Niall Quinn exclusive: 'Sunderland's future is bright whatever happens at Wembley'

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Niall Quinn - Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile via Getty Images
Niall Quinn - Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile via Getty Images

Niall Quinn has seen Sunderland rise before. First as a player, who formed one of the most revered and potent strike partnerships in the club’s history with Kevin Phillips, and then as a charismatic and popular chairman.

He has also seen the club he fell in love with, almost 30 years ago, as a gangly target man signed from Manchester City and then rescued as the head of an Irish consortium, fail and fall.

If anyone knows what it is like to be part of a successful Sunderland it is Quinn and when he says the club is ready to lift off again, people should take notice.

“The club was damaged, it had lost all its confidence and the supporters were the same,” said Quinn, who will be at Wembley with his Sunderland supporting son, Mickey. “All those relegations and failures. There was a nervousness and the teams, without meaning to be, were brittle. I see a change in this group from where they were three or four months ago. I think without Alex Neil this season would have drifted too."

Much has gone wrong since Sunderland’s relegation from the top flight five years ago. A second relegation followed at the end of a catastrophic Championship campaign. What was supposed to be a brief stay in League One has turned into a four-year humiliation.

Kevin Phillips watches the ball go into the net with Niall Quinn (R) and Aston Villa Gareth Southgate - Ian Hodgson/REUTERS
Kevin Phillips watches the ball go into the net with Niall Quinn (R) and Aston Villa Gareth Southgate - Ian Hodgson/REUTERS

“We had 10 years in the top flight,” Quinn explained. “Getting to that next stage [finishing in the top half and challenging for Europe] never happened and after that it fell very, very quickly.

“To drop two tiers in the space of two years, that has a profound impact on a club. Every Sunderland fan will tell you how dreadful that was.”

It has been painful. Sunderland have lost a play-off final to Charlton, conceding a goal in injury-time, and a semi-final to Lincoln City last year. Many of these tribulations have been captured for posterity by a Netflix documentary crew, adding to the sense of drama, but Quinn has a feeling the worst is now behind them.

“I will be the first one to tell you how tough it is to run a football club. I’d be the last one saying this is how you should do it. I made mistakes but the big thing in my favour was I didn't have cameramen filming and looking at every mistake every day.

“The beauty of the Netflix documentary was that it marketed Sunderland across the globe, and I think it showed what Sunderland means to the fans, that was brilliant.

“But it was a double-edged sword, because people made mistakes and they were really highlighted. It was a really tough time. They are making efforts to get away from the cameras now and try to do the right thing.”

Quinn is no longer involved in football, stepping down as Sunderland chairman in 2012, handing control to the American billionaire Ellis Short. The 55-year-old has not held a position of influence in the game since he stepped down as interim CEO of the Football Association of Ireland back in September 2020. He has moved back to Dublin and has his own business, but he can still spot a good managerial fit.

“Alex has done the old fashioned thing of managing a football club and leaving his imprint on the entire outfit, on the pitch and off it, on the fans, the directors, the media, everyone.

“I’ve been an owner and a chairman, you can take a step back and breathe a sigh of relief because you have finally got what you wanted. They [the board] deserve credit for getting that right. Those decisions make and break you. I think the future is bright whatever happens at Wembley.

"There was a nervousness in the air the last time against Charlton in 2019, I don't feel that this time. Listening to the manager, he's so calm and speaks so well, that gives you an insight into how he would be in the dressing room. We’ve achieved nothing yet, but we are on the right track.”

Niall Quinn was speaking on behalf of the EFL ahead of the Sky Bet League One play-off final

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