Niall Quinn's decision this week to step aside as Sunderland chairman surprised many in the North-East. His association with the club goes back 15 years as player, coach, manager, public face of a takeover consortium and chairman. As Quinn put in his autobiography: "I learned my trade at Arsenal, became a footballer at Manchester City, but Sunderland got under my skin. I love Sunderland."
The feeling has been reciprocal. As half of a lethal strikeforce with Kevin Philips at the turn of the century, Quinn prompted fans to sing about his "Disco Pants". It was with this bond that Quinn became the public face of the mainly Irish Drumaville consortium which, in summer 2006, brokered a deal to take over the club from the 20-year reign of Bob Murray. Cheered from the stands, Quinn was installed as chairman.
He was also appointed as manager for a short and not very sweet spell. Under Quinn's management Sunderland lost their first four league games and a Carling Cup tie at Bury. Quinn vowed to hire a manager and turned to Roy Keane, under whose management Sunderland returned to the top flight in 2007, kept them up in 2008 and beat Newcastle the following season Ã¢ÂÂ their first home Tyne-Wear derby win in 28 years.
"Enjoy one of football's true greats": Quinn introduces Keane
By that time, Irish-American businessman Ellis Short had appeared as an investor, initially purchasing 30% of Drumaville's stake. Quiet by nature, Short rarely if ever speaks to the media. However, it is believed that after a mere two months he played a key part in the dismissal of Roy Keane.
By May 2009, Short owned the Black Cats outright but chose to keep Quinn as chairman; after all, removing the popular incumbent wasn't in anyone's best interest. On the pitch, fortunes were mixed: Sunderland now seemed a stable Premier League side, but while some of KeaneÃ¢ÂÂs gambles Ã¢ÂÂ most notably Kenwyne Jones Ã¢ÂÂ had paid off, many had not.
The underlying problem is the wage bill, which required extensive trimming. QuinnÃ¢ÂÂs support of Keane in the transfer market was now costing the club dearly. This didn't stop Steve Bruce, who took over as manager in summer 2009, garnering a similar level of support Ã¢ÂÂ presumably on Quinn's advice. At Wigan Bruce had gained a reputation for bargain signings but in his first transfer window Sunderland spent close to ÃÂ£30m on Darren Bent (ÃÂ£10m), Lee Cattermole (ÃÂ£6m), Michael Turner (ÃÂ£4m), Fraizer Campbell (ÃÂ£3.5m) and Lorik Cana (ÃÂ£5m).
Quinn hires Bruce (chequebook not pictured)
As BruceÃ¢ÂÂs second season began, he looked to diversify his attacking options with the purchase of Asamoah Gyan for ÃÂ£13m. The season started well with draws against Liverpool and Manchester United in their first eight games. With fans wanting to see both Gyan and Bent together, Bruce maintained his stance of allowing his Ghanaian striker time to settle in England slowly.
October 2010 proved to be a difficult month. Before the local derby against Newcastle Sunderland appeared a solid set-up with two draws and a victory. But at St James' Park the home side ran out 5-1 winners against a demoralised Sunderland.
Quinn was quick to apologise to fans; a former derby hero himself, he well knew the importance of the game in the context of North-East football. In a weird turn of events the performance actually appeared to spark the club into life. Come the return fixture in January Sunderland occupied sixth position in the league and had even taken three points from Stamford Bridge Ã¢ÂÂ albeit against a somewhat depleted Chelsea side.
Once again, however, Newcastle proved a difficult adversary. They seemed all set to record the double over Sunderland when in the dying seconds a parried shot hit GyanÃ¢ÂÂs thigh and bounced in. Bruce had saved face.
Yet a mere 24 hours later Darren Bent had submitted a transfer request amidst a reported bid of ÃÂ£18m from Aston Villa. The Midlands club had to raise their bid structure to a potential ÃÂ£24m but eventually got their man. It was a harsh lesson in loyalty for Sunderland fans who had seen Bent express his love for the club.
"And where do you think you're going?"
Bent's sale is also where most pinpoint SunderlandÃ¢ÂÂs descent. They were sixth when he left but a string of poor results Ã¢ÂÂ one win from late January to late April Ã¢ÂÂ ended the dream of European football. A late rally to finish 10th (notably above Newcastle) gave the fans something to smile about, but it had still been a tough season.
Within a fortnight of selling Bent, Quinn was having PR problems. Using language he later claimed was purposefully chosen to create controversy and reverse falling attendances, Quinn announced that he "despises" fans who stayed away from the Stadium of Light to watch games in pubs showing foreign satellite coverage of the Premier League. It was far from a popular choice of words.
By summer 2011 BruceÃ¢ÂÂs squad consisted of five loan players, and permanent replacements were sought. First, Jordan Henderson was sold to Liverpool amid a mixed reaction from fans: some believed they had sold off a bright talent, with others feeling he was only worth half LiverpoolÃ¢ÂÂs valuation.
Chequebook in hand, Bruce busied himself signing several players including Birmingham's Sebastian Larsson and Craig Gardner, Ipswich's Connor Wickham, Blackpool's David Vaughan and Manchester United defenders Wes Brown and John OoÃ¢ÂÂShea. All the signs seemed positive, especially after an impressive opening-day draw away to Liverpool.
The next fixture was Newcastle at home: BruceÃ¢ÂÂs third big chance to endear himself to Sunderland fans. Those hopes were shattered when Ryan TaylorÃ¢ÂÂs free-kick looped over Simon Mignolet in the 62nd minute. Meanwhile, Asamoah Gyan's sluggish performances and rumoured desire to leave the club gave Sunderland fans deja-vu: was this Bent all over again?
The end of the English transfer window seemed to quash that speculation, and a week later Steve Bruce assured fans Gyan would stay. Within 48 hours the Ghanaian joined Al-Alin on loan. The striker had clearly engineered his exit and Quinn was quick to highlight the financial benefits of the deal, but this business-first approach seemed a long way from the man who first took over at Sunderland: from much-loved striker to shrewd money-spinner, Quinn had definitely changed.
Short, Quinn and Bruce: How do you solve a problem like Asamoah?
It would seem a curious time for Quinn to step aside. With one win in their first seven league games Ã¢ÂÂ not to mention another cup exit to a lower-league club Ã¢ÂÂ pressure continues to mount on Steve Bruce. Often seen as the smiling face of Sunderland serving as link between fans and owners, Quinn will now head up the club's international development Ã¢ÂÂ predominantly in Asia.
Following the arrival of Ji Dong-Won, the club website is now available in Korean. It's further proof that Sunderland are attempting to establish themselves globally, but Quinn faces a difficult task in an already crowded marketplace. After all, what's the Chinese for "Disco Pants"?