'Gillian gave me a kick up the backside rather than pitying me' - The mighty (Niall) Quinn on life, love - and the Keano row
Niall Quinn's path to contentment came via struggles with wild living, black moods and recent grief
It's probably hard to know how to take it when people tell you you look like "the worst bust of all time". When the bronze likeness of Cristiano Ronaldo was unveiled at Madeira airport two weeks ago the internet was open in its scorn - most people felt the slightly demented-looking sculpture bore no resemblance to the preening soccer superstar.
However a huge number of commentators, including former England player Joey Barton, jumped in to say there was someone it did look like - Niall Quinn. RTE and the BBC ran with the story and pretty soon media outlets in Portugal were doing split screens with Quinn and the statue.
So, did the Irish soccer legend take this as a compliment - after all not many 50-year-old Dublin men get compared to any version of a 32-year-old Latin superstar - or the kind of slagging Quinn might have thought he left behind when he hung up his boots? "I got ambushed, that was what happened," he explains. "The day the story came out they were making Thierry (Henry) stand up beside his statue and I should have guessed what would happen with the statue comparison and me. Yeah, I mean, I can see the resemblance. Listen, I'll take it! I think they say imitation is the greatest form of flattery. That's how I look at it."
In a sense the statue thing was also a reminder that Quinn probably should have been made monumental in bronze by now, anyway. After all, Sonia O'Sullivan has her own hideous effigy in Cobh and several of the rugby legends are commemorated at Shannon airport. Today Quinn is probably the most successful of all the 1990s soccer stars, having seamlessly made the transition from his playing days to commentating and business - it was recently reported that he is now the highest-paid broadcaster in the country (although he says this includes other earnings from his firm).
His life seems incredibly well set-up: he's been with the same woman - former model Gillian - since his teenage years and his kids are chips off the old blocks; his daughter is a sometime model and soon-to-be lawyer (she is studying at UCD) and his son, Mikey, is an underage star at both GAA and soccer.
Roy Keane - who we'll get to - famously called Quinn "Mother Teresa" for donating his testimonial proceeds to charity. But while the nickname stuck (and Mother Teresa, of course, has several statues devoted to her), there was never a sense that Quinn's nice-guy act was fake. As a child I witnessed him taking the time to sign every last autograph for kids who mobbed him in Templeogue and there was an open-faced authenticity to him. In a sport full of love rats, hardcore gamblers and preening prima donnas, these qualities might well qualify him for Keane's ironic sanctification, but there was always more colour to Quinn than meets the eye. His is a coming-of-age epic that begins in a smoky working men's club in London and ends alongside Jamie Redknapp in the sweeping stadium vistas of the Premier League.
His Dad was "an old-fashioned GAA guy, big into hurling" and it was only when Niall began quietly making his mark at the local soccer club that his father took notice. Over the years the family all moved away from Perrystown - the working-class suburb where he grew up and Quinn himself also left by the time he was 17, over to stay with his auntie and uncle in London while he played for Arsenal's third team.
The early years trying to make it in professional soccer were characterised by intermittent graft and some epic partying. He was quickly making more money than he knew what to do with, but as a burgeoning star the temptations were also great. The culture of football groupies had not quite reached its current levels, but hard living was still seen as compatible with the athlete lifestyle. Quinn would find himself coming out of Irish clubs in the early morning and would bridge his paydays with loans from guys on building sites. "There was a lot of drinking and singing - Joe Dolan, Paddy Riley, I can still give you any of them you can think of. The Irish clubs were thriving, so it was hard to resist."
Another big passion in those years was racehorses. He invested in several and famously bought one after getting into a long discussion with trainer Jim Bolger at a sports do in 1991. The horse turned out to be a champion, though, and Quinn was able to sell him in America for $250,000. Suddenly he and Gillian were able to put an offer in on a London house that they had previously only longingly admired. It was also the player's first insight into the money that could be made outside football. He was eventually warned off getting involved in more syndicates by Jack Charlton, who felt that the horses had become a distraction from Quinn's role in the national side.
It was really Gillian, who "put some manners on me", however, particularly after the birth of their first child. "After Aisling was born it suddenly hit home to me that I was responsible for a lot more than just myself. It's a cliche that having a child is life changing but for me it was huge. I had a sense this thing isn't going to last forever, and I had a good wife nudging me in that direction anyway. Around that time I was also badly injured - I did my cruciate in. We qualified in Belfast for the World Cup (in 1994) and the following Saturday I got this injury." Quinn recovered in time to make it to the World Cup and was a stalwart of Ireland's campaigns. He was in Saipan, where Ireland was preparing for the 2002 World Cup in Japan, and witnessed the ferocious feud between then-manager Mick McCarthy and Quinn's sometime tormentor, Roy Keane. In his autobiography Quinn said that the dressing-room dressing down that Keane inflicted on his manager, and which effectively ended the World Cup for Ireland, ''was clinical, fierce, earth-shattering to the person on the end of it and it ultimately caused a huge controversy in Irish society". But Quinn was also critical of Keane's stance, saying that "(He) left us in Saipan, not the other way round. And he punished himself more than any of us by not coming back." The fates of Quinn and Keane would continue to intertwine as Quinn would go on to become chairman of Sunderland football club while Keane, his playing career by then over, was attempting to make his mark in management there (which must be a lesson to everyone - you never know where you'll see people again). That was a successful collaboration but given Keane's well-documented issues of temperament, the Mother Teresa jibe and Keane's spotty managerial record I wonder if now, all these years later, what Quinn really thinks of him.
"I have a lot of respect for Roy. He turned Sunderland around and brought it back to the Premier League - an enormous achievement for a young man." But given that Keane struggled after that, was Sunderland a fluke? "Sunderland wasn't a fluke - it suited him. At Ipswich he fell out with the CEO quickly, or so I heard. If he learns and works out the steps to take he'll do well - he automatically makes a club big news when he comes to it."
His own post-playing career has gone swimmingly - he is one of the faces of Sky Sports' exclusive Premier League coverage - and has business interests spanning continents. He put together the Drumaville Consortium which bought Sunderland and after the economic crash became involved with Q Sat, a satellite broadband company, ploughing his own money into it. But, despite his status as a retirement poster child for soccer, he says that there was a painful period of adjustment when his playing days were over.
"The first few months when I retired were really awful. I finished in October time and from then to the following April I was just really lost. I hadn't fully adjusted to not being the star player any more. You wouldn't be able to put the keys in the car without someone running over to pat you on the back and there was just a change in all that. Suddenly I felt that the lights had gone out in my life and my career. I tried playing golf but it just wasn't a replacement for what I'd had. I wasn't great to be around at that stage. Gillian played a blinder though - she gave me a bit of a kick up the backside rather than saying 'oh, poor you'. And it turned out that was what I needed." Of his business decisions, he says: "I made some good and bad investments, some I'm proud of and some I'm not."
He cites a recent report which showed that three out of five professional footballers in England see their marriages break down by the time they are 40. "That is an amazing figure and it shows you the toll the game can take on someone's personal life. I think money is a huge thing and when the money runs out maybe people find that their priorities as people are not really aligned. Footballers have also been traditionally very badly advised. It's hard to put a finger on (the reason for) it. As regards my marriage, I have to put all the plaudits on Gillian.
''There was no way she was going to get caught up in the whole Footballers' Wives thing, even though the press tried to portray her as that. Other kids would be running around the players' lounge in designer gear, ours were in Marks & Spencer."
They finally sold their sprawling Kildare home last September after two years on the market. The property was originally placed on the market for €2.25m in 2014, but the asking price dropped to €1.95m and he had to endure his share of nosey parkers who had no intention of buying but just wanted to gawp (one of them told the estate agent: "I hear he's broke!").
"The only thing I really miss about the house is the land to walk the dogs - we don't have that now," he says. "But it was just the right time to downsize. The kids grew up there and they were a part of the community, but it was a big place to hold onto for just the two of us. We love our new house in Straffan."
He turned 50 last year and the signs of middle age are approaching. Downsizing and death. His father passed away last year and he says the loss affected him deeply. "He was a sportsman himself and lived life to the full. It was very tough, of course. But over time, the good times start to sort of outweigh the sad memories of the end and of him being gone. I just focus on the great spirit he had and all the joy and fun he always brought into the house."
His daughter Aisling was a model for a time and something of a young socialite - her relationships were chronicled in Irish media. Niall says she has now stopped modelling and is studying law in UCD - she's in her final year. His son Mikey togged out for Dublin's Under-21 Gaelic football team last year and the English soccer side York has taken him on a trial.
"He's a great kid, but of course he suffers by being compared to me," says Niall, who himself was a youth star at Gaelic games - he played both hurling and football for Dublin.
"He's used to it by now but it was a problem two or three years ago when he was trying to break it in both codes. He made his own mind up about what he preferred. He's matured into a very decent Gaelic football player and he works really hard." He is so well media trained and smooth, such an upstanding family man and hero, that it's hard to dig beneath the placidly even exterior with Quinn. So many of his contemporaries, people like Tony Adams, crashed and burned, that you wonder if there mustn't be some demons there.
But Quinn seems inherently optimistic and genuine and any lingering, stubborn cynicism sort of melts away when you think first of how far this man has travelled - from working-class Dublin to national treasure, survivor and thriver. Maybe in a sports world full of sex and scoundrels we'll take someone who is so wholesome that listening to them you feel as though you have consumed three of your five-a-day.
And perhaps, most endearingly of all, is that in his heart-of-hearts he doesn't think football is bigger than life and death. "I think football is not the real world. But I think the real world suits me, maybe that's it. I jump out of bed every day."
Niall Quinn is a football pundit with Sky Sports. Sky Sports is the best place to see the Premier League run-in with the biggest games from both ends of the table. Today, Sky Sports will show Manchester United v Chelsea and on April 30 will screen the last north London derby between Tottenham and Arsenal at White Hart Lane
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