Niall Quinn's Return, Five Years On: "Keep That Door Open..."

HURWORTH ENGLAND - AUGUST 24: (L-R) England 2018 Technical Director Ian Riley Sunderland Chairman Niall Quinn England 2018 Chief Operating Officer Simon Johnson Chairman of the Chilean FA and Leader of the FIFA Inspection team Harold Mayne Nicholls Middlesbrough Chairman Steve Gibson and England 2018 CEO Andy Anson stand as FIFA delegates gather at an England 2018 World Cup bid event at Middlesbrough's Training Ground on August 24 2010 at Rockliffe Park in Hurworth England. FIFA inspectors are on a four day visit to assess England's bid to host the World Cup in 2018; they are due to tour stadiums in Manchester London Sunderland and Newcastle. (Photo by Lee Smith-Pool/Getty Images)

And so, like all things must, we come to the end. Here at Roker Report we've been delighted with the complimentary reviews our series on Niall Quinn has received this week. Sadly though, it couldn't last forever, and today sees us bring the curtain down on our look back over the past five years.


With the actual tale of the club being wrapped up yesterday, you're probably wondering: what the hell are they going to write about today? Well, we decided to have a look at the area of the club that has seen the most change over the past half decade...

Ben Alnwick; Rory Delap, Kenny Cunningham, Stephen Caldwell, Danny Collins; Tommy Miller, Grant Leadbitter, Dean Whitehead, Liam Lawrence; Stephen Elliott, Daryl Murphy.

That's not a combination of the eleven slowest footballers ever to have graced the Premier League. Nor is it an example of how to score the lowest possible points score in fantasy football. Well, it probably is actually, but that's not what I'm getting at.

 

No, that right there is how Sunderland lined up on 6 August 2006, when chairman-come-temporary manager Niall Quinn led his troops to an ignominious 1-2 defeat at Coventry City.

 

It provides a startling example of just how much has changed on the pitch since Quinn's return to Wearside. Although difficult to say for certain (I will be the first to admit that the results of my research are no doubt incorrect, I can only hope the margin of failure isn't too grand), this author puts the count of total transfers in and out of the Stadium of Light since that summer, including loans, at a staggering 173.

 

Before delving into those dealings, let us put those figures into some sort of context. Since Quinn and Drumaville rocked up to the banks of the Wear and saved Sunderland from the abyss, there have been eleven transfer windows. So, just based on that, we can take an average of over fifteen players either arriving at or leaving Sunderland each time a particular window comes around.

 

But it must be remembered that the January transfer window is notoriously a much quieter one than its summer counterpart. Activity still occurs then, sure, but on a much lower scale.

 

So perhaps it is better to take an average figure per season to better represent just how much the front of the West Stand has resembled a revolving door over recent times. Here, if we use the five seasons that have elapsed since our Irish revolution, we get a figure of thirty-four transfers per season. To those of you screaming that isn't fair, and that this summer's busy transfer activity distorts figures, fair enough; even if we use six seasons, we still get an average figure of almost twenty-nine comings and goings per year.

 

By any club's standards, that is a pretty lofty total.

 

Yet such facts and figures are of little use without exploring what they mean for the club as a whole. In Sunderland's case, it has meant the playing squad has been drastically revamped five times in the past six seasons (it was mentioned earlier this week that such an event had occurred only four times, something which I have now realised as a mistake on my part).

 

In 2006/07, where we draw the line between the end of the previous season and the start of Drumaville's first year in charge has a significant bearing on counting just how many transfers the club has been involved in. For the purposes of my own research, I chose to count only those transfers that occurred once Drumaville had secured their 89.1% stake in the Black Cats.

 

Even so, that season in the Championship still saw a staggering forty-one different deals. Of the aforementioned XI that started the season at Coventry, six had left the club for good by the time Sunderland kicked off against Tottenham for their first game back in the top division.

 

Few will forget the rampant transfer deadline day of 31 August 2006. Roy Keane, just two days into the job, went positively wild with the resources offered by his new bosses. Red and whites across the country sat glued to Sky Sports News as no fewer than six new players rocked up on Wearside to join Keane in his first stab at management. The additions of Dwight Yorke, Ross Wallace, Stan Varga, Liam Miller, David Connolly and Graham Kavanagh added to the seven transfers already made by Quinn whilst he was in charge; and these buys were further complimented in January when Keane bolstered his squad for a successful promotion push.

 

As we all know, such activity was merited; the upheaval worked wonders, and the Black Cats stormed to the top of the Championship table.

 

But the second spin of the Sunderland merry-go-round was set in motion mere weeks after promotion had been secured. Realising his squad had done one job, but that it was unlikely to succeed in its next task, Keane again turned to the chequebook.

 

This time around, whilst not matching the number of the previous year, thirty-three transfer deals passed through the Stadium of Light fax machine. Of the sixteen arrivals, Kieran Richardson, Kenwyne Jones and Craig Gordon all cost in excess of £5m, whilst Michael Chopra was signed for that fee exactly. The nature of the modern game means that the phrase 'undisclosed fee' is prominent in most reports on player transfers but, even so, a measured estimate would suggest Sunderland spent somewhere in the region of £45m in the close season of 2007.

 

Again though, it proved worth their while. Keane's men staved off relegation, and though little was recouped by way of selling off deadwood from the playing squad, Keane's vast expenditure was justified when the owners considered how much money would have been lost if Sunderland's stay in the Premier League had lasted just a single season.

 

The following season saw a comparative respite. Keane opted for what he saw as quality over quantity; eight permanent signings were brought in, though they included the likes of Nick Colgan and David Healy, who were signed solely as back-up players. Of the other six permanent signings, El-Hadji Diouf and Pascal Chimbonda would leave Wearside for good before the end of the January window.

 

Djibril Cisse's loan signing was one that excited fans, and to some extent, the Frenchman was a success. Ricky Sbragia would bring in just two temporary signings during his reign, Calum Davenport and Tal Ben-Haim, in an effort to shore up a leaky defence and see the season out.

 

This was the first time under Quinn that Sunderland had not sought to hugely rotate the faces present in the Stadium of Light dressing room; perhaps it is therefore no coincidence that it was also the poorest season under his stewardship to date.

 

Though, whilst their dealings had been few, their expenditure was still hefty. Keane spent approximately, and probably over, £20m in the summer of 2008, and Sunderland finished worse off as a result. They had not succumbed to the infamous 'second season syndrome', but only just.

 

Thus, with the arrival of Steve Bruce, came the third upheaval. Debate may rage over who was signed as a first-teamer and who wasn't during Bruce's first window, but it cannot be denied that at least five of his recruits were thrown straight into the starting eleven; Lorik Cana, Darren Bent, Lee Cattermole and Michael Turner cost Ellis Short £25m for four players, whilst even loanee John Mensah commanded a £1m fee.

 

Bruce deserves much more credit, however, for his actions in holding the door open for those now deemed surplus to requirements. Out went the likes of Dean Whitehead, Paul McShane, Danny Collins, Grant Leadbitter and Carlos Edwards, amongst others, as the new manager looked to trim both his squad and the wage bill.

 

Once again, the revolutionising of the playing staff had the desired effect; the Black Cats pushed on to thirteenth, and wowed many onlookers with their start to the season.

 

The following season, more of the same occurred. This time it was the turn of Mssrs. Bramble, Mignolet, Gyan and Sessegnon to hop on board the red and white bandwagon, alongside loanees Mensah (again), Onuoha, Welbeck, Elmohamady and Muntari.

 

Meanwhile, seventeen players went in the opposite direction, though many would return following loan spells at other clubs.

 

True to form, progress was achieved on yet another occasion.

 

It is unsurprising then, that Bruce, Quinn and Short have again opted to be busy in the transfer market this summer. At the time of writing, no fewer than ten players have put pen to paper on contracts at the Academy of Light, including two former Champions League winners.

 

The difference between Bruce and his predecessor is simple though: while Keane bought without considering the ramifications of keeping unneeded players on the books, Bruce has tried his utmost to balance the books and eradicate spending money on unnecessary wages.

 

Furthermore, the sales of both Darren Bent and Jordan Henderson have provided a huge impetus to the transfer kitty, and also mean the club's dealings are no longer solely financed from the pockets of their billionaire owner.

 

So, what does all this activity mean?

 

Well, contrary to popular opinion, Sunderland's tale seems to suggest that the constant reshuffling of a club's most valuable asset, its playing staff, is the key to maintaining progress.

 

Where many observers claim that success can only be achieved via forming a solid unit, one where each player is fully aware of the other ten whom he plays alongside, the Wearsiders are perhaps the exception to the rule. Far from seeking to maintain a consistent line-up year on year, Quinn has allowed his managers to actively seek upheaval at every opportunity. Indeed, the one time the side was left alone, it stagnated, and the season very nearly ended in disaster.

 

A caveat must be added. Sunderland's case is a slightly exceptional one. Quinn and Drumaville's arrival was met with a squad that was as low as one can possibly imagine; even though the quality to challenge in the Championship was undoubtedly there, vast changes were a necessity, not a choice.

 

Then, like any other promoted club with the means to do so, another rapid change needed to be made in order to ensure survival and safety from relegation.

 

From there, it can be argued that revamping the squad whilst in the bottom half of the Premier League is not hugely risky provided some quality is brought in; it is once you try to break into the top ten that consistency and uniformity are required.

 

I shall leave you to draw your own conclusions.

 

On the one hand, Sunderland and Niall Quinn may have been extremely fortuitous over the past five years. At any other club, such a huge amount of transfer activity may have been ruinous; the Black Cats may now have used up eight of their nine lives.

 

On the other, the chairman and his partners, both managers and board members, may have hit upon a perfect strategy. Maybe repeated upheaval is a necessary evil; it keeps everyone on their toes, and new signings hit the ground running more often than not.

 

Whatever the answer, one thing cannot be denied; the past five years following Sunderland AFC have been some of the most exciting for as long as many fans can remember.

 

Long may it continue.

 

And there we have it. Thanks to all those who've read and (hopefully) enjoyed this week's series. As always we welcome feedback of all kinds, and we hope you stay with us for a long time to come!

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