With the Black Cats having finished the 2005/06 season rooted to the bottom of the Premier League table - a paltry fifteen points proving unsurprisingly insufficient - Sunderland looked set for a bleak summer following their ignominious return to the Championship after a sole year away.
And yet, beneath the despair, there lingered a spring of optimism in the form of an Irishman who first arrived on Wearside ten years previously.
Niall Quinn, scorer of 61 league goals for the red and whites, returned to the club that stuck by him when many others may well have cast him aside. Not content with his contribution to two consecutive seventh-placed Premier League finishes, the Dublin striker felt he still owed his last club a debt of gratitude.
The task that lay before him was no small one.
Then chairman Bob Murray, Sunderland to the bone, seemed to finally have decided enough was enough. Much in football had changed in the time since Murray took over in the 1980s, and it had now become abundantly clear that the man born in nearby Consett no longer possessed the financial clout necessary for Sunderland to unleash the potential he believed it held.
The problem was: to whom could Murray offload the club? Faced with approximately £40m worth of debt, and the inevitable firesale of their playing squad, Sunderland were hardly an attractive proposition to even the most ambitious of businessmen.
Step forth, Mr Quinn.
Out of the game since his retirement four years earlier, he had invested much of his time (and money) in horse racing. Though he had briefly embarked upon acquiring his coaching badges, Quinn had not shown a particularly grand desire to return to the game that made him a household name.
But there was something about Wearside that kept him intrigued. Following his retirement, Quinn told of how Sunderland “got under my skin”; indeed, such was his respect for the area that he felt the need to reject the offer of Freedom of the City, stating that he, as a mere footballer, would feel wrong accepting such an award when there are many who “do real and much more meaningful jobs every day of their lives”.
It was a match against his old side Arsenal that confirmed to him that he should look to take over the club. Without a home victory all season and long since relegated, 44,003 spectators (with no more than a couple of thousand in the away end) turned up to see their side get trounced 0-3. Watching from above as the entire home support rose to clap off the visiting Thierry Henry, Quinn’s mind was made up. Despite plumbing new depths, Sunderland remained a grand sleeping giant, and he felt he was the one to awaken it.
He couldn’t do it alone, however. For a start, despite his successful footballing career, he did not possess the excessive finances now required to propel a football club into the upper reaches of the top division.
What he lacked in monetary reserves though, he made up for with contacts. A naturally gregarious individual, Quinn’s time at the various racecourses of Ireland had allowed him into several significant circles, and it was to these that he turned well before that Arsenal match.
On 19 April, after roughly a month of newspaper gossip and hopeful speculation on Wearside, Quinn confirmed he was active in the process of recruiting members to what would ultimately became known as the Drumaville Consortium. A little over a week later, the club itself confirmed it was in talks with Quinn’s group, though made no mention of any formal bid having been submitted.
At the time of these events, the consortium was one shrouded in mystery. Now, five years down the line, such ambiguities remain. Reports conflict over the exact make-up of the group; who held how many shares; who put what money in.
What is certain however, is that Quinn’s group took on a distinctly Irish tone. Of the nine eventual members, including the future chairman, eight were from the Emerald Isle.
First came the wonderfully named Charlie Chawke. Not hampered by the loss of his right leg following a robbery in 2003, the publican was one of the more recognisable characters within the Drumaville Consortium, of which fellow pub magnate Louis Fitzgerald was also a member. Fitzgerald’s estimated wealth at the time, approximately £80m, had fans of the Black Cats salivating at the thought of a heavy period of investment in a much depleted playing squad.
Away from the alcohol trade, the remaining members of the Irish octet derived their wealth from property development. Jack Tierney’s Faxhill Homes garnered him a not-so-small fortune, whilst Sean Mulryan, Paddy Kelly, Patsy Byrne and Pat Beirne had all made themselves comfortably well off having jumped onboard a booming property ladder.
The sole non-Irish member of Drumaville Ltd. was a man from much closer to home. John Hays, owner of Hays Travel and a Sunderland fan for his entire life, would eventually become deputy chairman of the club.
Alongside Quinn, the eight businessmen combined to put together a bid. Negotiations were lengthy, at least compared to the speed at which most deals within modern football are usually completed, but, on 3 July, Bob Murray announced the club had accepted a bid in the region of £10m from Drumaville for a 72.59% stake.
Murray himself had proclaimed his resignation from the chairmanship almost three weeks earlier on 14 June. However, in a move that was testament to his desire to see the club end up in the right hands, he remained on the board of directors to oversee and ensure that Drumaville’s path to control was a smooth one.
Following that success at the start of July, the group had twenty-one days in which to acquire a stake whereby they had full control of the club. Needing to gather back shares from a wide array of stockholders, Sunderland having floated on the market ten years earlier, the nine members of the consortium agreed upon a set figure of acquiring 90% of the club.
Ultimately, they fell short. Though hard to say for certain, reports and figures suggest the group had acquired 89.1% by 27 July. However, falling short by less than 1% seemed insignificant given the optimism Quinn had successfully injected into his partners and, with the original conditions of their agreement waived, Drumaville Ltd. assumed control of the club.
The foundations had been laid. Mostly via his own personality and the contacts it had helped him acquire, Quinn had gathered together and inspired a group with the financial capability of propelling Sunderland back into the Premier League and, more importantly, staying there for the foreseeable future.
With waves of optimism spreading across a city that for much of its recent history had spied rivals with a dejected and jealous eye, Quinn assumed the chairmanship, and set about outlining his plan for the future of Sunderland AFC.