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Niall Quinn's Return, Five Years On: Survival

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

Willkommen! Bienvenue! Grata! Welcome! Thank you for joining us in our look back at the past five years of Sunderland AFC's lifetime under the stead of a certain Mr Niall Quinn. If you haven't already perused them, you can find parts one and two here and here respectively; if you've already read them, thanks for coming back for more!

Having detailed the first year of Quinn, Drumaville and Keane yesterday, today we'll be looking at what happened next. With step one of the 'five year plan' achieved two years ahead of schedule and optimism in the air, there was still a lingering fear on Wearside that promotion had been achieved a little too soon...

Sunderland's remarkable return to the Premier League took most observers by surprise, particularly those on Wearside. Though Roy Keane had long since maintained his belief that the Black Cats would go up at the first attempt, others in the stands (and probably the boardroom) were much more skeptical.

Keane, of course, was proven correct. But in achieving such success, he brought on yet greater difficulties. Sunderland's rapid ascension left them with a squad that would undoubtedly struggle to retain its top division status; investment was needed.


Indeed, there was a deep feeling of nervousness surrounding the Stadium of Light not long following the end of their Championship-winning season. At one stage, Keane even felt it necessary to implore that the club's fans should be "chilled out and relaxed" with respect to the lack of transfer activity at the club. The manager was adamant that things would soon start to happen.


To Quinn and Drumaville's eternal credit, they once again backed their manager to the hilt. Somewhere in the region of £45m was spent on new players in the summer of 2007, including the hotly debated signing of goalkeeper Craig Gordon for £9m.


Whilst Gordon's fee was viewed with much ire by many, it was another signing that summer that proved the most controversial. Michael Chopra, once of Newcastle United fame, was signed in a £5m deal from Cardiff City, and red and whites the world over sat uneasily. It is testament to Quinn's belief in his manager that he supported Keane in the move all the way, despite knowing full well that it would worry much of the club's fanbase.


They were instantly vindicated. The SKY television cameras rolled up to the Stadium of Light for a 12.45pm opening day encounter with Tottenham Hotspur. Long since established in the top league, Spurs provided a stern test for Keane's men, who nicked all three points via a last minute goal. The scorer? None other than Chopra himself.


It is foolish to suggest that one game can change the entire ethos of a club, but it was this game that awakened many Sunderland fans to the feeling that something was different. The manager alluded to as much in his post-match interview, "there's a different attitude to everybody, there's a different mentality." As opposed to a side that gave away crucial late goals, Keane had now fashioned a team that had consistently scored them over the past twelve months.


They would continue to do it for the next twelve as well. That first season back in the Premier League was not one without worry, a 1-7 defeat at Everton providing a particular example of Keane's inexperience as a manager, but it would end with the red and whites in fifteenth position.


And so, step two, that of Sunderland retaining their top division status, had been achieved at the first time of asking, just as step one had. Given the outlay on playing staff, both in transfer fees and wages, one could say that the least that should have been expected was survival.


But it must be remembered that money alone does not guarantee success. Much to Keane and the board's chagrin, many of their original summer targets passed them by. Leighton Baines notably turned the Black Cats down in favour of his supposed boyhood idols, Everton, whilst Preston's Dave Nugent caused the Wearsiders the most stress. Departing on holiday whilst in the midst of negotiations with the club, Nugent returned a week later still unable to give Keane and his superiors a decision. Never the most patient of souls, Keane decided enough was enough, and told Nugent he was no longer interested in signing him.


A further problem, other than the club still being seen as undesirable to some, also arose. The wealth of the Drumaville Consortium, whilst ambiguous, was undoubtedly large. As a result, clubs insisted on extortionate fees, and players did the same for wages.


It was a trend which would continue the following summer, where Sunderland looked to achieve the third and final step of their 'five year plan'; as Quinn said, this was "to give our fans a year free from relegation worry".


Following another summer of busy activity, the wheels started to come off for Keane. A promising win over Spurs again, this time away, suggested the Black Cats were ready to move onwards and upwards. Furthermore, a 2-1 victory at home to arch rivals Newcastle, the club's first win in a Wear-Tyne derby in twenty-seven years, was perhaps one of Keane's crowning achievements in the Sunderland dugout.


But these two victories merely acted as departures from the norm. The introduction to the dressing room of such unsavoury characters as Pascal Chimbonda and El-Hadji Diouf undoubtedly damaged the team morale, and a watershed moment came at the end of November when they were trounced 1-4 by a visiting Bolton Wanderers side.


Five days later, on December 4, the gig was up. As early winter snow fell to form a light blanket across much of the north-east, so the legend goes that a text message fell into Niall Quinn's inbox. It came from his manager who, citing that his relationship with certain people at the club was now damaged beyond repair, announced his resignation with immediate effect.


It became clear that Keane's contempt was directed at a man who had only truly arrived on Wearside a few months earlier.


Ellis Short, a son of Missouri but based in Texas, first met Niall Quinn at The K Club in Ireland during the 2006 Ryder Cup. As an Ian Woosnam-led European side cantered to an 181/2 - 91/2 victory over their American counterparts, Quinn set about wooing Short in much the same way he had previously enamoured the members of Drumaville.


Two years later, the fruits of his labour once more became evident. In September 2008, Quinn's vision for the club having won over Short, the president of Lone Star Funds acquired a 30% controlling interest in Sunderland AFC.


Far from the likes of foreign interest seen elsewhere in the Premier League, Short was more than happy to keep a low profile. Indeed, one source close to the club was reported at the time as saying that Short "can see that there is a sustainable plan, but he is happy to stay below the radar."


The proof of this came with the news that Short had actually taken his first stake in the club over a year previously, and was already fairly well-known not just by Quinn but the rest of the Drumaville Consortium also. In the summer transfer window he took up a share option that provided somewhere in the region of £30m to spend on the playing squad, and ultimately resulted in his controlling interest in the club.


But whilst Quinn and Drumaville were happy to welcome the American onboard, Keane was not quite so taken to his new superior. Rumours abounded in the months following Short's acquisition of control that not all was well behind the scenes, and the manager's eventual departure soon showed this to be the case.


Following that defeat at home to Bolton, Short was dismayed to learn that Keane had failed to turn up to the Academy of Light mere days later, despite the fact Sunderland now lay in the relegation zone. Given that Short had invested a sizeable sum of money into the club just a few months earlier, he sought out answers from Keane as to why his manager was absent from the training ground when things were clearly not going to plan on the pitch. Keane, in a now entirely characteristic move, took offence at such direct questioning of his methods, and promptly ordered his lawyer Michael Kennedy to negotiate his departure from Wearside.


In light of this, Quinn and Short took a fairly substantial gamble. Unable to find a suitable replacement for the outgoing Irishman, and buoyed by an upturn in form under temporary manager Ricky Sbragia, they decided to offer the club stalwart the job until the end of the season.


It was so nearly a disastrous choice. Following an impressive 0-0 draw at Arsenal in February, Sunderland looked all but safe from relegation for another year, and the playing staff effectively packed their bags three months in advance of their summer holidays. Sbragia, wise in footballing theory but perhaps too friendly with the players to manage them effectively, was unable to regain control as the club slid down the table.


Eventually, relegation was staved off on the final day. Despite a 2-3 defeat at home to Chelsea, the Black Cats survived; neither Middlesborough, Newcastle nor Hull City were able to muster up victories, and Sunderland luckily ended up in sixteenth.


Relegation would have had far wider ramifications than a simple return to the Championship. Short, though owner of a controlling interest, had yet to be convinced he should take up his option to become sole owner of the club.


This would have been a lesser issue were it not for the state of the wider financial world and, subsequently, the impact it had on the members of Drumaville. The eight men Quinn had originally recruited to his Sunderland revolution were hit hard by the worldwide economic recession; they would not be able to provide the club with the finances it clearly needed to move on to the next level.


Amazingly though, despite the club's entirely disappointing season, Short took on full ownership in the week following that season-closer against Chelsea. Rumour has it that the billionaire was deeply moved by the passion displayed inside the Stadium of Light, when it became evident that not only had Sunderland survived, but their hated neighbours had failed to do the same.


Beaming from the upper reaches of the main stand, adorned in a red and white tie alongside his son, Short was smitten. Sensing the potential within the club that was just waiting to be unleashed, he moved quickly to end the successful three-year reign of Drumaville, before announcing his promise that nervy final days such as the one he'd just witnessed would now be consigned to Sunderland's past.


For the first time in his 'five year plan', Niall Quinn had fallen short. Sunderland had not provided their fans with a year free from the worry of relegation. In fact, they had strayed closer to it than the previous year, despite further relatively heavy investment on the field.


However, it must be remembered that the club and Quinn were only three years into that plan. Keane's success in achieving promotion at the first attempt had given the Wearsiders leeway; this year could be put down to a blip, and the search for further progress would begin in earnest the following campaign.


In addition, Quinn had achieved something that even he had no doubt seen as highly unlikely, and therefore left it out of his original blueprint. His acquisition of the services, and wealth, of Ellis Short was a huge coup for the club. Drumaville had done their job admirably. Sunderland had returned to the Premier League and stayed there for the following two seasons. The Irishmen would now depart; it was the turn of a little-known American to lead the Black Cats on to the next level...


So, step two of Quinny's aims had been achieved, but step three would prove to be the toughest. Join us once again tomorrow as we look at how Sunderland have fared under Ellis Short's control, and fully assess whether or not the chairman has succeeded in carrying out his 'five year plan' for Sunderland AFC.

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