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Niall Quinn's Return, Five Years On: The Next Level?

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(Photo by Lee Smith-Pool/Getty Images)
(Photo by Lee Smith-Pool/Getty Images)
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And so, we reach the final chapter of our tale. Whilst we have another article for you to look at tomorrow, today signifies the culmination of our linear story, this time taking us from the summer of 2009 to the present day...

Ellis Short wasted no time upon assuming the ownership of Sunderland AFC. No sooner had he completed his buyout of the club than the Black Cats were firmly linked with a candidate for the vacant managerial position. Steve Bruce, seen by many on Wearside as a support of the enemy up the road, was rumoured to be Short and Niall Quinn's favoured choice just a single day after Drumaville relinquished their remaining shares.

A week later, Bruce took up the role and a three-year contract. Despite the detractors, some (ridiculously) questioning his ability to fulfill the role due to his alleged affinity for Newcastle United, Bruce's delight at securing the job was evident in his very first press conference; "I've worked over 10 years for a chance like this."

A huge chance it was, but with it came similar expectations. Bruce memorably remarked that he would now be equivalently "shopping at Harrod's" as opposed to previous ventures to less luxurious Tesco, but in doing so he set his own standards high.

Sunderland, after all, had finished the previous season sixteenth in the table, surviving relegation by the skin of their teeth. Owner Short was willing once again to provide ample funds, but they came with the stern warning that any new signings must go on to prove their worth; the billionaire had been dismayed by the ineffectual performances of the previous summer's signings, namely George McCartney and Anton Ferdinand, upon whom roughly £14m had been spent.

Bruce's remit was a simple one. Indeed it was the same which Roy Keane had been issued a year previously: a season entirely free from the worries of relegation.

Subsequently, the playing squad needed yet another overhaul. Out went a whole host of players including the captain and first team regular, Dean Whitehead. Bruce also followed in the footsteps of his predecessor Keane in showing a bit of a ruthless streak; after an altercation with Danny Collins just a few games into the season, the Welshman, who had started the campaign as his manager's first-choice left-back, was quickly shipped out to Stoke City.

Of course, it was not all outgoing traffic. Bruce proved astute in the transfer market, securing the services of Lorik Cana from Marseilles, despite alleged interest from a host of other European sides. Furthermore, his capture of Lee Cattermole from his old side Wigan showed Black Cats fans that their new manager would be no push over; Wigan owner Dave Whelan had previously stated that Cattermole was not for sale at any cost.

However, the best signing of that summer for the Wearsiders would prove to be the most agonising and drawn out. Darren Bent, wooed by Bruce's vision and Quinn's passion, had his sights set firmly on a move to the Stadium of Light. When Daniel Levy, chairman of Bent's then-employers Tottenham, played hardball over the transfer fee, Bent resorted to airing his grievances far more widely than many expected. Taking to his Twitter page, the Spurs frontman launched himself into an apoplectic outburst, declaring his desire to move from London to the north-east.

He would be reprimanded for his behaviour, but it had the desired effect; Sunderland got their man for an initial £10m, potentially rising to £16m depending on how his spell on Wearside turned out.

Bent was instantly a huge hit. He took just five minutes to make an impression, with an early headed goal at Bolton proving enough for Sunderland to take home three points on the opening day.

His ruthlessness in front of goal would continue throughout the season. He finished with 25 goals in his debut year for the club, the highest for a Sunderland player since Kevin Phillips' staggering Golden Boot win a decade previously.

In the early stages though, it was not just Bent, but the entire team that seemed transformed. Bruce had brought with him a blend of eclectic, fast-moving football, and not a small amount of grit. With Cattermole and Cana in the middle, the Black Cats offered up a formidable partnership.

The results showed how far the team had come from previous years. Victories came at home to both Arsenal and Liverpool, whilst only an Anton Ferdinand own goal in the final moments stopped them coming away from Old Trafford with an unlikely victory.

Following that home victory over Arsenal on November 21, Sunderland found themselves in eighth position, with a relatively generous set of fixtures in front of them.

And then, almost inevitably, they faltered. A 0-1 loss at Wigan was marred by an unsavoury incident between a supposed Sunderland fan and Bent's mother; bottom side Portsmouth took a point from the Stadium of Light via a stoppage-time equaliser; Chelsea demolished the red and whites 7-2 two weeks into the new year.

 

Sensing once more that the final goal of his 'five year plan' would go unfulfilled, chairman Quinn moved quick to dispel the doubters. "[Steve Bruce] is still the perfect man for our club," he said after that defeat at Stamford Bridge. "We've got a manager who knows what the club is about, who is from the region and knows it's different, who knows what it takes."

 

Quinn also, importantly, acted as Ellis Short's mouthpiece. Recognising the owner's preference for a low profile, he assured fans and journalists alike that the billionaire was still fully behind his manager, and would not be acting in the panicky manner so many other club owners seemed to in the current footballing climate.

 

Fortunately for Bruce, Short stayed true to Quinn's word. Sunderland's poor form would continue well into the new year; it was March before they registered a victory.

 

From there, they saw the season out with a mishmash of wins, draws and losses. Relegation was avoided comfortably in the end, a finishing position of thirteenth being the club's highest since 2001, but it is hard to argue that Quinn's third step had been achieved successful. Certainly, during those bleak months from the end of November until March, few Sunderland fans could have confidently said their side would in no circumstances suffer the pain of relegation once more.

 

All in all, Bruce's first season at the helm could be seen as a success. The squad was considerably stronger than it had been twelve months ago, while a top ten finish may have been achieved were it not for a 1-2 loss at Wolves on the final day.

 

That said, much work was to be done. The season had been plagued by injuries and suspension; Sunderland finished with more red cards than anyone else in the Premier League.

 

Once more, Short came up with the funds deemed necessary for progress. Prior to the summer of 2010, he had already invested approximately £100m of his own money into the club. Furthermore, all that cash had been capitalised; put simply, it had been converted into shares, thus the club owe the billionaire nothing.

 

To quote Quinn once more, "[Short] is giving this club a chance and it is him that takes the hit and not the club." The owner, having memorably called Sunderland "one crazy, son-of-a-bitch club", was only too happy to provide yet more help in their attempts to break into English football's top ten.

 

Bruce thus went out and spent once more, though perhaps more shrewdly than a year earlier. To some shock on Wearside, captain Cana and frontman Kenwyne Jones were allowed to leave, as the side looked to trim the playing squad not only to conform to new Premier League rulings, but to avoid wasting unnecessary money on wages.

 

The loan market was utilised to great extent, with no fewer than five temporary signings over the course of the season. On the permanent side of things, the signing of Titus Bramble caused much worry amongst ardent red and whites, but once again showed the manager's fortitude and strength of will.

 

His most influential move, though, was once again for a striker. Asamoah Gyan had been a genuine star for Ghana at the recent World Cup, in spite of a demoralising penalty miss in the quarter-final against Uruguay, and few on Wearside could realistically expect to see him playing in the red and white stripes any time soon.

 

And yet, that is exactly what happened. Gyan's signing can perhaps be seen as an indicator of how far Sunderland have come since Quinn's return to the Stadium of Light. Four years previously, they had struggled to attract numerous players of questionable quality, yet now there was a bona fide superstar in their midst.

 

Once again, Bruce's men started their season impressively. Indeed, against those who occupied the league's top seven prior to Christmas, Sunderland went unbeaten, with a scarcely believable 3-0 demolition of champions Chelsea at Stamford Bridge.

 

It was against the lesser sides that their performances let them down. Losses at both West Brom and Wolves halted any momentum gained, whilst a disastrous Halloween trip to Newcastle had some immediately calling for the manager's head.

 

In spite of this, Bruce had fashioned a young, vibrant side, and one which looked capable of at least challenging for a European spot following their pre-Christmas showings.

 

Yet suddenly, implosion. Following a smash and grab equaliser from Gyan in another shoddy performance against Newcastle, fan favourite and top goalscorer Darren Bent handed in a transfer request. The reasoning soon became evident. Within twenty-four hours, Aston Villa had a bid ready and waiting, whilst Bent himself had relocated to a Birmingham hotel room, looking to secure a move. Dismayed by the betrayal of their star striker, Quinn and the club's chief executive Steve Walton ensured they got the best deal possible; Bent would eventually move to the midlands for £18m, potentially rising to £24m.

 

This shocking departure, combined with yet more horrific injury luck, meant once again Bruce oversaw a significant purple patch.

 

The end of the season came with the Black Cats barely crawling over the finishing line, yet a top ten finish was achieved with a 3-0 last day victory over the already relegated West Ham.

 

Such was the tightness of the league, and the dire performances that plagued the side for much of spring, it is difficult to say whether or not Quinn's plan had been successfully carried out on time. Certainly, tenth place was satisfactory, especially in light of the Bent saga and the ever-lengthening injury list. But to say the season was one free of the worries of relegation would not be entirely true; prior to the crucial 4-2 win over Wigan on April 23, many observers agreed it was a game Sunderland could simply not afford to lose.

 

On the face of it, however, progress was evident. Bruce had improved the club's standing on the year before, and would now be armed once more with a sizeable transfer kitty. The sale of Jordan Henderson for a, frankly unbelievable, fee of £20m only served to add to this.

 

As a result, the manager has once again been busy in the transfer market. The general feeling around Wearside is that the most recent arrivals to SR5 are a perfect mix of experience and potential, with perhaps only a left-back now needed to complete the squad.

 

The potential problem lies in that this is effectively the fourth upheaval of the squad in the last six summers. If Bruce's new men don't gel quickly, he could find himself in trouble.

 

And what of Niall Quinn, the man behind the last five years?

 

Well, back in 2006, Quinn stated that he would be willing to step aside five years down the line provided he felt the club was left in a strong position and his mission objectives had been achieved.

 

He shows no sign of budging yet. Perhaps he feels his plan hasn't been achieved; maybe last year he felt the issue of relegation was once again too prominent in the minds of Sunderland fans.

 

Whatever the reason, Sunderland should be glad he is not ready to take leave of his role. Whilst there have been blips and disappointments along the way, for the most part, Quinn's reign as Sunderland chairman has been a roaring success. Under his stead the club are ready to embark upon their fifth consecutive season in the Premier League; their longest stint in the top division since English football was turned on its head in 1992.

 

Off the field, he has succeeded in recruiting the finances and business nous necessary to propel the club back up the football ladder, as well as becoming a more attractive proposition in all areas. Firstly with Drumaville, and then with Ellis Short, Quinn secured the unquestioned backing of a number of men who previously had no affiliation whatsoever with Sunderland AFC.

 

The strive for success shows no sign of relenting either. The aforementioned Walton recently left the club, having agreed to stay on for two years after Drumaville left, as has Lesley Callaghan. As a result of the boardroom shuffle, Margaret Byrne has assumed the role of chief executive; Byrne is seemingly held in very high regard by those willing to speak about her.

 

Meanwhile, the appointment of ex-Labour MP David Miliband as vice chairman seems to be something of a coup for the club. Though initially scoffed at as a publicity stunt, Miliband brings with him to the club an extensive array of business contacts and experience. The club's recent signing of a multi-million pound deal with the sports retail heavyweight, Kitbag, is an example of the business the likes of Miliband and Byrne are looking to attract to Wearside.

 

In addition, Quinn has gone a long way towards recovering that "connection" he sought between the club and its fans. His remark that he "despises" those fans who prefer to watch home games in local alehouses that the club's ground was misguided and naïve, yet those who could see through the newspaper sensationalism were able to empathise with the chairman's point. Simply put, all he desires is a full Stadium of Light like the one he played in front of; Quinn knows full well the advantage a full house gives to those in the red and white stripes.

 

Through the much lauded talk-ins he has held with fans throughout the area, as well as his reluctance to shy away from any sort of questioning and a desire to remain honest at all times, Niall Quinn has successfully restored a region's faith in its football club.

 

For that reason alone, we should all be eternally grateful.

 

So, there we have it. Five years of Sunderland AFC covered in four quick days on The Roker Report. We hope you've enjoyed it, and, even if you haven't, we'd love some feedback from you! Feel free to comment on this article here, or send either Roker Report or author Chris some opinions over Twitter.

 

We've got one more article covering this era for you tomorrow to round off the week and, whilst it won't be story-telling in the way the last few days have been, we hope you'll enjoy it all the same...