Niall Quinn can do nothing about the relegation fight that Sunderland find themselves in. But he can offer assurances that the club has a bright future – despite a run of poor results. Mark Douglas reports
WHERE once there was certainty, now doubts whip Sunderland like a fresh blast of wind from the River Wear.
Their predicament is no more perilous than it was 12 months ago, but it is that jarring sense of déjà vu that has caused unease at the Stadium of Light.
This was supposed to be the season the Black Cats clambered to the ‘next level’, the campaign when Sunderland consolidated their Premier League status and started to edge towards a brighter future.
Instead, it has brought turmoil on and off the field, unfulfilled promise and a relegation battle every bit as dispiriting as that which was fought last season. Just another season at Sunderland, in fact.
The last fortnight summed up the club’s schizophrenic fortunes perfectly – raising spirits after the encouraging defeat of Hull punctured by a ‘disinterested’ and shameful display at West Brom. A reaction is called for against Everton tomorrow – the clinging back of credibility has already begun off-the-field. Speaking at the weigh-in for Tony Jeffries’ second professional bout, chairman Niall Quinn offered hope to supporters who have been engaged in a prolonged bout of introspection ever since Ricky Sbragia succeeded Roy Keane, the man whose presence alone did much to inspire the belief that Sunderland were on an upward curve.
The Black Cats are in a tough spot, Quinn confessed, but they remain strong on and off the field and the promise of the summer has not evaporated. They just need to preserve top-flight status to begin another stage of progression. Even failing to do that wouldn’t be a financial disaster, according to Quinn – although he knows as well as anyone the psychological impact relegation would have. “As a football club we are having our troubles at the moment,” the Black Cats chairman said.
“I feel a win on Sunday will mean so much to us as a football club. We have lots of plans for the future and they are on hold at the moment. We are in a tough situation and if the results go our way, it will be massive.
“The ambitions of the club are probably stronger now. But we have got ourselves in a predicament and we’ve got to get ourselves out of it.
“Everyone is caught in time. But I can assure you we have safety nets in place and I don’t like talking relegation, but the business will be fine should it happen. It’s in brackets. The reality is that if we stay in the Premiership, we will be in a position that this club has never been in before.”
Step forward Ellis Short, the prime reason for optimism in Quinn’s eyes. The Dallas banker is the majority shareholder at Sunderland, the man who bankrolled Keane’s ill-advised summer spending spree and the major reason why the Black Cats were able to cut season ticket prices for next season.
Having made no public utterances since investing in the club, he is a figure still shrouded in mystery. But Quinn has praised the “brilliant” moral and financial support that Short has offered to this point – and clearly believes that consolidating his share of the club would be a positive step.
“At the end of the season he has a decision to make about whether or not to take outright control of the club. Naturally, that’s a position I would welcome,” he said. “That’s not being harsh on Drumaville. That’s a situation they would welcome as well. We hope he’s seen enough and that he will see enough over the next four games to do that.
“He’s been brilliant up to this point. He’s been hugely supportive of Ricky and myself over the last few weeks. I think he sees the value of getting over the line and getting us into a new position as a football club afterwards.
“I’m very excited but we have to get over the line before we can get too excited.
“He agreed to us doing the cheap season tickets on condition he would underwrite any loss on last year. The good news is that we haven’t got any loss so I’ll take that money off him for new players anyway,” Quinn chuckled.
Until safety is assured – and there remains a nagging suspicion that Sunderland will not know which division they will be playing in next season until the final minutes of the season – everything is in limbo. That includes the future of Sbragia, who insisted yesterday that he is at Sunderland to stay.
Quinn remains supportive of his manager, while admitting that staying in the top flight is the immediate and pressing priority.
“Ricky was brought in at a difficult time. The players were on their knees, there is no doubt about that,” he said.
“He was told his job was to keep us in the Premier League – we told him to get us over the line.
“He’s got a year left on his contract and he knows how I feel about that.
“He is aware that staying up is the key to everything. If we stay up, I have promised Ricky that we will all go away and we will sort out the future of the football club – the board, Ricky, perhaps even Ellis if it goes right.
“We will all sit down but we will all know what is best for Sunderland after that meeting but we don’t have that meeting until we stay up and everything is in shape.”