Monday 9 December 2019

Vincent Hogan: 'It's like the GAA. If you're a Sunderland fan at six you don't change to Liverpool at 13'

Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

It was Roy Keane's idea to put a giant motto on the wall in Sunderland's home dressing-room. Everywhere you turn in the Stadium of Light, old players are venerated, history cherished.

On the stairs from main reception up to the private boxes, there are photographs of the club's longest-serving players. In descending order from Jim Montgomery (623 appearances) to Len Ashurst (458) and so on. Faces put to the most storied names of Wearside football. Roy's idea too.

He left a lot of good things behind him.

Margaret Thatcher abandoned Sunderland. The area has never recovered from the closure of the mining industry and shipyards and, maybe, 50pc of its people exist in relative poverty today. In a city without a cathedral, the stadium now sitting on the site of the old Wearmouth Colliery exists as a decent surrogate.

Mostly, professional football is a closed, shallow world. A blur of fit young men putting distance between themselves and the pinched lives outside the whitewash. Players, generally, quarantine themselves from their people, hurrying to and from work, heads down, scribbling, escaping.

That's not Sunderland's way.

It is Friday night in Seaburn, a tatty, seafront parade of shops and arcades. Almost 80 teenagers and children have poured through the doors of the local drop-in centre run by the Sunderland Foundation. Inside, a group plays head tennis with the chairman of the football club.

Niall Quinn is glistening with perspiration by the time he takes his leave, gently batting away one kid's mischievous call to reconvene at the flashing fruit machines in a 'Fun Palace' next door.

Just hours earlier, confirmation of Wayne Rooney's new, virtual £1m-a- month, contract had triggered a mix of incredulity and revulsion across the airwaves. It felt like football's final separation from reality. The moral endgame, if you like.

We sit into Quinn's Volkswagen now and he is talking about lives changed every day by the Foundation. Police confirm that crime figures in this area are down 87pc on Friday nights since the Seaburn Kickz project got under way. As we left, two community officers had been playing table-tennis with kids they might otherwise engage with only in a night-long battle. A defiant sense of community was palpable.

Yet, somewhere far beyond this place, the vulgarity of professional football had people speechless. Where was the balance? How, logically, could a bazaar of Rockefeller salaries be reconciled with the hard, often cheerless lives it purported to represent?

Quinn recognises the contradiction.

It is four and a half years since he met Bob Murray in London and, unwittingly, fell back under the spell of a club with whom he had enjoyed his best playing days. Murray, the then owner, was in a terrible bind. Sunderland's money had been sunk into a stadium extension and state-of-the-art Academy and that left them penniless in the transfer market.

He had just sacked Mick McCarthy as manager in mid-season as the club lurched towards a record-low Premier League points total. Murray was shifting deckchairs on the Titanic and he knew it.


The owner could not move in the city without a police escort now, people seething with anger, watching their club disintegrate. Street protests had become commonplace. Outside of match-days, few bothered to wear the jersey.

In London, an emotional Murray told Quinn of his need to sell Sunderland. Son of a mining village, he had simply exhausted his own wealth to give the club a Premier League infrastructure. Quinn, at the time, was in the early stages of a new career on Sky Television. Big bucks for two days a week. Money for old rope.

And the meeting with Murray in March '06 flicked a switch in his head. By mid-July, he was sitting behind a Stadium of Light desk as chairman (and manager) of a club now owned by the largely Irish consortium of business people, Drumaville. By late August, he had vacated the manager's chair for the arrival of Keane.

Niall recalls: "I remember bringing Kenny Cunningham in, offering him a wage and him looking at me and saying, 'I can't do it for that!' But it was all I had and Kenny still came. The negativity in the place was the thing. The emotion was despair.

"The people of the city had fallen out of love with this club. And I wasn't dealt a big hand.

"Kenny came in to try and give me a bit of seniority around the team, but even he found the negativity difficult.

"I knew I was putting a lot at risk by coming back. I'd had my best six years as a footballer here. But, if I was no good as chairman, I'd have ended up getting it worse than Bob Murray got."

So what made him jump?

To this day, specifics elude him. But something about people and identity and the simple, old-fashioned concept of a football club representing its community seemed to burn with a different ferocity here. The population of the city is maybe 160,000. Sunderland's regular home attendance is 43,000.

"Equate that in numbers to London," he says. "If you're a Sunderland fan at six, you don't change to Liverpool at 13. It's like the GAA, you're with your club or your county forever.

"Somebody else pointed this out to me. Because I am a GAA person first and foremost, that parochialism is probably one of the things that drew me back here. It's like something's got under my skin."


He is standing before the children of Maplewood School, kids who've been kicked out of other schools because of behavioural problems. They've raised £729.50 for the Foundation.

The Sunderland chairman has a signed jersey and is telling them what their gesture says about them as young people. He asks them to name their favourite footballers.

"Rooney," says one.

"Unfortunately, just missed out on him," grins Quinn. "Wife wouldn't come up! Anyone else?"

"Steven Gerrard."

"Em, not quite yet ... "

"Jordan Henderson."

The chairman suddenly comes alive, gushing testimonials to the local kid whose story "proves you can achieve anything if you work hard enough". He has them eating from his hand. Before he leaves, Quinn promises a match ticket for every kid in the room "plus parents and teachers". The room erupts.

Graham Robinson, the Foundation's Football Development Director, does the arithmetic and emits a gentle groan. "That's 116 tickets off the cuff," he sighs.

We drive deep into East Durham next, to the Foundation's remarkable out-reach centre at Peterlee. This is one of the most deprived areas in Britain. Two of the biggest collieries in Europe once kept people above the breadline here, but the mines are long shut.

Ken Teears, who shows me around, went to school next to Horden Colliery. His dad spent 35 years down the pit. "There's a lot of second and third generation unemployed here," says Teears.

The centre in Peterlee is sponsored by Caterpillar and helped 660 families in East Durham last year. Most of the Foundation's work can be condensed into the single word: empowerment. It deals with numeracy, literacy, adult education, drug awareness, alcohol abuse, job applications, the whole gamut of needs for a put-upon society.

The Foundation and the football club are independent of one another, yet bound by a common goal. "Lighting Up Lives," as the brochure puts it.

Five permanent classrooms have been set up in the Stadium of Light, forcing some of the corporate traffic on big match days off-site. Up to 120 children can go through the stadium on a given day. Sunderland's Family Learning classes attract 40pc adult males compared to a national average of 11pc.

"You can't describe the power that Sunderland FC has in this area," says Lesley Spuhler, the Foundation's chief executive. "Last year, we worked with 34,000 young people and their families.

"We had 82 player appearances, on average two a week. We're very proud of that. Rightly or wrongly, the parents respect the club when they might not respect a school. It seems more socially acceptable to seek help here."

Eight hundred families will come to the stadium for Sunderland's game with Aston Villa, guests of the club for having completed 10-week Family Learning courses. Before kick-off, they will be invited to walk two laps of the concourse behind the chairman in the third annual 'Niall Mile', everyone contributing £1 to charity.

Premier League football, but maybe not as we understand it.

"For a non-footballing person to look in at our business, they'd shudder," Quinn concedes later. "So I can't stand up and give out to anybody who criticises football at the moment because we have to ask is there a danger that our industry is going to alienate itself from its traditional fan-base? Certainly, to my eyes, a few red flags are coming up.

"People give out about Sky TV ruining the game. Sky TV did not tell us what to do with the money. The clubs spent the money, not Sky. Yet, no one understands how a player can be on £200,000 a week. Crazy. We are losing touch.

"The problem is the Premier League is a company of 20 shareholders and, historically, those shareholders don't get on with each other. They try to beat each other every week.

"We need an independent outside mediator to come in, take people aside and tell them, 'Lads, you're killing each other!' If you're a club that turns over £70m, you shouldn't be spending £150m a year. But, while there's that zest to get to the top that Man City have, that Chelsea have, that United have had for years ... really what you're asking people to do is give up their advantage."


Match day and we slip down to the players' lounge where a relaxed Steve Bruce is sipping tea with his back-room staff. Much of the conversation ducks between the stories of Rooney's lotto win and the torching of Andy Carroll's car.

Quinn steps out to dip his head in the door of the referee's room, warmly welcoming Mark Halsey back for his first game in the city since recovering from cancer (they will later make him a presentation in the boardroom). There is civility in the air. Humility too. It doesn't feel like a world of financial dysfunction or burnt-out Range Rovers.

Quinn has a word for everyone, prefacing every exchange with a warm handshake and welcoming smile. Outside, the people are pouring across the bridge into Sheepfolds again. The club feels like it's back on solid ground.

They've had their wobbles. After Keane left, Ricky Sbragia became manager and Sunderland's top-flight status was still on the line on the final day of the '08/'09 season. Quinn struggled to sleep that week. They were finishing at home to Chelsea and, the day before, he wandered around the Stadium of Light, his head over-stocked with worry.

Sunderland's sponsor was pulling out and, already, he'd had to cut player salaries by 40pc as harsh reality slipped down upon them. The man who had given away the proceeds of his Testimonial to charity seven years earlier now prayed for a gift from the Heavens. It came in camouflage wrapping.


They would lose that game 2-3, yet defeats for Newcastle and Middlesbrough sent those two North East giants down, Sunderland surviving on the flimsiest arithmetic. That night, the fans were singing in the streets.

So it's an odd kind of double-life he leads now. Half the week he lives in a modest city-centre flat, the other half at home in Kildare with Gillian, Mikey and Ashling. When possible he does the school runs, yet stresses: "I'm a disaster really. Being honest, Gillian has reared the children single-handedly."

The club is owned now by a no-nonsense Irish-American fund manager, Ellis Short, who is unencumbered by ego. Short's is the candid, bottom-line voice that every club needs to function as a soluble business; Quinn's is the personality, the licence to dream.

He believes the ethos of the club is honoured by its playing staff now. Sunderland has won just one senior trophy since The War (the 1973 FA Cup), but the fans will follow a limited team so long as it respects them with honest labour.

"There were some wrong 'uns here when we got to the club," he says. "No point mentioning names, but some were a disaster".

Five years in the chair now, he's happy with the weeding process. But he knows, too, that nothing in football is permanent. "My message will get very tired eventually," he says. "And the most important thing is I know it's time for me to go about six weeks before anyone else does (laughing)! Alex Ferguson didn't keep Roy Keane because he'd had a great 10 years, he let him go because he'd exhausted his usefulness to United. And, if it can happen to Roy Keane, it can happen to anybody.

"So it will happen to Niall Quinn here and I have to be smart enough to see it."

Come the day, he will leave them with a club that rediscovered its people.

Newcastle v Sunderland,

Live, tomorrow, Sky Spts 1, 1.30

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