer than 25,000. It wasn’t to be, though, as the most innocuous of long punts up field from Plymouth sailed straight over the head of the hapless Danny Collins and Nick Chadwick waltzed through to pinch the winner. What followed was an all too familiar mass-sigh of resignation and acceptance from the stands. All in all it was a scene to perfectly sum up the club that Niall Quinn had walked back into. There was no manager, the previous chairman couldn’t wait to get away, the few drops of quality there was in the squad, such as Julio Arca, were packing their bags believing in a brighter future for themselves at places like Middlesboro, and the supporters had all but abandoned hope. In short, no one had enough hunger and belief left to swim against the current of the downward spiral the club had got itself into.
Indeed, it appeared Quinn himself may have underestimated the sheer strength of the oppressive apathy which engulfed the club. Having finally completed the takeover after a protracted and excruciating process, the Drumaville consortium "could not have been more ambitious" in their search for a manager, but failed to find a suitable manager of good repute who was prepared to risk that reputation on Sunderland at that time. Perhaps it was a humbling blow to the naturally enthusiastic Quinn, and one for which he was not prepared. But the new Sunderland chairman met his first test with what was to become trademark patience, resolve, and pragmatism where many would reach for the panic button. There were to be no settling for a name from the ‘B’ list, and Quinn took on the job himself for an indeterminate spell while realities were accepted and practical solutions devised. "My role and the first hurdle we've got to clear, is to stop the rot, turn the corner and make the club attractive for a top-class manager" was the message delivered to fans when Quinn addressed the press for the first time as Sunderland’s manager.
A month later, having failed to inspire the team to play the club out of its apathy, it was shook clean out of it by a force of nature. Roy Keane had never been tested in management. He brought with him no experience or extensive list of contacts. What the Keane appointment did do, however, right from the moment the story broke at half time of a live sky midweek Football broadcast from the Premier league, was instantly make Sunderland relevant again in the eyes of the wider football audience and exponentially raised the profile of the club. The football media descended on Wearside and, following a spate of deadline day arrivals and two away wins in a week, 10,000 was added to the gate for the next home match. What Keane lacked in experience, he more than made up for in unpredictability, sheer will power, and an ability to instil belief back into the club. Sunderland were interesting again. Keane had dragged the club kicking and screaming on his back out of its apathy. The first hurdle had been overcome.
With promotion and Premier League survival the following season secured, Quinn still wasn’t satisfied. His pragmatism came to the fore once again and fresh investment was sought. When Ellis Short showed an interest in being the man to provide it, Quinn described it as a "once-in-a-lifetime" opportunity for the club. Keane was happy to spend the fresh investment, but seemed rather less inclined to be held accountable for the manner of that spending. A bearded hissy-fit ensued and, with the club languishing in the relegation zone, Keane walked. In a caretaker capacity, Ricky Sbragia stabilized the club’s league position with two wins but, despite Sunderland once again having become an attractive proposition for managers and a previous top managerial target in Sam Allardyce openly and publically coveting the job, Quinn was about to make what many believe history will remember as his defining play. Ricky Sbragia was entrusted with securing the club’s Premier League status and with it, in all likelihood, Ellis Short’s commitment to the club. Survival was ensured on the final day of the season by virtue of results elsewhere. Sbragia’s departure was revealed directly after the match, and the following weak Quinn announced the "fantastic news to herald a new era at Sunderland" that Ellis Short had completed his takeover of the club, hailing him as the man to "provide what has been the missing ingredient in Sunderland’s make-up, namely the financial muscle to compete at the highest level". Whilst negotiating to take control of the club, Quinn famously compared the package the Drumaville Consortium could put together to a good poker hand. In the 2008/9 season, when his cards failed him, Quinn bluffed his way to an almost incomprehensively massive victory for the club through expert brinksmanship and sheer bravery. His finest hour, and the moment he cut through the sentimentality to PROVE, unequivocally, that he had the walk to go with his talk.
Now, almost 5 years on from Quinn’s second coming and seizure of responsibility for the club’s performance, Sunderland are reaping the benefits of his leadership, sitting proudly in the Premier League’s upper echelons, producing some attractive, dynamic football, and boasting a young and vibrant squad. When Quinn breezed back into the club in 2006, when no noteworthy manager would risk their reputation on it, it was ludicrous to believe that within 5 years a current Champions League and Serie A winner, or a stand-out player from a recent World Cup, would be willing to bet his reputation on Sunderland. When arguably the best manager in the world, Jose Mourinho, was putting together a team he thought could win him some of the biggest and most prestigious prizes in European football, he went out and got Sulley Muntari. That player now plays for Sunderland.
Whether Quinn expected such rapid progress or even believed it possible that day he rolled himself out to the media as the reluctant manager is something only he could answer. Regardless, it has been a quite remarkable turnaround. Tellingly, however, the rapid development has been achieved in conjuncture with strengthening the financial foundations of the club, not, as is so often the case, at the expense of them. Last year, Ellis Short capitalised his loans to the club, removing their presence from the club’s balance sheet and allowing the club to pay off some bank debt, prompting Steve Walton, Sunderland’s chief executive, to describe a "really strong and powerful picture going forward".
Quinn could certainly be forgiven for allowing himself a pat on the back and considering his initial objectives for the club spectacularly achieved. Is this the apex of Quinn’s ambitions? It would appear not. His rant regarding the fans who chose to watch home matches in the pub rather than at the Stadium of Light may have been ill-advised and a mischievous headline-writer’s dream, but they can most certainly be attributed to a man whose hunger and passion for the job of developing the club further is more ravenous than ever. Indeed, when David Milliband was appointed non-executive vice-chairman earlier this month, he revealed how Quinn wooed him by "talking about his vision for the club". Expectations must, of course, be managed but if his previous standards of leadership can be maintained then the mere presence of such an idea for further development of the club is cause for great optimism. The waters we are seemingly seeking to traverse from here are choppy, and sirens in the form of a suggestion that great prestige is tantalizingly within reach has claimed many a club in this position. Could there be, however, a more trusted hand on the rudder?