4 December ~ Sunderland supporters at Molineux will be buoyant today following the arrival of Martin O’Neill. There should also be a veneer of sadness as the club witnesses the end of an era for one its greatest figures. No, not Steve Bruce. The waves had washed his footprints clear within 30 minutes of his sacking. His departure, however, marked the moment Niall Quinn completed his quiet retreat from the helm. The pro-forma offer of thanks to Bruce was made not by Quinn, the man who appointed him, but by Ellis Short, the club’s American owner. Short became chairman in October, shifting Quinn into a meaningless international development role.
Sidelining the Irishman was a key step as Short reshaped the club. Much work has been done recently on the club's executive structure. The credentials of Short's new backroom team appear impressive, from David Miliband to Margaret Byrne, the club's new chief executive, who was recently voted onto the FA Council as a Premier League representative.
This, however, is dry, corporate stuff. It is a far cry from Quinn's first days in charge when he was backed by a beery bunch of loaded Irish builder mates. Quinn's battle-cry was populist, inherited from his time spearheading Peter Reid's Millennium revival. Under Reid, the club revelled in a comically foul-mouthed dressing room, two wingers and a big man-little man combination up front. The brief frenzy revitalised Quinn just as football cynicism was starting to seep through his aging bones.
His first act as chairman, the appointment of Roy Keane, was of a piece with this frenzy. Players came and went at dizzying speed. It was too much for Short (by now owner), who grew tired of Keane's erratic nature. Many fans had grown weary too, though few questioned the initial coup of bringing him to the club. Opinions were more divided by Bruce. Quinn seemed delighted. He saw in Bruce an old-school type, but one with a more stable character. He misjudged his man. The frenzy continued. Bruce was as much a shopaholic as Keane. Loan signings provided a brief sugar-rush, followed by the inevitable low.
Quinn's high-octane rhetoric ultimately failed to dispel the pessimism ingrained in Sunderland’s supporters. These have been comparatively successful years for the club. But the mood at the Stadium of Light has rarely sparkled. O'Neill's frenetic energy might change that, offering hope that Short’s manoeuvring can disperse the growing gloom. But it wasn’t Short at St James Park on November 18, 2000 looping a header over a scrambling Shay Given, on one of Sunderland’s finest folk-lore days. It was Quinn and a part of me mourns that this proud club is no longer run by a hero but by a hedgefund manager. Joe Boyle