Beware the steep price of success

Niall Quinn has promised not to damage the Black Cats by chasing the dream.

Niall Quinn has promised not to damage the Black Cats by chasing the dream. But as he explained to Stuart Rayner, it will not stop him dreaming.

Niall Quinn

FOR two hours this afternoon, the nightmare will be put on hold while Portsmouth enjoy another day out at Wembley.

Appropriately for a club whose many owners seem to have lived in a make-believe world for much of the last few years, Pompey will gatecrash the FA Cup final before returning to the reality of fighting the financial fires fanning uncontrollably across Fratton Park for the past 12 months or so.

Pompey are by no means the only club to have lived beyond their means, or even to have paid the price for it. They will not be the last either. Liverpool, Hull City and West Ham United will be just some of the higher-profile clubs carrying out major summer cost-cutting as credit crunch reality hits home. Even Aston Villa, quietly one of Europe’s biggest spenders in the last couple of years, this week announced a “sell-to-buy” transfer policy in the upcoming window.

Never mind chasing the dream, just keeping up with the Joneses can be ruinously expensive in the Premier League.

As Sunderland chairman Niall Quinn welcomes journalists into the Stadium of Light boardroom the Sky Sports News report in the background is laying bare the macabre scale of Portsmouth’s finances. They have had two FA Cup finals and a Uefa Cup visit from AC Milan to show for it, but the Irishman insists it is a price not worth paying.

“When you look at Portsmouth and what has happened to them, would I swap a Cup final for that? Certainly not,” he says.

“I’m pleased we are in a strong position financially. I’m pleased the fans have bought in to it. There was a crowd of 20,000 die-hards coming when I first came in (as chairman). I’m glad that has doubled and people believe.”

Quinn rode to Sunderland’s rescue with a “five-year plan” in 2006. You do not need to be Carol Vorderman to work out his chairmanship should end next year. It will not, he says, because there is too much still to do.

“I knew it would take a while for this club to become a force,” he says. “We are not where I want it to be yet.

“That we finished so many points clear of relegation (14) when just last season we were 20 minutes from going down shows there has been improvement. In terms of where the club has come and where we could be I do think there is more improvement to come.

“No one mentions the word ‘yo-yo’ any more. We are about to embark on our fourth year in the Premier League and that can only be a good thing. That word is, hopefully, a distant memory. The club under my watch has a chance. That’s comforting.” Not that Sunderland have been living like monks. Owner Ellis Short has poured in millions but crucially Quinn would argue as capital not debt, leaving the balance sheet relatively healthy.

Black rather than red ink is all very nice, but glory, not profit, drives football fans. It is why with the old season having finished less than a week ago Quinn is already plotting to break the cartel in the next.

It used to be the Big Four were England’s untouchables. Chelsea, Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool were streets ahead, playing musical chairs with the Champions League placings. But a second group is emerging. Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester City, Aston Villa and Everton are now putting distance between themselves and the rest. Having guided Sunderland to mid-table mediocrity for the first season in years, manager Steve Bruce’s next job will be to gatecrash their cosy club.

“Ultimately I’m a footballer and the league doesn’t lie,” says Quinn – the only person to have played for, managed and chaired the Black Cats. “There’s eight clubs I’m very jealous of. They are an eight-team powerhouse. My view is Sunderland has the potential to make that a nine-team group.

“There were times this season when I thought it could happen before our winter of discontent. Even then there was a squeak of it.”

Making that next step is not a matter of cash alone. If it was, the Black Cats would have made it already.

Quinn’s “winter of discontent” – 14 winless league games from November to March – was an unpleasant stain on Sunderland’s 2009-10 record, but neither the biggest nor the most worrying.

“There’s one main issue we all have to find a resolution to – our away form,” says Quinn bluntly.

“I’m not just talking about Steve Bruce’s time, I’m talking about this club’s Premier League record away from home, you have to wince when you look at it.

“We do have targets to add to the squad but the big push – and Steve is on the exact page as me – is how do we address our away form?

“How do we improve the club? If we can find the key to that I’m happy this progress will continue.

“I will provide whatever I need to but there is almost a change of attitude required.

“It’s wonderful to play in front of 40,000 here every week, but there is something missing away from home. We will try to find it.”

Journalists

David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer