You tend to underestimate just how big Niall Quinn was in the north-east of England. He was the club’s record signing when he arrived from Manchester City for the princely sum of £1.3m, progressing to form a superb strike partnership with Kevin Phillips.
The first man to score a goal at the new Stadium of Light, his place in the club and the area’s folklore was already secure upon retirement.
And yet there was so much more.
Quinn was the glue in the Drumaville consortium jigsaw, bringing together five other Irish businessmen and a local to breathe new life – and money – into the club on its demotion to the Championship, burying the hatchet with Roy Keane and paving the way for the Black Cats to re-establish a mid-table Premiership status that seems about right for a club of its ilk.
Quinn’s ability to persuade Ellis Short into taking a 30% stakeholding and, ultimately, full ownership of the club hasn’t aged well, given the American’s decision to turn off the financial tap and the precipitous slide two levels into League One but there was no-one carping six years ago when he was given the freedom of the city.
Quinn’s role behind the scenes at Sunderland, in bringing in Drumaville and then Keane to manage the side, is informative now at a time when he is talking up the need for a cultural change in Irish football. He didn’t have a Midas touch in terms of finance or in the dugout but he brought in people who did.
For a time, at least.
“Sunderland should have been a nightmare,” Keane wrote in his autobiography in a passage explaining the reasons behind his initial reluctance to take over in 2006.
It had seven or eight Irish owners! There’d be a lot of interference; they’d all feel they owned the club. I’d have too many people to answer to.
If Quinn has shown anything it is the sense of nothing ventured nothing gained. He engineered a successful punditry career for himself in the UK and, later, in Ireland. He served as Sunderland’s chairman and as their Director of International Development and also established a broadband business.
The man has succeeded and has failed but he has proven himself to be a searcher. He is a big-picture type whose dream that the football industry here can be transformed via 20 club academies — paid for by tax breaks — that would keep teenagers from the boat to Holyhead has been sniggered and sneered at. It’s hard to understand why.
Quinn has always invited suspicion for being too nice. Here in Ireland, at any rate. There have been all-too-predictable noises made on social media (where else?) about his unfamiliarity with the domestic football landscape and (shock, horror) the suggestion that he may even see a few bucks in all this for himself.
As pointed out in these pages earlier this week, it was reported last year that Quinn was an advisor — Brian Kerr and Paul Scholes were others named — to a €30m project on the part of Dubliner and former Manchester United branding guru Mike Farnan to develop a central football academy for the FAI based on the English FA’s St George’s Park.
Quinn this week referenced Farnan’s Red Strike marketing agency, some of the work it did in establishing pop-up academies in Vietnam and South Africa and how they both felt this was a ‘now-or-never’ moment for the Irish game to follow suit, but he also claimed that he is not looking at this from any personal commercial perspective.
“I’m not trying to do something here that I’m not capable of doing anyway,” he said at one point.
But why would it be an issue if someone with decades of experience in a sector spotted a perceived gap in the market and thought that there may be a way to bring about change that would light a fire under the game in this country and maybe make a few bob at the same time?
Quinn has spoken to a handful of people in League of Ireland clubs whose response seemed to boil down to: ‘that’s all great, but we have to concentrate on what we’re doing this next week’. The FAI, as he pointed out, has a chunk of repayments still to make on their share of the Aviva Stadium and seems incapable of fostering any meaningful sea change.
It’s just over two years since the report on the League of Ireland presented by the English marketer Jonathan Gabay. Riddled with basic spelling and grammatical errors, Gabay’s suggestion that bus stops be painted in team colours and show live scores was among a number of recommendations that left his audience stunned and the league’s support base stupified.
Our whole structure needs to provide an alternative to heading off to England as soon as you can,” said Quinn this week. “They are heading off to England now to clubs that aren’t as big as they used to be, they are lower down the leagues. Sending a kid off to England, leaving his education behind to try to make it at a first or second division club in England now, I think it’s for the birds.
So is all the negativity his flyers have invited. Let’s at least think big and with open minds.
That would be a start.