Captain's Blog: Quinn's Contribution Will Never Be Taken For Granted
The former Derby County manager Harry Storer once said that football was a world in which 'nobody ever says thank you'. He had a point. Football is perhaps the most fickle of passions.
So when news broke about Niall Quinn ending his association with Sunderland, the outpouring of gratitude merely served to highlight just how special a contribution the Dubliner has made to Sunderland, its football club, and its people.
I was a 16-year-old scamp on holiday in Spain all those years ago when I picked up an English paper and saw a photograph of Peter Reid stood on the Roker Park pitch welcoming Quinn to the club for the first time. On the surface, there was nothing special at all about the image. It was just your standard promotional snap, the kind of which you see attached to every signing made by every club.
And yet, the image has stayed with me for years, lingering at the forefront of my memory as if it was some masterpiece adorning the walls of the Louvre of Guggenheim. Years later, however, I came to appreciate just why it had become so poignant to me – it represented the opening scene in the story that would redefine Sunderland AFC.
The Sunderland AFC of the mid-90s was very different to the one we know today. It was a tired old club, in a tired old ground, with a workmanlike squad who trained out of portacabins. The whole club needed an injection of energy, and a freshly-relegated bean-pole striker the wrong side of 30 didn't really seem to fit the bill as the story's chief protagonist.
But in true protagonist style he did things the hard way. As the club's record signing, he watched powerlessly with injury as it suffered relegation from the Premier League during his first season. He saw his two Wembley goals and penalty success count for nothing in the Play Off final a year later. The following season he even assumed the role of goalkeeper when Thomas Sorensen got injured to protect a lead that he himself had given the team.
Once he was over his injury problems he was a revelation on the pitch, quietly providing the understated finesse and front line focal point what would restore the pride and energy to the club. It would be a role he would later reprise in the boardroom.
As good as things were when Quinn was involved at Sunderland, they were as bad without him. That is probably a coincidence, but it has served to embellish his legend on Wearside. In the three-and-a-half years he spent away from the club it suffered two record-breaking and humiliating relegations.
He would soon back be to wave his magic wand, though.
The summer of 2006 is one I'll never forget. The feeling of abject dejection that engulfed the club during those months is a difficult one to convey to those who did not experience it. I imagine it is a similar one to that which Leeds fans, or Southampton fans, or Charlton fans felt as they fell hopelessly through the divisions. It so could have so easily been Sunderland.
I can't remember if it was actual trust or just sheer desperation for change - any change - that made me invest so much of myself in the whole takeover saga that summer. I'd love, for pure romanticism, to say it was the former but I suspect that latter if truth be told. I would check the news and message boards almost incessantly, punctuated only to do what work I could not avoid doing.
The season started as the last one finished. Defeat followed defeat with soul-crushing regularity. But there was an odd sense of comfort in seeing Quinn in the dugout, regardless of how hopeless he was in the manager's job. After failing to secure a name from a very small shortlist, his presence there provided reassurance of his unwillingness to compromise in his vision for the club. Admittedly, that stance would waiver in time as the realities of running a football club set in, but at the time, whether he intended it or not, he was providing precisely what was needed.
The rest of the Niall Quinn Sunderland story can probably best be illustrated by skipping to the end of the tale. The club Quinn leaves is an established and respected Premier League outfit, who have just been able to attract one of the most sought-after managers in British football. A club with more than one Champions League winner representing it on the pitch, and with England internationals on the bench. A quite incredible contrast to that grainy photograph taken on the Roker Park pitch all those years ago.
Off the pitch, things look just as good. Ellis Short, whilst more reclusive and less silver-tongued than his predecessor, has barely put a foot wrong and seems ideally suited to the challenges of succeeding at this level of football.
Like most, I had feared the day when Quinn finally left the club, but when it did eventually happen I was left with an odd, and surprising, sense of satisfaction rather than sadness. I suspect that is because, ultimately, we can all be assured of the strength of the club's health by the mere fact that Quinn has felt able to walk away into the sunset.
I don't know if it is the end of Quinn's official association with Sunderland. I know how privileged and fortunate we have all been to have had him so heavily involved with our club, though. He, more than anyone else, has worked tirelessly and passionately to drag it, often kicking and screaming, into the modern era and make it once again relevant to English football.
Football may well be a world in which no one ever says thank you – probably more so than ever – but no one who loves Sunderland will ever tire of saying thank you to Niall Quinn.