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Niall Quinn's Return, Five Years On: Plans and Progress

(Photo by Lee Smith-Pool/Getty Images)
(Photo by Lee Smith-Pool/Getty Images)
Getty Images

Hello and welcome to part two of our feature on Niall Quinn's reign as Sunderland AFC chairman (Read part one here). We hope you enjoyed yesterday's piece on the makings of Drumaville Ltd. and the takeover of 2006. Today we'll be looking at just what exactly the 'five year plan' was that the consortium had for the club, and analysing how they went about successfully achieving the first of its three main aims...

With the Drumaville Consortium finally having acquired control of the club, Niall Quinn set about writing the next chapter of Sunderland's turbulent history.


He did so with that most political of tools: rhetoric. Never one shy of turning an appealing phrase or two, Quinn's famous promise to take Sunderland fans on a “magic carpet ride” still resonates around the city now.


But he was careful not to make empty promises like those in parliament are so often guilty of. One of the key elements for Quinn upon his ascension to the role of chairman was his desire for players and fans to “reconnect”. Accurately sensing the gap that had developed between those two groups since his time on Wearside as a player, Quinn saw that progress could only be made if this relationship was carefully restored.


His task was hardly helped by the imminent departure of much of the club's playing squad (an area the Roker Report shall cover in much greater depth later this week), but Sunderland's new saviour remained steadfast and unrelenting in his pursuit of returning Sunderland AFC to its role as a true community club.


Again resorting to rhetoric, Quinn spoke of his very own 'five year plan' for the club. Careful not to lay this out in its exact form in public, he nevertheless inspired immediate optimism. Although fans would hope the consequences of the similarly named Stalinist policies of 1930s Russia would not be echoed in and around the Stadium of Light, they could be forgiven for hoping Quinn's plans would echo the productivity of Uncle Joe's.


So, what was this plan?


Firstly, Quinn was under no illusions as to the dire predicament the club found itself in. Whilst his proclamation that he and the new board would seek to hire a “world class manager” set hearts racing, his actual blueprint for the next half-decade was much more reserved.


As Quinn would reveal in more depth a few years later, step one, obvious as it seems, was for the club to return to the Premier League. For this, he, the board and, soon after, Roy Keane, agreed upon a rather modest timescale of three years.


This decision shows simply how poor a situation the Black Cats found themselves in the summer of 2006. Mick McCarthy had performed minor miracles in returning the club to the top division after just two years away, but a horrific campaign that mustered only fifteen points (and, shockingly, a solitary home victory) had deflated any last vestiges of hope.


Thus Quinn realised the dangers of looking to do too much too soon. The plan could be sped up (and it was), but, for now, arresting the slide before making a measured push for promotion was deemed the safest route to embark upon.


Following this, step two, originally planned for Quinn's fourth year at the helm, was “to consolidate our place in the Premier League”. Winning promotion was pointless if it resulted in relegation the following year.


Here, Quinn and Drumaville no doubt looked back at the club's previous ventures into the post-1992 Premier League. Of Sunderland's three relegations in the age of SKY TV dominance, two of them had come in their first season out of the second tier.


In 1996, Peter Reid took a side from the bottom of Division One to winning the league in little over twelve months. Despite a valiant attempt, they returned there in 1997; the side's rapid leap forward hadn't allowed them time to gather together a squad worthy of what was fast becoming the world's most financially-driven league.


Nine years after Reid, the aforementioned McCarthy took a team comprised of footballing journeymen up as champions once more. This time though, the side was perhaps even less prepared for the rigours of Europe's premier division, as reflected by their miserly points total.


So, step two was to ensure Sunderland's tag as a yo-yo club was put on hold. The third step was to discard of that unwanted moniker once and for all. Speaking in 2008, Quinn detailed how the final part of the original 'five year plan' was “to give our fans a year free from relegation worry”.


From there, neither the new chairman nor Drumaville dared set their goals on anything concrete, though Quinn has since been quoted as suggesting his ultimate (and, it must be said, hugely ambitious) goal was to see Sunderland as a firm fixture in English football's top five.


Back to reality and 2006, though, where even the Championship's top five seemed but a light at the end of a very long tunnel. Unable to come through on the promise of a “world class manager”, and with the start of the season fast approaching, the board decided a second-rate choice wouldn't suffice. Quinn was promptly installed in temporary charge until someone desirable was found.


To all intents and purposes, Quinn's reign in the dugout was disastrous. A 0-2 defeat at Coventry City was dismissed somewhat, onlookers sympathetic with the fact Sunderland were a good two or three weeks behind in their preparation for the new season following the protracted ownership change.


A midweek home defeat to Birmingham City did little to allay fears, whilst a subsequent 2-3 loss at home to Plymouth Argyle had the Black Cats floundering at the bottom of the table. For Quinn, problems at the Stadium of Light lay much deeper than the playing surface. After this, his third loss in as many games, he lamented “the something in the air around the club”; the Irishman was finally waking up to the presence of the invisible yet damaging aura that those on Wearside had long since become accustomed to.


Sunderland would succumb to Southend a week later, but it was a midweek League Cup tie that really broke the camel's back. Travelling to Bury, a side propping up ninety-one others in the Football League, Quinn's men first saw themselves reduced to ten men following Arnau Riera's third minute dismissal, before embarrassingly going down 0-2.


Enough was enough. Almost as quickly as he had assumed the role, Quinn announced his decision to swiftly move back to the boardroom; the club's search for a manager would step up another gear.


Twenty-four hours later, it appeared the search was over. Richard Keys, long before his derision of Karren Brady saw him leave our living rooms and relocate to our airwaves, announced at half-time in a match between Charlton Athletic and Manchester United that SKY Sports had it on good authority (hey, there's a first for everything) that the next Sunderland manager would be none other than Roy Keane.


Up and down the country, perhaps across the world, jaws dropped. Surely someone had slipped a cheeky spirit or ten into Keys' coffee? Keane, four years from Saigon, he who labelled Niall Quinn “Mother Theresa” amongst other unprintables, would now join him at the foot of the Championship. Keane, one step short of psychotic at times, and unheard of since his retirement the previous year, would look to resurrect the fortunes of a side enveloped in fear? It couldn't be true, it just couldn't.


It was. Four days after Keys' announcement, Keane sat in the stands as his new side defeated West Brom 2-0, Quinn ending his brief managerial career on a much-needed high. The following day, the former Manchester United captain sat alongside his new chairman, who waxed lyrical about what his fellow Irishman would bring to Wearside. “The professionalism and preparation will be lifted,” said Quinn, whilst also adopting the modest approach when putting the previous day's victory down to Keane's presence in the dressing room beforehand, “they showed they wanted to play for the manager, they were playing for their futures.”


Keane's influence was immediate. A hectic transfer deadline day saw no fewer than six new faces on Wearside, the manager using his extensive contacts within football to great effect. Given almost two weeks to rally his troops, the early season international break proving a useful feature for once, Keane's first game came against Derby at Pride Park. Matt Oakley's goal for the hosts on the stroke of half-time had a heaving away end fearing little had changed, but a two goal blitz on the hour mark from Chris Brown and new signing Ross Wallace had Keane off to a winning start.


Three days later, his side demolished Leeds United at Elland Road. The “magic carpet” was finally getting off the ground.


It was not all plain sailing (or flying?), however. For the next few months, until the turn of 2007, results were patchy at best. By the new year, Sunderland found themselves firmly in mid-table; a defeat on 30 December at home to promotion contenders Preston North End seemed to confirm that any hopes of an immediate return to the top league were far-fetched.


Off the field too, as Quinn had feared, there were severe problems. Keane was hired on the back of his drive and professionalism, the board hoping he would instil pride in a club that was in dire need of some. Certain measures of his helped them in this goal; for example, his insistence upon the Stadium of Light tunnel being adorned with images of the club's bygone successes was a particularly subtle touch.


Unfortunately, his strict attitudes towards discipline did not wash with some of the playing squad. Many felt his wrath at various points throughout the season. Those who reacted in the manner Keane expected were praised; those who ignored his discipline were soon shipped out.


Two notable examples of Keane's attempts to bring a new attitude to the club come to mind. First, there was the infamous incident involving Ben Alnwick, Liam Lawrence, Chris Brown, Martin Woods and a supposedly underage girl. With news breaking during Sunderland's inconsistent spell prior to Christmas, it was little surprise that all four soon found themselves at different clubs.


And then, in March, ahead of a crucial away tie to Barnsley, Keane found he and the rest of the team waiting on their coach a few minutes past the set meeting time for Anthony Stokes, Marton Fulop and Tobias Hysen. Dismayed by his players' lax attitudes, the manager promptly told them not to bother turning up, and instructed the driver to set off.


As news broke, most observers agreed the sensibility of Keane's quick decision would rest upon the game's result. Sunderland promptly won 2-0, and the 'Barnsley Three' were left humbled. In a move that showed he was willing to adapt to situations as a manager, Keane did not ship the three players out. Instead they were reinstalled in the squad for the following match, their manager having been impressed by their responses to the incident, “of course [they turned up on time], more than on time. They brought the milk in.”


Keane seemed to be learning quick as a manager. Following that Preston defeat, used the January transfer window well, and by the end of the month his squad appeared a whole lot stronger.


The final four months of the season were majestic for Sunderland fans. Unimaginable numbers travelled up and down the country to watch the Black Cats, who reciprocated with club record of thirteen away victories by the season's end.


Despite a blip at Colchester United, promotion, and then the league title itself, were sealed with two thrilling victories over Burnley and Luton Town respectively. Rooted to the foot of the table in August, Keane's side had returned to the Premier League in double-quick time.


Of course, praise must be extended to Quinn and Drumaville. Throughout this fascinating first year of ownership, they backed their manager to the hilt, both in the transfer market and with the intriguing internal decisions he made regarding his playing squad.


Quinn went a long way towards restoring the connection between club and fans too. This was most evidently displayed at Bristol Airport on a warm evening in March. Buoyant after a crucial 1-0 win at Cardiff City, Sunderland fans boarded an Easyjet plane in high spirits. Soon after, they disembarked, officious airline staff deeming them too intoxicated to travel.


True or not, and many suggest the latter, Quinn decided this wasn't right. Uttering the now immortal “these are my people” line, the chairman delved deep into his own pockets. Mustering a legion of taxi cabs from all corners of the West Country, Quinn spent in the region of £8000 of his own money ensuring each and every stranded fan was delivered to their door safely.


And so, step one was completed a full two years ahead of schedule, a remarkable achievement which Quinn put down to “Roy being Roy”. Now though, Sunderland's task was to become even harder. They had regained their Premier League status, but for how long?


If you found this article ever so slightly (or perhaps excessively) too long, I apologise wholeheartedly. Doing the 2006-07 season its full deserved justice can never be achieved in a piece as small as those found on Internet blogs; I felt to be brief with the details would be to demean what was a truly amazing year following Sunderland AFC. Anyway, join us again tomorrow, where we look at the latter steps of the 'five year plan'...

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