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Interview: Niall Quinn on how he was involved in a potential takeover of Sunderland in 2018

In part three of our interview with Niall Quinn, the former Sunderland chairman explains the circumstances behind why he left the club, and how he was approached to be involved in a potential takeover back in 2018.

Steve Bruce Announced As New Sunderland AFC Manager Photo by Barry Pells/Getty Images

RR: Is there any truth that you fell out with Ellis Short over the sacking of Steve Bruce? He was your man and I believe you had a really good relationship with him? Did that contribute to you leaving so abruptly?

NQ: No, not at all - we didn’t have a falling out. Steve (Bruce) took it badly and he didn’t speak to me for a while, but it was the right thing to do because of where we were.

If you look at what happened in the three months I had with Martin (O’Neill) - I can’t remember losing a game. We were absolutely flourishing. James McClean came in and lifted the place with his form. It looked like it was in the right place.

When you look back, when the club was being sold to Ellis, I was part of Drumaville and I only stayed because Ellis asked me to. I was six years away from my family, my kids teenage years were a non event and I made a decision at that point in time that my time as Sunderland Chairman was over - my value was over, if you like.

I had a go, I had done certain things but it was somebody else’s turn. As it turns out Ellis had found some time then to do the job himself, so the transition was easy. He was good to me on the way out, he released a lovely statement about me, I was happy I had done what I had done.

Looking back, it was a bold, ballsy move for a player who had no experience in corporate finance or acquisition. To run the club and bring my thoughts and ideas into the club whilst keeping the books balanced - with Ellis’ help - that was an added bonus, but it was someone else’s turn to bring into a viable route into making the club successful and there was a few people who did that, Director roles and a few other titles.

I know how tough it is here to succeed, so I would never criticise anybody who had a go at it. The day you stop and start thinking “I was better than him” or “he did better than me” you’re at nothing. It’s a really difficult process.

I felt, at the time, it was a good time to go. We were doing well, things looking okay and well balanced. I think we were ninth in the league the day I left, still in the FA Cup and had just beaten Arsenal, Martin seemed to have the team in good nick and I just felt it was time for Ellis to put his spin on it. That was it.

I hadn’t seen my kids between the ages of 12-16 and it was also a family decision and the time was right to go home.

Soccer - Barclays Premier League - Sunderland v Chelsea - Stadium of Light
Bruce, Quinn and Short.
Photo by Owen Humphreys/PA Images via Getty Images

RR: I believe there was a consortium that were looking to take over in the summer before Stewart Donald came in. Is there any truth they wanted to put you in charge?

NQ: No. I had up to four people came up to speak to me about it. A couple I knew, a couple I didn’t. They said they were interested in doing something at Sunderland and would I be interested and I said “No. I’ve had my time at it, but if you need a little hand to help understand the club more...” ‘cause I think sometimes people look at a club, and especially Sunderland, and they look at the books and finances and they don’t look at the impact value of fans loving a football club in a manner I had never seen before.

When that passion flows freely through a football club, how do you put a value on what you’re buying?

If you want to really weigh it up properly, yes you get X in season ticket money, X in TV money, X in advertising money but really you have to add other serous things, like the Foundation of Light and the good that does, and what it gives to the city and they good will the club receives from it. There’s so many attributes to Sunderland AFC than just the finances.

Those who spoke to me about wanting to understand that, and wanted to make that part of their approach towards buying the football club, they were the ones I spoke to. I spoke to all four of them who wanted to maximise the impact of reconnecting the fans to the football club and I stuck to that.

As it happens, they fell away and Stewart Donald came in rather quickly, but make no bones about it, regardless of what happens Stewart Donald and his team got two things right on day one - they reconnected the club with the fans - and trust me, that is not simple. It was excellent, but probably just as important they’ve got a fine manager. They chose a a fine manager that barely anybody even knew about. They are two very big things that give a club a chance.

They looked like they had a super star in Josh Maja who was going to fire us to promotion, but things happen when you run a football club and I know the difficulties that these guys face.

But just going back to finish off the question, was I interested in becoming Chairman of the football club and leading the full battalion of requirements you need as a leader to make a football club great again? No, I wasn’t.

But had they put the Foundation as an integral part of their plan to move the club forward, had they understood the value of fan engagement - which Stewart Donald has done, and has been very honest and very open.

I didn’t actually speak to Stewart or his team, but there’s a lot to like about how his takeover took place and it’s good from outside looking in, because I’m still a fan, as is my son who is a huge Sunderland fan. He’s my sound-box now, he’s all about everything Sunderland.

It’s still very much close to me, but I had my turn, I enjoyed it, I got things right, I got things wrong. I think the passion of the club came alive for a while whilst I was there when it had been tested you could say in the previous regime.

You know... when I look back at it all, if I had stopped for a second to think about it, even for a day after Bob Murray spoke to me, I wouldn’t have done it. I would have taken the easy life. I’d have played golf (laughs) or gone on TV and said how bad everybody else was doing it, but sometimes you have to stick your neck out and take something on, as alien as it was me in terms of the business and financials etc.

One thing I’d like to think that, within the club itself, in terms of the fan side, the coaching, the academy - all the stuff that came, I always like to think of all those positives, I don’t like to stop and think of all the things that went wrong for other people, I think about them with myself all the time, I think “what could I have done better?”, but other than give Darren Bent five times the money everybody else was on... which may have been the right thing to do! I have real time for Darren, but he was looking to get the best for himself, as was his agent. Having said that, I am glad he didn’t run his contract down and go for nothing!

There’s a balance you need to strike and it was the same with Asamoah.

I do wish we had Jordan (Henderson) for one more year, because I think he struggled in his first year (at Liverpool) and I think we could have put the finishing edges on him with one more year. But for a kid who gave everything to the club when he was still only a kid, we had to think about it. We would have been holding him back had anything happened in that year and we mightn’t have received that amount of money for him and he might have missed the opportunity.

We always believed Jordan would get there if he was given the right ship to sail in. What’s even more admirable about how he has got to where he was today is that it wasn’t going well for him at Liverpool. There was even talk that Brendan Rodgers would have let him go, but he stuck his head down like all good Sunderland people and worked his way into a brilliant position.

I tell players all the time that Sunderland people work hard, they are fanatical. This club shouldn’t be in the third tier - it shouldn’t be in the second tier! - but one thing Sunderland people will do, if you show a bit of bottle, a bit of heart and they see you not just going through the motions, or using the club to get your next move, if the fans see you buying into their club and putting your footballing life on the line to get this club back to where they should be they’ll see it and you’ll get a huge kick out of that fans engagement.

If you want to take another route and say it’s the fans fault, it’s the coaches fault or whatever then take that route, but the one’s who make it at Sunderland are the ones who stick their chest out, brush away all the negativity and do it for Sunderland. It means more when it happens then.

Fulham v Sunderland - Premier League Photo by Phil Cole/Getty Images

RR: What do you view as your greatest success as chairman?

NQ: Whether it was a great success, I don’t know! There’s a number of things added together that maybe make it a little bit of a success - it wasn’t managing the team, let’s get that straight!

When you’re involved in football and the press are there everyday, I think getting the club into shape to believe again, even if it had taken three years for us to get back to the Premier League. But I can’t claim that, because I didn’t do that - I chose someone to do that. Roy Keane did that. Roy Keane lifted Sunderland as a city, not just a football club. He brought a winning mentality and a belief that this thing could go forward, and that other things in their life could go forward. That was a big gamble and a big risk as I hadn’t spoke to him since our Saipan fall out years prior. For that to have worked and the club to have benefited from it - yeah, I’m happy with that.

At the tail of my time there, I’m very proud that Gary Hutchinson came to me and said he would get concerts to the city if I gave him a bit of backing. Gary was a young lad at the time and anybody else would have laughed, but I backed him. Nine months later, Take That played six nights in a row or something! To see that happen, to see the good coming out in people. The fans were up and down, as can happen, but the people who work at the club were my responsibility, I was their boss or leader and to see them recover from the redundancies from when I got there to a place where people were beaming and they were happy to come to work, that sort of stuff makes the outside world a better place.

It was worth it.

In finalising the answer to the question, I am most proud of connecting all the different parts of the club to make it work for a period of time.

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