Sunderland Chairman, Irish soccer legend and all round nice guy, Niall Quinn talks to Fearghal Kerin about sport, the media and life in the boardroom.
With Niall Quinn, it’s difficult to know what to expect. On one hand is the philanthropist who donated one million pounds to a selection of children’s hospitals, famous as the head of one of Ireland’s most photogenic family and once described by pundit Eamon Dunphy as “a Mother Teresa”.
On the flip side is the business savvy chairman of a Premier League football club, villainised by many in the wake of the Saipan controversy at the 2002 World Cup and once described by pundit Eamon Dunphy as “a creep”.
It’s very much the former that rings true with Quinn, however, and it is rare you will meet as accommodating a man, and even rarer in those who have been as successful as the one time record Irish goalscorer.
True to form, Quinn, as chairman of Sunderland AFC, concerns himself primarily with the wellbeing of the club, and that of the club’s supporters. So what does he define a successful season as?
“I suppose if our fans could have a peaceful last couple of months, where they weren’t biting their nails and losing sleep over it. If that means around twelfth, then great. If higher, better again. But having said that, if we’re 17th on the last day and we stay up, then that’s fine too.”
Things have changed a long way during Quinn’s time in charge at Sunderland, since his installation as the face of the Drumaville consortium after Sunderland’s relegation from the top flight in 2006.
At the time, the Mackems had broken their own English record for lowest points in a Premiership season, and after an unsuccessful bid to attract a manager of the quality deemed sufficient to lead Sunderland into the Championship, the Chairman was forced to take over, losing four out of five games in charge.
“We inherited a tough situation there, there was a losing mentality in the air. It’s one of the things about a big club with big numbers coming through the gates, the problem is compounded even more.”
The key for Quinn was to replace this so-called losing mentality with one of victory and confidence. In order to do this, he had to patch up differences with the most determined man in British soccer Roy Keane, a man Quinn himself had publicly fallen out with in 2002.
“We had to try and bring a few smiles on faces. We didn’t know how good Roy would be, but we knew Roy would shake up the place, and bring a new interest in the place.” Even Quinn, knowing Keane as well as anybody, coupled with his achievements as Manchester United captain, was surprised at how soon and stark the improvement was.
“We knew he’d bring that wow factor, but we thought he’d need a lot more time to get into the Premiership. We were planning for year one and year two, we thought we had enough money to help him but if we didn’t get up in the third year we’d lose the Sky TV parachute payments. Roy would have gained experience and got a team together and by year three we’d make one last go of it”.
Whether Quinn is suggesting that a failure to gain promotion by the end of that time would have meant the end of the Drumaville Consortium’s tenure or that of Roy Keane, is a moot point, as that year, the Black Cats recovered from their poor start to lift the Championship title at the end of the year, securing promotion in first place.
“Roy being Roy, eight months later we were lifting the trophy and back in the Premiership which presented a whole heap of new problems, albeit good ones”.
Getting to the Premiership was one thing, but the rookie Quinn-Keane axis then had to find players of sufficient quality to keep them there.
“In truth, the reality is, under Roy, we bought a team to get us out of the Championship. The following summer, we didn’t have the scouting network other clubs did. We didn’t have six month tapping up players like other clubs do and we spent the summer scrapping with clubs at the bottom of the table. We did okay, and we bought a team that kept us up. We tried this year to get a team to bring us a step further”.
Signing players of the quality of French international pair Djibril Cissé, Steed Malbranque and England winger Kieran Richardson has been the feather in Quinn’s cap, and had him hoping that this would be another successful year for the Wearside men. A good start, followed by a run of poor defeats has left the former Arsenal and Manchester City striker at a loss.
“If you’d met me a couple of weeks ago, I’d’ve told you we were flying. We were seventh over night in the Premier League and we’d just beaten our biggest rivals. But as we know, the second you think you’ve done something you get kicked up the backside and we’ve lost a few games in abysmal fashion.”
“People look too much at confidence and looking at the other end of the season. To be truthful, there are going to be twists and turns, it’s going to be topsy-turvy, but we have a better quality of footballer at the club this year.”
The transition from six-yard box to director’s box is one the Dubliner feels he has taken in his stride.
“Having worked in the media, I know how to play the game. Ok, I didn’t have the business acumen that a lot of those going into the game do, but my answer is look at Sir Alan Sugar (former Tottenham Hotspur owner and star of UK TV Series The Apprentice) from the telly. He’s telling all these young businessmen how to do their jobs, but he was ran out of football with his tail between his legs. I don’t have a mind that was able to sell a million TVs, but all my decisions are based on football. I understand the emotion, both positive and negative. If you look at what happened up the road to us at Newcastle, I think the emotion was understood on the way in”.
The comparison with their Tyneside rivals is obvious and clear. Newcastle, bought by London businessmen with no link or loyalty to the club who have floundered in recent years, compared to Quinn who talks with such pride of his Sunderland squad. With almost a century of caps for his country, Quinn is more qualified than most to comment on the new Ireland management set up, not least on the recent controversy involving Sunderland midfielder Andy Reid’s non-selection under new-boss Giovanni Trapattoni.
“You can talk till your blue in the face in the media about this but Andy Reid has one thing to do, he has to get himself in the team. Talking about it, looking glum on the bench, all these different things, it’s a sideshow, you have to make it impossible for him not to be in the team.”
“In fairness to Reid, he didn’t bring on a lot of this himself; it’s those in the media who like to think they know more – Giles, Dunphy.”
On Dunphy, Quinn is concise: “I’d always try and see a good side to him. But yeah, at times I think he’s half-mad.”
Under the popular Quinn, a demi-god on Wearside, Sunderland look like they could have the structure in place to be successful. This year sees the “Year 3” Quinn refers to after which he would have reviewed the clubs progress. One suspects the affable owner will already be planning for Years 4 through 6.
Niall Quinn was visiting UCD to receive the Literary and Historical Society’s James Joyce award.