In 2004, Bob decided it was time to consider the long term future of the club he loved and started a meticulous search to find a new owner. He believed that protecting the heritage of the club and ensuring that its philosophy, values and character were not lost was a huge personal responsibility. He knew it was not a case of finding just any new owner; he had to find the right new owner who would care as much about Sunderland in the future as he and its fans did.
Early in the sales process Niall Quinn contacted Bob and expressed an interest in investing in the club. At the time Bob responded positively by telling Niall that he needed “to own the club, not just invest in it” and urged him to go and find investors.
The process to sell the football club proved not to be an easy one and a number of approaches from the wrong type of investor had to be rebuffed. In early 2005, the Sunderland Board decided to widen the net by appointing a leading international sports finance firm based in New York to help. All the Board were actively involved in searching for the right new owner and made several secret visits to New York to meet potential buyers including representatives of the Kraft family.
By the end of 2005 the sale of the club to a new American owner was in the advanced stages of due diligence when Niall Quinn finally returned to say he had put together a consortium of Irish investors (Drumaville). Bob was in the midst of negotiating the transfer to Niall Quinn when he stepped down as Chairman in June 2006.
Bob ultimately sold the club at a much reduced valuation of just £5.7m to Quinn and said: “The club was the only thing that mattered. I’d dedicated a big part of my life to Sunderland but it was time for me to take a back seat and let someone else take up the reins.
“Unlike many clubs, Sunderland was not leveraged in anyway and there was no debt other than the working overdraft. The stadium and academy had been built and paid for. It was a turn-key operation for a new owner so there was a great platform in place for someone else to build on.
“The most important thing for me was protecting the history and legacy of the club. I felt a huge sense of responsibility passing the club on to the right hands, not just any hands.”
It was to be a historic year in football terms and the end of era for Bob as he became the Premiership’s longest-serving Chairman, stepped down as Chairman of SAFC after 22 years, finally sold the club to Niall Quinn and his Drumaville consortium and was later appointed Honorary Life President.