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Damian Spellman: The departure of a revered Black Cat ... why Sunderland will never forget Niall Quinn

NIALL Quinn enjoys iconic status on Wearside having represented Sunderland with distinction on and off the pitch.

His decision to leave the club after six years as chairman and director of international development will be greeted with sadness by fans, but also gratitude for the work he has done to re-establish the Black Cats in the Barclays Premier League.

PLAYER

Quinn arrived at the Stadium of Light in a £1.3million switch from Manchester City in August 1996 with a cruciate ligament injury still fresh in the memory, but revitalised his career in the north-east.

His partnership with Kevin Phillips proved key to the club's return to the Premier League at the end of the 1998-99 season, 12 months after a memorable, but heartbreaking, play-off final defeat by Charlton.

The pair terrorised top-flight defences to the extent that Phillips struck 30 times in his first season in the big time with Quinn's presence alongside him a major factor.

However, the departure of manager Peter Reid, the man who had brought him to the Stadium of Light, and a niggling back injury ultimately combined to persuade the Irishman to bring his playing career to a close after 220 appearances and 69 goals in a red and white shirt in November 2002.

Quinn's playing career was celebrated with a testimonial against a Republic of Ireland XI on Wearside on a day when the result was largely irrelevant. The proceeds from the game, an estimated £1million, were donated to children's charities on Wearside and in Ireland and India.

MANAGER

Quinn's reign as manager at the Stadium of Light was, by his own admission, mercifully brief.

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Kevin Ball had taken over at the helm in the wake of Mick McCarthy's departure in March 2006, and the Irishman and his Drumaville backers inherited a club without a permanent boss when they took over the reins from former chairman Bob Murray weeks later.

Having seen former international team-mate Roy Keane rebuff his initial advances, Quinn stepped into the hot-seat himself, but presided over five successive defeats before, with Keane sitting in the stands at the Stadium of Light following a re-think, a 2-0 victory over West Brom ended his stint on a positive note.

Quinn said in the wake of Keane's appointment: "I realise how hard it is, so perhaps I will be more patient."

CHAIRMAN

While Quinn's on-field contribution was sizeable, it is perhaps his work behind the scenes for which the club's fans will be most grateful.

More than five years in the city had left him with an understanding of both the hunger for success and what was required to achieve it.

Writing in his autobiography long before his return to the club, Quinn said, somewhat prophetically: "I know now the truth of something Charlie Hurley said to me a long time ago: you can leave the area, but you can never leave Sunderland.

"It seeps into you. The people. The landscape. The passion."

The adopted son rode back into town promising a "magic carpet ride", one which took off in spectacular style as Keane secured an unlikely promotion at the first attempt.

Drumaville invested heavily in Quinn's vision, but as the Irish economy went into meltdown and Keane's tenure began to unravel, Quinn knew he had to act once again.

The former Manchester United captain's departure prompted him to ask coach Ricky Sbragia and then Steve Bruce to take over, but perhaps more importantly with the Drumaville consortium unable to continue to bankroll his mission, he tempted Ellis Short to take an initial 30% stake in the club, and then complete a takeover.

In October last year, Quinn, who had only intended to stay in the post for five years, persuaded Short to take a more hands-on role and stood down as chairman to make way for him, accepting an international development role in the process.

That did not stop him from playing a significant part in giving the fans what they had wanted for years in bringing Martin O'Neill to Wearside in December, a triumph which perhaps provides a fitting legacy.

Quinn will be remembered by the club's fans for his commitment, his passion, his ambition but above all, the fact that he was one of them.

It was he who put his hand in his own pocket in March 2007 to pay £8,000 for a fleet of taxis to transport a group of stranded supporters back to Sunderland from Bristol after their flight had been cancelled, and it was he who toured the region's pubs and clubs in an effort to bring stay-away fans back to the stadium.

He leaves having largely achieved what he promised to do and with the gratitude of the thousands who shared his dream.




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