IT was a soccer game with a difference. The referee had a chain with keys jangling out of his belt, there were coils of barbed wire crowning the wall around the football ground, and a man in uniform kept doing head counts of the spectators shivering in their tracksuits on the sideline.
But while it may not have been Italia 90 revisited, the mood was jovial when former Republic of Ireland player Niall Quinn put the ball in the back of the net at Castlerea prison in Co Roscommon yesterday.
Quinn was late for his date with about 50 inmates.
"Sorry my sat nav let me down," he told governor Martin Reilly on arrival.
He was there to give a motivational talk to inmates but the real excitement was the match afterwards when prison staff lined out against prisoners, in a good humoured, but physical five-a-side match.
'Quinner', as the prisoners referred to him, was warmly greeted by inmates and obligingly signed autographs for staff.
Some of the younger prisoners did not appear to recognise him, much to the aggravation of one older fan sporting a colourful tattoo on his neck who told them: "That's Quinner. He's an Irish legend".
The legend's message to the prisoners was about staying positive, seizing all the available opportunities and turning their lives around through engagement with training programmes and a bit of humour.
The former Arsenal, Manchester City and Sunderland player admitted he had never thought much about prisoners until a close friend ended up behind bars, and he echoed the governor's view that since the recession, the most unlikely people were serving sentences.
Quinn's audience – including a few serving life-sentences for murder – listened intently as he revealed that he didn't want to get out of bed for up to eight months after his playing career ended, but was nudged out of the hole by loved ones.
"Use good people – spot good people and unashamedly look for help," he urged the prisoners.
When the match kicked off, Quinn took the side of the prisoners.
One inmate serving a life sentence said that the visit was a great boost. "It's good to know that not everyone has given up on us," said the prisoner who described Quinn as an inspiration.
Mind you, he said that before the prison officers trounced the inmates and their star player by eight goals to two, but at least Quinn was responsible for both their goals.