Niall Quinn

As Niall Quinn stepped down from his position at Sunderland this week, North-East based blogger, Tom Bodell, profiles him.

The term ‘legend’ is banded about without true care and thought over its use nowadays – particularly within the world of football. Football figures can often prove quite divisive when they are being categorized by punters, but Niall Quinn is the exception to both those statements.  Even rarer is it that someone earns said status for their contribution in more than one field. Yet again, Quinn smashes that theory out the window.

Born in Perrystown, Dublin, 45 years ago, Quinn might not be synonymous with Sunderland AFC outside of the Tyne-and-Wear region; spells with Arsenal and Manchester City preceded his six-year association with the Black Cats which ended in a playing capacity in 2002.

It’s arguable that Quinn has earned his legendary status with Sunderland supporters since quitting playing aged 35, though he was an excellent player all the same. What the former forward has achieved off the field for the Black Cats has been immeasurable and a huge debt of gratitude is genuinely felt by every supporter of the Black Cats.

Rewind to June 2006 and Sunderland were not anywhere near their current lofty position in the Premier League. Marooned in the Championship and saddled with a squad of journeymen and average players only punctuated with the odd gem such as Julio Arca, Quinn bought a controlling stake in the football club.

As part of the Irish-based Drumaville consortium, Quinn completed a deal in late July and was immediately instilled as chairman and manager of the Black Cats, filling the vacancy left by previous incumbent, Mick McCarthy who had seen the side relegated miserably from the Premier League the season prior with a then-record low points tally.

There was to be no immediate uplift for Quinn and co. Under their new boss, the Black Cats lost their first four games of the season and a first round League Cup tie to League Two Bury. Quinn was clearly not the man to take his beloved football club forward on the field and the former striker revealed that a ‘World Class’ manager would be in place for Sunderland’s next game.

More than a few eyebrows were subsequently raised when Roy Keane was unveiled as the ‘World Class’ manager that Quinn had been searching for. Quinn memorably scoffed at the idea of his old enemy Keane being a Manager on Sky Sports in the past, and suddenly he was now the man identified as turning Sunderland around.

But Quinn’s decision was right and results immediately began to improve under Keane’s stewardship. Keane’s impact saw the Black Cats record victory over West Brom the day before he officially agreed to take over and this success was followed up by victories against Derby County and Leeds United in Keane’s first two matches in charge.

On Transfer Deadline Day 2006, Quinn backed his man emphatically in the transfer market, forking out for six new arrivals in Dwight Yorke, Liam Miller, Stanislav Varga, Ross Wallace, Graham Kavanagh and David Connolly.

The positive feeling continued to flow through a side that had only recently been rooted in the relegation spots under Quinn’s management. By the New Year, Sunderland were well on course for promotion at the first attempt and Quinn was once again happy to back his man with another five additions in Anthony Stoke, Carlos Edwards and Stern John as well as the loan additions of Manchester United pair Danny Simpson and Johnny Evans.

The Black Cats eventually romped to the title under the direction of the Keane-Quinn dream team and back into the Premier League. The “world-class” Keane was subsequently named Championship ‘Manager of the Season’ after overseeing a turnaround of extremely infrequent proportions whilst Quinn was rightly hailed as the genius who had overseen the whole operation.

The following season saw Premier League survival confirmed with two games to spare. Quinn once more backed Keane whose thirst for experienced additions was beginning to become unquenchable: ex-Manchester United men Kieran Richardson, Danny Higginbotham, Paul McShane and Phil Bardsley all arriving at the Stadium of Light.

In December 2008, Quinn took the step of agreeing the sale of the Drumaville Consortium’s entire holding in the football club to Irish-American businessman, Ellis Short. Quinn had previously auctioned off a 30% stake to Short in September of 2008.

In September 2011, Quinn stood down from his role as chairman, allowing Short to take up the mantle almost three years after completing the purchase of the club. Quinn’s presence on the club’s board was something of a safety net for supporters who at the time would have been forgiven for being a little sceptical about an American taking over their beloved club at a time where foreign takeovers had brought the likes of Hicks and Gillette to the top-flight.

Quinn side-stepped into the newly–created ‘Head of International Development’ position and it looked, sadly, like Quinn’s time at the club would be coming to an end sooner rather than later as he accepted a less prominent role in the club’s off-the-field hierarchy.

The project on which Quinn had embarked upon in 2006 was no ego trip for the big Irishman, who was clearly shrewd enough to recognize the needs of club moving forward as he handed the reins to Short, with the club now in as healthy position as it has ever been.

Perched in 9th position in the Premier League and with a trip to Everton in the F.A Cup Quarter Finals, overseen by a new manager who enjoys the full support of the fan base in Martin O’Neill, Sunderland fans will be forever grateful to Quinn.

Gavin Henderson of the seventy3 fanzine said: “Gutted big Quinny has left Sunderland. We would not be in the position that we are today if a kind hearted Irishman hadn’t got off his arse and done something about it.”

Despite all he achieved off the field in rescuing, stabilizing and re-building a club that was on its backside, Quinn had of course initially come to Wearside as a player, and of course, he succeeded in that field too, arriving in 1996 from Manchester City in a £1.3m deal. What excellent value that turned out to be.

Sixty-nine goals in 220 appearances for the Black Cats won’t read as an exceptional scoring record but Quinn’s contribution was more than that, helping steer the ship through rough times once more and also forming a deadly little-and-large partnership with Kevin ‘SuperKev’ Phillips.

Quinn himself summed it up perfectly in his autobiography: “I learned my trade at Arsenal, became a footballer at Manchester City, but Sunderland got under my skin. I love Sunderland.”

He leaves the club to concentrate on his family and other business interests and with the best wishes of every Sunderland supporter. There are few people that can win the support of everybody. but Quinn did that emphatically. Perhaps it was his disco pants.

Tom Bodell

Tom used to edit ‘Vital Sunderland’ and is an occasional contributor to www.sportsbyte.sunderland.ac.uk