RR: Let’s start right at the beginning. Sunderland plummet out of the Premier League with a record points and looked dead and buried from about December. What possessed you to start thinking about getting investors involved and buying Sunderland and what was the process?
NQ: So how it came about was Bob Murray - Sir Bob as he is now - was worried about the club and wanted to protect the foundation and asked would I come back and do some sort of role at the Foundation. That’s where I met up with Bob again.
Then things started to go well in Ireland and I told him there might be some money there, which he opened the door for and we collaborated for a while on how a deal could be formed or a takeover could happen. At that point I started talking with some potential investors, who became known as the Drumaville consortium, and it started to happen.
Three or four months later it got real legs and we entered into negotiations with the club and with the PLC board - although it wasn’t active as Sunderland had been part of the blue book rules of London due to being a PLC within seven years - there was a lot to consider as there was people who had shareholdings etc. from outside the club’s board and direct shareholders, so we had that to consider.
So it was quite an arduous process to buy a former PLC and to help plan and protect the club going forward.
Bob was very open at that time and didn’t have many options in all truth and although I think he was worried about the Foundation, I think he was just as worried about the club.
RR: I believe Roy Keane was always your first choice as manager, but he stalled a little originally. What is the story with that?
NQ: Yeah, before the deal went through, Roy kindly came over to one of the shareholders houses so we could all have a chat about it, all of us. It went really well and it looked like we were set to go forward and could announce him at the same time as the deal was confirmed.
We thought we were there, but as the deal was going through Roy had second thoughts. He had just came out of his football career and he wanted to go away on holiday and think about it. We decided to press on with the deal anyway.
It was always his for a period of time.
We played a game against Shelbourne in Ireland and I travelled back with the guys and when I got back I sat behind the desk for the first time and all was announced a few days later. I spent a few days doing press and trying to get shareholders over the line as it needed to be over 90% for the deal to go through, so I was making calls to long lost shareholders that nobody had heard of for a long time, all whilst trying to pick a team, get to know the team and all of that, instill some positivity and get some harmony around the place. It was whirlwind stuff. Helter skelter.
The one denominator through all of this though was the dressing room was a losing dressing room - the players were frightened. There also wasn’t a great will for people to stay there.
I brought in each player one by one, in alphabetical order so as not favour anyone. Ben Alnwick was the first player in and he said he wanted to move - he handed me a letter and said it wasn’t even worth talking to him (laughs) and I asked him to hold off on that. The first three people all wanted to move, so it wasn’t going well.
We tried to make training fun - I wasn’t going there to be Pep Guardiola but we wanted to create harmony and that’s why I brought in Bobby Saxton to help. Training went well, we won a game down at Carlisle I think, the boys were in good form and so we headed off to the opening game of the season - all whilst I’m dealing with the takeover, the deal, bringing players in.
We went to Coventry, Daryl Murphy scores and all is looking good - then suddenly I understood why the club was in so much trouble. Coventry have a throw in, our lads turn their backs, Coventry score then a few minutes later Stern John scores a second. As tough as that was, you could tell something very big was needed. We were alarmed by the lack of belief. We told them a few times “something big is going to happen here, try and prove you want to be a part of it”.
This all coincided with us keeping in touch with Roy’s solicitor to find out what the story was and we got the word he had came back from holiday following a defeat at Bury in the League Cup - a defeat where we had done all of our tactics around our new signing Arnau Riera who got sent off in the first three minutes before I’d even taken my seat. That was a moment I just looked up and thought “God, you don’t want me to do this job, do you?”
But we knew Roy was favourable to coming at the point though, so we remained calm. He didn’t come til a week later and we had a game against the league leaders West Brom; word had started to seep out that Roy was coming and the players all played 35% better in that game! We beat the league leaders easy and the players were all up for it, so that was a little twist before he created before he even came into the door.
Then the deal itself went through, we bought him six players. It was hard work, but we got it going and got to the Premier League well ahead of schedule.
RR: Did you have any other managers in mind if Roy didn’t take the job?
NQ: We spoke to Martin O’Neill but his wife had been very poorly and he’d only just left Celtic. We had a list, but we didn’t want to go to far into that list - we didn’t want to interview people only to tell them they didn’t have a chance in the first place, or they were never in the hunt.
We sought permission to speak to Sam Allardyce at Bolton, but we weren’t given permission to do.
So those were the areas we were thinking of as a group.
But the fact of the matter is Roy came back into the reckoning very quickly after he returned from holiday and that’s why I sacked myself very quickly after a great result against West Brom and gave him the job (laughs).
Check back tomorrow for Part Two of our interview as Niall talks honestly about what REALLY happened when Darren Bent and Asamoah Gyan left the club...