“They played Bury away, in the League Cup, on a Tuesday night. And they were beaten. Niall was interviewed after the game; he was their temporary manager. He looked about a hundred. My sister texted me: ‘Did you see Niall Quinn? You need to help him out.’”
Niall Quinn, after purchasing Bob Murray’s majority stake in Sunderland, had “no doubts” that the club would be “able to attract a top class manager.” Relegation was admittedly a “hurdle to overcome,” but the job was for somebody who wanted a challenge.
“The opportunity is here to create more than your average Premier League club. That is the key. I have to sell that to a would-be manager,” Quinn told reporters.
Selling that to a would-be manager, however, was proving harder than Quinn had anticipated. Moves for Martin O’Neill and Sam Allardyce seemed optimistic. While tensions were rising between the latter and Bolton chairman Phil Gartside, it’s hard to disagree with Gartside’s assessment:
It is nonsense to suggest Sam would even consider leaving Bolton to go to Sunderland. How could anybody even think that? Why would he consider leaving one of only five clubs to finish in the top 10 of the Premiership for the last three years to go to a club that has just been relegated?
Unable to find the right man, Quinn made the decision to appoint himself as manager at the end of July. Becoming Sunderland’s manager was “not something that I thought I would be doing,” but it “transpired that way, even though the group who are backing me could not have been more ambitious in trying to attract a world-class manager.”
We decided we would try to attempt the first hurdle because we have to stop the slide. We have to gather momentum, and then to lift it so that we get to a point where I can pick the phone up, go to a world-class manager and hopefully with the position we are then in, say to him, 'come now.’
Quinn told The Telegraph’s Louise Taylor that he believed he could “rejuvenate things.” The club worked on passion, rather than tactical genius, he stressed.
There were times when we were finishing seventh in the Premiership and beating Chelsea and Arsenal, while holding our own against Manchester United. We were frightening the lives out of those clubs and it wasn't because we had blackboards all over the place or geniuses giving fantastic tactical information. We had heart and this is what I think I can give this club. I'd love to reconnect fans and players and restore passion.
“Everyone here expected to lose last season,'' he continued. “I think that's as low as it gets; you get a football team going out on to the pitch not trying to lose but expecting to lose and the crowd turning up expecting the team to lose."
“The journey is going to take commitment and unbelievable standards; the guys here are going to be asked to set standards they've never been asked to set before.”
Quinn vowed to stand aside if he was not making progress as manager, but his main goal was to make Sunderland a more attractive proposition. He estimated that he process could take “three months, six months, or even 18 months.”
It took just one. But not as a result of Quinn’s managerial excellence. Sunderland lost five games in a row under Quinn’s management, the latest a humiliating League Cup defeat to Bury; The Shakers were the lowest place side in the Football League at the time. Quinn admitted that combining two roles was “too big”, and that it was “70-30 that we will have a world-class manager in charge” for the visit of West Brom.
Roy Keane had been linked to the Sunderland job, in the media at least, as early as July 2nd in a Sunday People exclusive; the club announced that they had accepted Drumaville’s takeover offer the following day. But his name had largely gone under the radar; instead, the likes of Allardyce, O’Neill, David O’Leary and Alex McLeish continued to be linked in the press. Keane was certainly a “world-class” player and would provide the “passion and heart” that Quinn desired, but he was untested in management.
There was also the small matter of the ‘Saipan Incident.’ Keane had been sent home from the 2002 World Cup following a newspaper interview, and subsequent tirade at manager Mick McCarthy, in which he criticised the squad’s preparation for the tournament, among other subjects.
Keane had branded Quinn a “muppet” and a “coward” after he sat alongside McCarthy at the press conference announcing his departure.
“People look at them as role models; they're cowards. When they had their chance to speak up they didn't,” he told RTE’s Tommie Gorman, adding that Quinn deserved an Oscar for “making out to be Mother Theresa.” Quinn confessed that he “had made mistakes” but had been left with no other choice at the time.
The pair, in Keane’s words, “hadn’t spoken at all” since the incident. But neither would let that disagreement stand in the way of a business opportunity. On August 27th, a club statement confirmed that Keane had visited Sunderland and met players and club officials. It was “envisaged that he will sign a formal contract immediately after Sunderland's game against West Brom.”
Keane took his place in the stands the following day to see Sunderland win their first game. The crowd heaped adulation upon him, and while not managing the side, the “Keane effect” was said to be in full swing. Quinn exclaimed that he “brought a buzz to the place,” describing how the players "stood an inch taller" after meeting Keane.
The former Manchester United captain had in fact been approached three months previously. They buried the Saipan hatchet during the meeting, but Keane “didn’t want to jump into a job too quickly” and “genuinely wasn’t certain if management or coaching were for me,” so turned down the club’s advances.
So what changed?
“I watched a few matches on television and Sunderland were struggling badly,” Keane writes in his 2014 autobiography ‘The Second Half.’ “They played Bury away, in the League Cup, on a Tuesday night. And they were beaten. Niall was interviewed after the game; he was their temporary manager. He looked about a hundred. My sister texted me: ‘Did you see Niall Quinn? You need to help him out.’"
Keane asked his agent to get in touch with the club, who told him that the job was there if he wanted it. He was presented to the media on August 29th, where he told reporters: “I thought, ‘What am I waiting for?’ The challenge is there, this is a big club with a beautiful stadium and a big fan base. And the fans here in the North East share my passion. That was important.”
He vowed to control his famous temper, assuring players that there would be no problem if they gave 100% commitment to the club. “It’s very, very straightforward,” he said.
Quinn was suitably delighted with the appointment, describing it as “a major coup” for Sunderland.
“The fact that one of the most influential figures in world football is willing to come here should make all the Sunderland fans very happy,” he added. He praised Keane’s “legendary” standards of professionalism and his desire and determination to succeed, urging fans to “support and enjoy one of football's true greats as he embarks on what we all hope will be a fantastic new chapter in Sunderland’s rich and proud history.” He promised that it would be “a great time for the club” and that the appointment showed that Sunderland “meant business.”
Former players also expressed their delight at the appointment. John Byrne said that Sunderland fans “will be genuinely excited by this,” praising Keane as “a born winner with all the qualities to be a manager,” while Gary Bennett described the appointment as “the biggest thing to happen to this club for years.”
With introductions made, it was time to get down to business now that Quinn had his man; the transfer window was due to close in a matter of days. Keane’s initial impression of his new side was that they “weren’t as bad as the results were suggesting.” To him, Sunderland was a Premier League club, regardless of whether “they’d been relegated with one point or thirty-five.”
He considered them to be a “half-decent team” that had simply “been having a hard time.” He knew that “the potential was there.” But his opinion soon changed after taking training for the first time.
“We took training, and we started looking at the staff and players. I thought ‘My God, there’s a lot of work to be done,’” he recalls.
With just two days remaining until the end of the transfer window, there was precious time to waste.