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The country Niall: Quinn faces his toughest task yet at Sunderland

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27 Mar 2010 00:44:30

The country Niall: Quinn faces his toughest task yet at Sunderland

Black Cat: Niall Quinn arrives at Sunderland As the bumper of Niall Quinn's car crested the first westbound hill on the A69 between Newcastle and Carlisle, and as the sunlit beauty of the Tyne Valley spread out before him, the Irishman surveyed the scenery, drank it in and was transported backwards. He had been on this stretch of road across the roof of England before. There was the time as a Sunderland player when Quinn was a younger man with only himself and his family to think about. He travelled over to attend 'Carlisle Mart'. There was a horsebox attached to his car because he was off to buy four cows. They were for his children to look after on the 17 beloved acres Quinn bought near Sedgefield after he moved from Manchester City in 1996. Dempsey and Makepeace, Cagney and Lacey. Those were the names. Years later it still makes Quinn smile, though he added: 'Foot and mouth almost did for them.' He has a rural memory. Then there was a more recent trip, in the summer of 2006, when Quinn, leading the Drumaville Irishmen who were buying Sunderland, arrived at Brunton Park as not only a consortium figure but as the Wearsiders' hastily-appointed temporary manager. Carlisle United meant a pre-season friendly and Quinn now had much more than himself to consider. 'I won a game here as a manager,' he boasted grinning with a sense of self-deprecation. He knew he wasn't the next Bill Shankly. The reminiscing came a fortnight ago. Quinn was in Carlisle in his third and most serious Sunderland role, as the club's chairman. With his club not playing until Sunday, he had a day off and fancied a match. Carlisle it was, a busman's holiday. Peeling off the A69, we stopped in a pub on the way for a cup of tea. It didn't sell tea. At Brunton Park, former Sunderland colleague Paul Thirlwell had left tickets. Quinn sat in the crowd, signed the odd autograph, shook his head at the refereeing and got to his feet when 10-man Carlisle fought back from 1-0 down to beat Colchester 2-1. On the way back Quinn peeled off again, on to the parallel Military Road, and caught the magnificence of Hadrian's Wall lit up by volunteers with lanterns. It was some sight. 'Good day, that,' he said. Master of all of he surverys: Quinn's connection to the city of Sunderland goes back to when he joined as a player in 1996 On Monday Quinn was out and about again: 'It's a diverse role, all right,' he said. The player-turned-manager-turned-chairman had just opened a children's playground in Whitburn and was leaving a convent in Tunstall, where he had taken flowers to Sunderland-supporting Mother Noalesco, a nun marking her 100th birthday. 'She left Cork for Sunderland in 1925,' Quinn said with awe. 'Can you imagine?' Then he started laughing his way through the punchline. 'You know the first thing she asked me? 'What'd you do to that poor Roy Keane?' People from Cork!' A few minutes later Quinn was in his office beside the Stadium of Light. Roy Keane was still on his mind because Quinn reflected on what has been a hectic 3½ years. Carlisle takes him back to where Sunderland were. Professionals generally prefer to talk about the here and now rather than beginnings, but some perspective does no harm. In the takeover summer of 2006, Sunderland had just been relegated from the Premier League on a record low total of 15 points. That was three years after they had set the previous record low of 19 points, when they scored 21 times in 38 games. Those two relegations sucked the insides out of the club, meant redundancies and instilled scepticism and disillusion that even a local hero like Quinn has yet to rout. Keane had turned Sunderland down, so had Martin O'Neill. Bolton rebuffed an approach for Sam Allardyce. Into the manager's office stepped Quinn and the club's new season began with five straight defeats. 'There had been a lot of anger in the air,' Quinn recalled. 'The diehards were coming to the ground to protest, others were staying away, they'd fallen out of love with their club. It was pretty sad to see. On the up: Darren Bent is a striker capable of lifting Sunderland into the upper-reaches of the Premier League '(Former chairman) Bob Murray had had enough. His legacy is immense, the stadium, training ground, but it was time for change. Drumaville came together. But then there was a lot of euphoria around. We needed people to calm down.' Nonchalantly, Quinn added: 'I thought the best way to do that was to lose the first four matches then get knocked out of the League Cup by Bury.' Then: 'I didn't get enough time from the chairman.' But the joking was over. Now available, in came Keane. 'Roy did brilliantly. He not only lifted a football club, he lifted a city by applying the great standards he learned at Man United. He got us rocking and rolling. That first season has some great memories. 'But I still get vexed that nobody remembers that I picked the team, coached and organised it when we  beat West Brom here in my last match. Sacked after a victory.' Those three points left Sunderland second from the bottom of the Championship. On Wednesday this week at Aston Villa there was a point gained that means next season should be the Wearsiders' fourth consecutive one in the Premier League. That brings stability, self-esteem and funds. But it has been far from straightforward. Along the way Keane has come and gone, so too his successor Ricky Sbragia, now the club's chief scout. Steve Bruce came from Wigan last June. He needs time and will be given it. The Drumaville Irishmen have also departed. Knocked sideways by the plummeting Celtic Tiger, they were bought out by a still-enigmatic American, Ellis Short. Dream Team: Quinn and Black Cats' owner Ellis Short (right), an American businessman Short and Quinn first met at the Ryder Cup in 2006. Short was intrigued. One of those apparent rarities, a successful banker, Short is Missouri-born but London-based. Made aware of a proposed Saudi buy-out of Hicks and Gillett at Liverpool, Short instead saw value on Wearside. For less than Fernando Torres cost Liverpool, Short formally bought Sunderland last year. Short was already in the background, funding. Recently all that investment has been transferred into share capital. As Quinn explained: 'In theory the money the owner has put in is like sponsorship money, although for accountancy purposes we cannot call it turnover. 'But Ellis would only recover it should he make a successful sale way on down the line. In plain terms it has been turnover, which, again in theory, puts our wage bill below 50 per cent of our entire income. This is extremely healthy. 'This enabled us to pay entire transfer fees up front for a lot of players in the summer, while Ellis has also addressed our inherited bank debt and reduced it significantly. 'I realise we are very fortunate with our owner and that he may take the hit if it all doesn't work out. But he's a serious man. He intends making it work out.' Yes, but who is he and what is he getting out of this? 'The owner loves football, he's lived in London for 14 years, his interest in football is phenomenal. I can get a call at any time of the night and he'll want to discuss the Premier League news of the day and how it affects us. 'Yet Ellis likes to stay in the background. He expects a certain ethos, a serious tone, one of application from us all. 'For him the desire is to bring this club back to its former glory, ready to play a competitive game in Europe that is a realistic aim. Main attraction: Quinn is angered by what he calls 'cheats' who screen 3pm kick-offs illegally in pubs, and so keep fans away from the live action 'But it has to be done smartly. Performance-related pay for players, that has to be the way forward, otherwise the Premier League golden goose will one day have an arrow through its heart. Portsmouth's a great wake-up call. 'We have an owner who is not just a benefactor, he has serious longterm goals that he wants to achieve without ever jeopardising this great club. There's not many like that. What we have to do is prove to him that we can go further.' By that Quinn means a place in the Premier League top 10, winning a first major trophy since 1973 and by filling the Stadium of Light. They are inter-related but the impression has always been that the last comes first for Quinn. He knows the noise Sunderland fans can generate and it is like fuel to him. But he has a warning for Wearside. Too often the 48,000-capacity stadium has been a quarter empty. 'Ellis has done his bit,' Quinn said. 'What he has done and is prepared to do is incredible. This is the chance the club has waited for since the war. But it's on the basis that we're going to get bigger and better. This summer will tell a lot. 'If season ticket numbers go down despite Ellis's input, I, as chairman, cannot advise him to keep spending. 'We have an owner who is not just a benefactor, he has serious longtermgoals that he wants to achieve without ever jeopardising this greatclub''But if numbers expand and we reach the magic number, great. We have 30,000 season ticket holders at the moment. I'd like 35,000. 40,000 would be a magic number.' Paraguay midfielder Cristian Riveros is rumoured to be the first of 'a couple of decent signings' in the summer. 'But I have to be careful too, people might be getting tired of my message. This is the best chance this club has had in the past 60 years, but I have to be tougher now on those staying away. 'There are people out there watching our games in pubs illegally. Theyhave got to buy a season ticket. If they do, then we're sorted. 'Our security have gone undercover a number of times in the pubs and we counted around 5,000 watching illegally while we're playing at home on Saturday at 3 o'clock. Some pubs brazenly advertise. That's a real problem for us. 'It's not even just about the money, it's about saying this thing deserves to go further. It's up to the city and the region to respond. Remember, it's the club driving the bid for World Cup host-city status in 2018, which will be  enormous for everyone. Is it too much to ask? 'Other research we have done revealed that if you let your season  ticket lapse, the average amount of games you go to the next season is two. People find other things to do. By the look of it, they're going to go the pub. 'If they get tired of me saying that, then someone else will have to come in if this club is to go where it wants to go. 'Loyal fans stayed with the team during the winter's bad run and I'm grateful for that amazing but there are others out there who need to get back here. They could make all the difference.' At another point Quinn referred to those watching illegally as 'cheats'. He is a changing 43-yearold. There is still the wide, jocular Niall, constantly setting quizzes, telling jokes, losing at Cheltenham and threatening the Sunderland office staff that he will pipe country and western music through the building. All day. But there is the boardroom figure, too, the accountant who views Fulham's beguiling season in this context 'What do I think when I see Fulham in Europe? Fulham brought 192 people here for a Premier League match, we take thousands everywhere. Whenever I see Fulham play, that's all I think.' There is the man who attends Premier League chairmens' meetings and who spoke up for the fourth-place play-off idea. Ready for battle: Sunderland endured a torrid winter but have fought their way out of the mire and are nw unbeaten in nine 'We'd have been in favour of it. Two clubs below us voted against it, one of whom came up via the play-offs, which struck me as absurd. The top of the Premier League is fantastic, so is the bottom. 'There's just the middle bit that can go dead too early towards the end of the season.' Increasing the difference in place prize money might be a way to galvanise the middle, Quinn said. Expenditure has made him, like most, alter his thinking. He was determined not to deal with agents when he entered the boardroom. He soon realised that would not work. 'The reality is they control the lifeblood of the game, the players,' he said. Including players at all levels and part-time match-day staff, Quinn estimates 1,400 people work for Sunderland. This is another piece of his new reality and he feels it. The 'winter of discontent' was his name for Sunderland's 14-match run without a win. 'I feel every bit of pain that I ever did as a player, just multiplied by 100,' he said. 'Supporters, what and how they're thinking, the media, the owner, there are so many things. 'Steve Bruce under pressure? The last thing we wanted to do was bring more pressure into it. 'But the people I'm most concerned about are those who come in here every day, bright people who put far more in than they get out. They have mortgages, families. I got a real shiver when I saw people coming out of Portsmouth for the last time. 'That took me back to when 70 jobs here were lost because the club were relegated and in a hopeless position. And there were still players driving around in flash cars.' But things are better. Sunderland have players back from injury, a regular back four in place and have lost once in nine games. That was at Arsenal, Quinn's first football home. Gunning for glory: Quinn (second right) in action during the North London Derby It was Highbury's bootroom then, Ashburton Grove's boardroom now. There is still banter. 'I remember at Arsenal my old chairman Mr Hill-Wood asked me when I made my debut, what was I earning. When I told him £150 a week before tax his response was: 'That was a lot of money at the time.' 'My response to that was, 'Not five years later, it wasn't'.' Quinn said he thinks most football directors look forward to Wigan's boardroom 'because they have the best pies and you have a real knife and fork with it.' Next it is Anfield, on Saturday. Though Quinn did not play the night in 1989 when Arsenal famously won the League title there, he was part of it. He mentioned 'a late equaliser for Man City there'. Niall Quinn remains a football man and, as such, cherishes Anfield. 'Do you remember those adidas Tango balls?' he asked. 'One time, when Liverpool had Lawrenson and Hansen, Whelan playing right back, Nicol left back, we had me up front and I had George Graham telling me to close them all down. George asked me to 'chase the Tango'. 'Good people there then, men like Ronnie Moran. You felt privileged if he said hello to you and he always did. Always a class act.'   Andy Townsend's Boot Room: Aston Villa need a touch of Yorkie's magicBruce takes new swipe at Rafa over Liverpool's pursuit of hot shot JonesLiverpool v SUNDERLAND: Kenwyne Jones set to feature in trip to MerseysideAston Villa 1 Sunderland 1: Carew right on cue to keep top four dream aliveSUNDERLAND FC


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