Come on within: Can returning Quinn be as mighty off the field as he was on it?

Stadium of New Light for suffering fans as old hero stresses the need for passion
Click to follow
The Independent Football

According to the League table on the homepage of the Sunderland website, Niall Quinn has inherited a club in a relegation place in the Championship. Click on to safc.com and there they are: 22nd, positioned for the drop, above West Bromwich Albion and Mick McCarthy's Wolves. It might only be an alphabetical low, before a ball has even been kicked, but the mere sight of it seems to sum up the mindset that needs to be lifted by the new chairman-cum-manager at the Stadium of Light.

Sunderland, with their home on the site of what was formerly Britain's oldest mine, were truly the pits last season, plunging out of the Premiership with a record low of 15 points. They won three games in total, just one out of 19 at the Stadium of Light.

"I came here for the Arsenal game at the end of the season and I was really shocked at how low things had got," Quinn confessed, after formally adding the manager's role to his brief. "The crowd sat down before the kick-off expecting the team to be beaten. That transfers itself to the players, who perhaps were subconsciously expecting to be beaten as well. And if you've got a football team that goes out on a pitch not trying to lose but expecting to lose... that's as low as it gets."

Still, even in that May Day nadir, a foregone conclusion of a fixture that ended in a 3-0 defeat, it was possible to see why someone might want to invest a little faith and more than a little of someone else's money in a serially losing cause. Sunderland's long-suffering fans might have been muted to the point of collective resignation, having seen their side scrape just three home points in eight months, but 44,003 of them turned up that day - and a remarkable 33,904 on average throughout the season.

Quinn and his Irish businessman backers, the Drumaville consortium, who officially took control from Bob Murray on Thursday, might have been unable to convince Martin O'Neill or Sam Allardyce of the Wearside club's potential, but the reluctant new manager has first-hand experience of the highs that can be hit with the support of Sunderland's mass following.

It was Quinn who volleyed the goal that put Sunderland 4-0 up before half-time against Chelsea at the Stadium of Light in Dec-ember 1999, in the first of two successive Premiership campaigns in which Peter Reid's side flirted with the top three before finishing seventh - the only two seasons in which the Black Cats have ended in the top half of England's top division in the past half a century.

"There were times when we were beating the Chelseas and the Arsenals," Quinn reflected. "We were frightening the life out of those big clubs. And it wasn't because we had blackboards all over the place. It wasn't because we had fantastic geniuses giving us all this information. It was because we had heart and because we had passion.

"I remember walking out at the Stadium of Light for a game against Arsenal into this wall of noise and red-and-white jerseys, and one of the Arsenal players turned to me and said, 'My God! I thought that was for us'. We beat Arsenal that day, that great Arsenal team. For me, it really was as good as it gets.

"It'll be for another manager, I think, for a great manager, to take this club all that way again. What I'd love to see in my time as manager is belief restored, and a passion.

"This club doesn't work because of tactical genius, as at some clubs. This club works through passion. I know that. I don't know how long it will take, but I'm here as a manager to reignite the flame."

The grand plan for Quinn and the men who spent £10 million on their takeover (and who soaked up £40m of debt dating back to the days when Reid frittered a fortune in big fees and wages on a series of overvalued underachievers) is to make Sunderland attractive enough for O'Neill, Allardyce, or another "world-class" manager to make the club a force again.

"I think if we had got, for example, a Martin O'Neill now it would have accelerated us a little," Quinn said. "But there's a long way to go, and the journey begins now.

"Yesterday - last season - has gone. I've got to get that out of the players' heads when they go and play the first game, against Coventry [at the Ricoh Arena a week today]. They've got to have their chests out and they've got to realise that they're going to be the best team in the League. That's what I want from them.

"I think we'll make strides, I do. I'm kind of getting worried, because everybody asks whether I am worried. And I'm not. I don't have any fear going into this at all. I just feel I'm at the one club in the world where I think I can make a difference."

Quinn will be striving to make that difference with the wily Bobby Saxton at his side, having tempted Reid's old right-hand man out of retirement to become his assistant. Together, the inspirational novice and the shrewd veteran have the potential for a fruitful managerial partnership. That potential, though, will need to show quick results if the momentum of last season's slide is to be checked.

They have gaps in personnel to fill, Julio Arca having moved to Middlesbrough and Kelvin Davis to Southampton, and George McCartney having suffered a knee injury in a friendly against Shelbourne last Monday night. The biggest void they need to fill, though, is in the goalscoring column, to which Jonathan Stead contributed just the once after his £1.8m move from Blackburn last summer.

The beanpole striker, built very much in the Quinn mould, was the one big throw of the dice that Mick McCarthy was granted by chairman Murray after steering Sunderland to the 2004-05 Championship title. "Mick probably knows it, but I think he should have been stronger with Bob when he got the club into the Premiership," Quinn says of his predecessor and former national team manager.

"I think he should have threatened to leave. After what he'd done he was in a position to call Bob's bluff, but Mick being the thorough gentleman he is accepted the small hand he got to play with. But that's history now. I wish him well. It's funny that we're going to be up against each other this season."

And with Sunderland's manager starting ahead of Wolverhampton's, according to the A to Z of the safc.com League table at any rate.

Double Headers: From boardroom to the bench

RON NOADES (Brentford): After 17 years as Crystal Palace chairman, Noades accepted a £22m bid and headed west to Brentford. He designated himself as manager, with Ray Lewington, Terry Bullivant and Brian Sparrow as coaches, and Noades won two manager-of-the-month awards as Brentford won the Third Division title. Resigned as manager during the 2000-01 season.

BARRY FRY (Peterborough): The former Barnet and Birmingham manager took charge of Peterborough soon after leaving St Andrew's, immediately taking on the dual role. Fry failed to achieve the success Posh were aiming for and he retired as manager, though he is still chairman.

JOHN REAMES (Lincoln): The 1998-99 season was going so poorly for Lincoln that the long-serving chairman Reames sacked Shane Westley and installed himself. Lincoln's results picked up, but they were still relegated. Reames remained in charge for the following season but was unable to provide the spark.

TERRY SMITH (Chester): Smith arrived in 1999 and spent just over two years at Chester, during which the club slipped out of the Football League. The American decided he could combine the duties of chairman and manager after Kevin Ratcliffe resigned, but Chester were relegated after Smith had handed over to "firefighter" Ian Atkins.

Comments