“I wouldn't do this for any other club in the world.”
Bob Murray was a man under pressure. Sunderland had been relegated as the worst side in Premier League history, and fans were understandably far from happy.
Mick McCarthy had presided over 31 defeats in 37 Premier League games in two seasons – and no home victories – before his sacking, earning a measly 10 points from 111 on offer. Yet to a significant number of Sunderland fans, according to the Evening Chronicle’s John Gibson, “the real villain isn't McCarthy at all, but chairman Bob Murray.”
He had been urged to resign by the ‘Save Our Sunderland’ campaign, who maintained that despite McCarthy’s sacking, “the real problem still remains at SAFC, and that is Bob Murray.” Murray had, according to The Mirror’s Simon Bird, become a “hate figure for the supporters.”
“Worse still, he can't find anyone to buy his majority shareholding to put him out of his misery. Murray can't go anywhere. He owns a majority shareholding and can't just walk away. He's willing to sell to anyone who can invest millions but sadly a Wearside Abramovich is proving hard to find.”
Murray had always maintained, publicly at least, that he was willing to leave the club, provided that the right person, with the right intentions, expressed an interest.
“If someone wanted to get involved for the right reasons I would step aside, and I have never blocked anyone from doing that,” he said in November 2005, repeating the same at a shareholder’s meeting a month later.
I've not blocked anyone else from coming into the club and putting their money in. So, if anyone out there has the answer or has a big enough bank account to make a difference, please make yourself known.
The problem was that a suitable person had not yet come forward. But they soon would.
Niall Quinn met with Murray in February 2006 to discuss the club’s charity foundation. During their meeting, it became clear to them that the club “had gone flat.” Sunderland were heading for relegation with a record-low points total, but Quinn had a “light-bulb moment.” By the end of their meeting, he was thinking big. His idea was for a consortium of Irish and local businessmen to buy the club.
Quinn recalls telling vice-chairman John Fickling that he “might be back one day” upon his departure from Wearside in 2002. Fickling told him that the club would love to have him back as manager, with Quinn replying: “It might be more than that.”
It was prophetic.
Rumours of Quinn’s involvement in a potential takeover gathered pace in the months following the meeting, although fans had to wait until April 19th for official confirmation.
“It’s no secret that I am trying to get into Sunderland,” he told The Mirror’s Garry Doyle. “But buying a club is not a simple thing. Right now I am in the middle of making sure that myself, and my group, are capable of doing the job that the club deserves. And until we prove that to ourselves then we cannot possibly approach Sunderland. We want to be ready for Sunderland so that every question they ask, gets answered.”
Quinn told Doyle that he “wouldn't do this for any other club in the world.” He spoke of the “exceptional Sunderland people,” and the “passion and spirit” that they showed in “difficult times,” making reference to Margaret Thatcher’s closing of the mines and shipyards.
Football was the thing that got the people through hard times. And now the city is going well again, it just needs the football club to get better because the last year has hurt them.
His intentions were noble, but Quinn’s business associates needed convincing. The club, after all, had been relegated as the worst side in Premier League history. The playing squad was poor. There was also the small matter of £40M worth of debt.
“When my consortium saw the training ground, they literally fell over,” he told The Daily Star’s Clive Hetherington. “Then when they saw the stadium and 44,000 there for the Arsenal game, they said: 'what is it going to be like if we can make it great again?’” They seemed suitably convinced.
The group began discussions with Murray, although a club statement made it clear that no offer had been made - “It may or may not lead to an offer for the company being made.” Speculation gathered pace, however, when Murray “sensationally” announced his impending resignation as club chairman on June 14th.
He maintained that he “wanted the best for the club,” confirming “for certain” that he would not be at the helm at the beginning of the following season. It was “another big step" towards his “total exit from the club.”
Two weeks later, Quinn confirmed that Drumaville, which the consortium had come to be known, were “committed to closing the deal.” Their offer was accepted just four days later; Niall Quinn was now the chairman of Sunderland AFC. It was an opportunity to complete unfinished business after feeling that he hadn’t left Sunderland with the “right exit.”
“I am delighted to be in position to present this offer to the shareholders of Sunderland,” a jubilant Quinn said in a statement. “We believe this heralds a new beginning for Sunderland, but it's only going to happen if everyone comes together in a joint effort."
Over the last few weeks, I've made it quite plain that I believe it's one of the greatest football clubs in the world that is in fantastic shape everywhere but on the pitch. I hope that by being a former player here, by knowing what makes things tick at Sunderland, that I will add something intriguing and new that a chairman perhaps hasn't been in a position to do before here, all based with an emphasis of getting it right on the pitch.
He spoke of a desire to unite the city, and for the fans to see passion in their football club, expressing a belief that the club “will get back to where it deserves to be” if he could “reconnect the players and the club to the people.”
Murray, meanwhile, expressed feelings of regret, but shared an optimism for the future under Quinn and Drumaville. He said: “I know we had some bad years but the lowest we finished was third in the Championship. Ideally I should have walked away when we finished seventh and I cannot understand how we messed up. The relegation that followed, the redundancies and dismantling what I had achieved hurt the most."
“I have been here too long and it needs fresh impetus, more appetite and energy,” he added. “Niall ticks all the right boxes. It is the only club for him and he understands what is important to the people here. Once he gets his feet through the door we will have a big name manager. Niall is desperate and hungry which gives me a lot of comfort. Other offers we had didn't enthuse me but I am excited about the future and Sunderland supporters should be.”
The move set in motion a 21 day period of consulting with shareholders; Drumaville needed to purchase around 90% of shares to take complete control of the club, per the conditions of their agreement with Murray.
For Quinn, the “most important thing” now was “to try and find a manager who can take this club where we all want it to be."
“I want to see Sunderland in the big league taking on the big boys and we need a manager who shares the same vision,” he said at a press conference announcing his takeover deal.
There's been a lot of speculation as to who that might be and in the last four or five weeks I've been building up in my mind a profile of the type of person I want to take this club forwards. But it was very difficult to look at offering the club to someone when I wasn't actually in charge of it.
With Bob allowing me to go looking for a manager that search will really step up now. I want them in as soon as possible because it's important we get started as quickly as we can.
I've got no doubts that we will be able to attract a top class manager because not only does Sunderland now offer a great opportunity, it also offers an intriguing and fascinating challenge for the right man.
Now, just to find that man…