The door swings open. In walk, as Niall Quinn puts it, "half a dozen fellas with long leather coats on, hair down to their backside and sunglasses on. You think the machine guns are going to come out any minute." They don't. Multiple mobile phones do. The boys aren't gangsters. They're just a particularly colourful cast of characters who appear to exactly fit the stereotype you'd expect to represent Steve Bruce's latest Latin American discovery. How things change. Quinn can remember the days, not too long ago, when Sunderland had no more than three scouts scouring the lower leagues.
How things change indeed. Time was Sunderland's home match today would have raised a lot more interest in Ireland than just whether it will prove the next successful step up in Manchester City's multi-million-pound project. There was the gravitational pull of Roy Keane's personality. Time was too, just as recently, that Sunderland had very realistic designs on stepping over the likes of City themselves.
This weekend marks the fourth anniversary of Keane's appointment at the club, which was also Niall Quinn's first major statement as chairman for the Drumaville Consortium. This weekend, however, also marks the second anniversary of the Abu Dhabi group's takeover of City. In the days leading up to the league-changing coup, it was Sunderland's future that looked much more exciting. The sand then-chairman Thaksin Shinawatra planned to build City's future on had been blown away, while Sunderland were giddily ahead of schedule. Quinn's first season had brought a surge to the Premier League, the second a gutsy survival and the third began with no lasting black marks on Keane's managerial record. As Quinn happily told this newspaper at the time, "one bad year can put you back... but, with the potential here, it could go an awful lot further."
Perhaps fittingly given the drama around the date in both clubs' recent histories, this weekend two years ago also saw City travel to the Stadium of Light. The visitors beat Sunderland 3-0 however, foreshadowing their wildly contrasting immediate futures. That "one bad year" happened. Keane and Drumaville went. So too, apparently, did a lot of Irish interest while the club's Premier League status almost followed. Ellis Short and Steve Bruce came in but so did other clubs to the Premier League's middle tier with similar attributes and ambition.
It's intriguing, however, how things also stay the same. For a start, Quinn insists, much of the interest from Ireland has outlasted Keane. "Funnily enough, I just got an email a few moments ago from a group who sent me their plans for coming over. It's not as Irish, if you like, as when Roy brought quite a few players in but, having said that, there are still so many people I meet who got bitten by the bug. We'll have as many fans at the games this year as Liverpool will."
And it might have been more had it not been for Michael O'Leary. "I think every season-ticket holder from Ireland who didn't renew after Roy's time put top of the list 'air fares went up'. As we started to make a name for ourselves, Ryanair decided to put the prices up extraordinarily high. We had several meetings. We didn't quite get up to the hierarchy to make them understand that they would kill our golden goose and theirs."
Unlike most other clubs, Sunderland do have that fervent local fanbase which gives them an average attendance of over 38,000. It's the seventh highest in the Premier League. For that very reason, Quinn feels, the club can go on to regularly occupy that position in the actual table. Although money from the likes of Carson Yeung at Birmingham has ensured the league's middle-tier is always in motion, Uefa are about to stop that. The exact details haven't been finalised but their impending financial fair play rules are set to dictate that clubs can only spend what they take in. No more distress calls to sugar daddies. The guaranteed revenue of over 30,000 season tickets then, is suddenly going to put Sunderland in a very strong position.
"The core of your business is your fans. There's no point in us doing what we're doing if we're going to have 13,000 fans here. You just can't. The great thing is that, with the history, passion and pride of Sunderland, there is a great chance for us to have a team that play in Europe every year. We have to try and find a sensible way between football and business methods of getting there. The recession and proposed new fair-play rules moved the goalposts. We restructured. We worry far more about debt now and we tailored our needs in the last couple of transfer windows. And, when we have put money in – Ellis Short felt that responsibility – he capitalised his loans so, in other words, the club would never be asked to pay them back. People are always suspicious of his business plan but our hope would be, as Uefa bring a more equal measure, we could be one of the ones that make it as a top-10 side."
Quinn acknowledges the rules may have come at an opportune time for Sunderland since, effectively, it gave them enough time to bolster the club with outside money but maybe not others. "People might say it's a little bit cheeky of me to welcome it now because we've had our turn at it, to get that lifeline and build a business. But we did it at a level I don't think Mr Platini was worried about. I think obviously the debt the senior clubs were carrying – the Man Uniteds, Liverpools – that's where they see the problems. And Man City's debt we don't know whether that's going to be capitalised or not."
Another of the benefits Sunderland enjoy, many supporters believe, is that – unlike Liverpool and United – they have a clean, transparent business structure headed by a genuine football figure like Quinn. Not that he sees it that way. "The reality is, with 99 per cent of my job now, I would have been better off having a degree in accountancy. I could see things a bit different but had to learn very fast because some of these business people would buy and sell me in the morning."
Which is surely the point? Whereas Quinn has the overall interests of the club at heart, many others only have their bank account. Was that greed not the source of the recklessness that forced Uefa to act?
"Well I'll tell you now, when people say the Premier League is greedy, nobody is making money but the players. So I don't go with that. The Premier League is giving all its money away and more and that's the problem. From the moment I sat on the first meeting, to me it was pretty obvious something had to be done. Whereas people didn't like to admit it around a table, when we all had a coffee afterwards, everyone was saying 'we're spending too much money'. Every one of us has a responsibility to our fans to improve things. But, in doing so, the reality was, over the last 15 years with the success of the Premier League, I do think there was an outside force – the players and agents – who benefited from this desire. We all stretched and Portsmouth stretched off the map.
"And look at the property market in Ireland, all that money spent on a lump of ground in Leitrim. I would absolutely not compare the Premier League's greed with the greed of, say, developers. It's a different type of thing. What I felt has happened was that the pressure from fans, the media, stakeholders to keep on what seemed to be the gravy train has been so immense we gave all the gravy away. Our big message to fans is, look, we will have a go at this but we will not risk the history and future of the club."
Helping that is Bruce's network of scouts and £250,000 signings like David Meyler from Cork City paying off. The 21-year-old was one of the revelations of last season with his drive from midfield drawing comparisons with Keane until he suffered a cruel cruciate ligament injury. Quinn, however, feels Meyler's attitude has only helped his rehabilitation.
"He's doing smashing. We actually let him off on holiday there because he'd done so well. A few eyebrows were raised in Ireland when we signed him but we knew he had something that's very rare. He doesn't care about reputation, doesn't even waste time worrying about who he marks. And, whether that's Gareth Barry or any of these guys he outshone last year, that's his strength.
"There's no sympathy from me because I told him when he does the other cruciate he'll be level with me! We don't let them feel too sorry for themselves. But he's smashing. His dad [Kerry hurling manager John] is great. Keeps him right, tuned in. And look, if I could bottle that thing GAA background gives to people and wrap it into a soccer world – like David Meyler – my life would be a lot easier."
Although he didn't come up through the club in the truest sense, Meyler is one of a number of exciting young players such as midfielder Jack Colback, free-scoring striker Martyn Waghorn, Dundalk's Michael Liddle and the revelatory Jordan Henderson who arrived during Keane's time and could be perceived as the ex-manager's belated legacy.
"Many of them didn't actually play under Roy but would have been part of his coaching staff's idea of the future. Steve has been careful not to dismantle that. We've a lovely structure behind with Jed McNamee and Kevin Ball. They bring players up to a level where someone like David made the step very quickly. When Drumaville came in, the academy wasn't working. Not only was it not working, local Sunderland fans were going to Middlesbrough or Newcastle. One of them, Adam Johnson, is at City today. That's what we inherited but we put in an investment. We're seeing the rewards this year."
And, despite so much upheaval, Quinn remains confident the club can continue to see them for seasons to come.
3.00, Stadium of Light