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Angel of north still shining

In the summer of 1986 Niall Quinn made his debut for Ireland. He was 19, terrified of Jack Charlton and in awe of his team-mates, yet he would go on to captain Sunderland and become the best target man in the Premiership. In conversation with Paul Kimmage, he reflects on his I

In the summer of 1986 Niall Quinn made his debut for Ireland. He was 19, terrified of Jack Charlton and in awe of his team-mates, yet he would go on to captain Sunderland and become the best target man in the Premiership. In conversation with Paul Kimmage, he reflects on his Ireland years and looks forward to the game against Portugal and the opportunity to add a significant concluding chapter to a glorious career

WHILE reading one of those silly questionnaires in the official match programme at Lansdowne Road recently . . .

Q. First words you're likely to say in the morning?

A. Get up and make my breakfast love. (Please.)

Q. What has been your best ever purchase?

A. A racehorse. Cois na Tine.

Q. What was your worst.

A. Every other horse I've bought.

Q. Most embarrassing moment?

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A. Got caught on security camera letting air out of my mate's tyres.

Q. Who would you most like to be stuck in a lift with?

A. Shania Twain.

Q. What do you do immediately after a game?

A. Have a Jacuzzi, beer and dream about being stuck in a lift.

. . . I was reminded once again of the enduring popularity and appeal of Niall John Quinn.

Okay, so Frank Stapleton shares the goal-scoring record. Okay, so Paul McGrath, remains the fans' number 1. Okay, so Steve Staunton and Tony Cascarino have made a couple more appearances. But in the history of Irish football since 1986, Niall Quinn stands alone: Has any other player ever been as much fun to be around?

It's a Tuesday evening in Durham and four days before the close of the Premiership season, a quiet evening at home is turning into a nightmare. His wife, Gillian, is dining out with friends and has left a list of 'dos' and 'don'ts'.

1 Do bath the kids.

2 Do make sure they use their inhaler and wash their teeth before going to bed.

3 Do grill the steak and serve with the potatoes and veg for dinner.

4 Do feed and water the horses/cows/chickens/dogs.

5 Don't forget to clean-up. (Please.)

Quinn attacks each task with relish and is breezing his way impressively to 'Husband of the Year' until it comes to the cooking of dinner. The steak is sizzling under the grill and starting to smoke the kitchen but he's placed the spuds on the wrong ring of the cooker and they're not even warm. Ashling (7) and Michael (4) have had their bath but want a video on! His friends are bombarding him with text messages to come to the pub! He has promised the sportswriter dinner! What has he done to deserve this?

"Maybe we should have sent-out for some fish and chips," he smiles, shovelling the small mountain of food onto a plate. He pours a glass of wine and pulls up a chair. The meat is burnt to a crisp but the company, as ever, is rare.

The Niall Quinn story. Where do you begin? A boy loses himself in London, makes some bad moves in Manchester and winds up in Sunderland as The Angel of the North.

May 1986. He remembers the excitement of boarding the plane and the crack on that first trip to Iceland. Nineteen years old, he'd played hurling as a minor for Dublin, travelled to Australia once with a Dublin colleges team and made 12 first team appearances for Arsenal but had never encountered characters like these.

Gerry Daly was first to make an impression. The former Manchester United star had packed a porn magazine for the trip and started reading explicit extracts to Mick Byrne during the flight. The physio was mortified. So was big Niall. "It wasn't just Playboy," he explains with a smile, "I'd never seen anything like it."

On arrival at the team hotel, he was paired with Michael Robinson. "I had done a few trips with Arsenal that season and had roomed with Dave O'Leary. Dave was your consummate professional; bed at nine o'clock, book for 20 minutes and lights out. But Michael was astonishing. He used to spend a half-an-hour getting ready to go down for dinner. He'd have lacquer for this, lacquer for that, gel for his hair and jewelry and watches worth thousands of pounds. I'd just sit there and watch him in awe."

The Iceland tournament, a triangular event between the home country, Ireland and Czechoslovakia to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the founding of the city of Reykjavik, came just two games into Jack Charlton's reign as manager. Quinn slipped to the back of the group when the team gathered on the training ground.

"I was scared stiff of Jack and tended to hide if he came anywhere near, so I didn't get to know him by any means and he didn't even know my name: He called me 'Arsenal' for the whole trip, and for about 12 months afterwards. But I had one of those training sessions where everything goes right and I was named as a sub."

In the 84th minute of the 2-1 defeat of Iceland Niall Quinn made his debut for Ireland. A year later he scored his first international goal in a 5-0 demolition of Israel at Dalymount Park.

Named in the squad for Euro '88, Quinn travelled to Germany as a replacement for Frank Stapleton. And for the next two seasons that's mostly how it was until the final group game against Holland at Italia '90.

"I had no confidence in myself, to be honest, and was just so pleased to have gone to the World Cup. Tony (Cascarino) had made the position his own and Jack didn't have to bring me because Frank was there but something happened . . . Frank was caught sun-bathing or something one day and I always wonder: Would Frank have replaced Tony if he hadn't been caught? I dunno. Maybe Jack had already made up his mind.

"He never named the team. We knew Cas wasn't playing because he'd been told and was devastated and it wasn't until we were out on the pitch an hour before the game and were walking back to the dressing room that he came over to tell me the game he wanted me to play. I said, 'So I presume I'm playing then?' And he went: 'Oh, have I not told you? Sorry, I forgot.' So there was no time to get nervous. I didn't play the prettiest of games or score the prettiest of goals but it got me up and running."

Although the goal against Holland secured Quinn's place as the favoured number 9 for the next ten years, it took a brilliant strike against England nine months later at Wembley before he finally felt "one of the lads". "The England game cemented my place on the team. When you are turning-up and know you are going to play, suddenly it's much easier to speak to Aldo (John Aldridge) and call him Aldo and you're no longer mumbling to great players like Liam (Brady) under your breath.

"But it was a game we should have won. Ray Houghton will always be a great chum of mine but he was probably the first player I ever shouted at. He should have squared to me in the last minute, I was so free, but he shot on his own: 'You twat! You should have passed!"'

The road to World Cup '94 began with a 2-0 win over Albania in May of 1992 at Lansdowne Road. Quinn played in all of the 12 qualifying games but remembers the final game against Northern Ireland most.

"The night in Belfast I will remember all my life. It was a very tough game to play, even for the Northern Ireland lads. The sectarianism was at its worst. Alan McDonald (the Northern Ireland captain) came into our dressing room when it was over. In all of the games I had played for Arsenal and Manchester City nobody from the other team had ever come into the dressing room to wish you well after a game, it was something I had only ever seen in GAA games. But Alan came in and thanked us for a great game and told us to make a case for the football people of Ireland. I felt great that night after that. I thought it said a lot about him and his attitude to sport."

Ten days after the 1-1 draw in Belfast, Quinn shattered his cruciate ligament in a game at Sheffield Wednesday. The prognosis was devastating: He was out for the rest of the season and out for the World Cup. Over the next four months, Quinn worked harder than ever before. In April, the surgeon revised his opinion and announced him fit to play again. But the season was almost over and his employers didn't want to know.

"Francis Lee (the Manchester City chairman) had no intention of letting me go. The City surgeon said I was fit; an independent surgeon said I was fit; and I got them to send letters to Jack but he never replied. I think Jack felt his hands were tied because Franny wouldn't let me go. But I'd have loved to have played, especially when Tony (Cascarino) was injured. It was probably the only thing in the game I was ever bitter about. It was a very strange decision."

The agitation at Maine Road continued into the new season. The German forward, Uwe Rosler, was signed to partner Paul Walsh up front. Quinn was confined to a role on the bench. The manager, Brian Horton, had lost faith in his ability to deliver for 90 minutes. The chairman wanted him to leave. Quinn eyed the terms of his long and lucrative contract and decided to dig his heels in. It was a mistake. A fine talent began slowly to turn to seed.

He started making plans for the end of his career. There was no end to the brainwaves. He would get his coaching badge and run racing syndicates and write newspaper articles and become a pundit on TV. They would return to Ireland and build a dream house in Naas, with a couple of acres to gallop Gillian's horses and some stables.

For two years, he played with a head full of distractions until the summer of '96 when reality hit home. His contract was up! City were asking a fortune! Nobody was interested! They had to be! He couldn't afford to quit now! A club in Malaysia made him an offer. He travelled over and tried his nuts off in a trial and was on the verge of signing when he got a call from the Sunderland manager, Peter Reid.

"It was a horrible two years. Manchester City didn't believe in me. We'd rushed and built this massive house in Ireland and my head was probably up my arse. I could have hit the bottle, I could have got lost in my own ego but at a time when I was at a crossroads, Gillian was brilliant and steadied the ship."

Things got worse before they got better. In September of 1996, six games into his first season at Sunderland, Quinn ruptured the cruciate ligament of his other knee. Out for six months, he returned to the side before the end of the season but this time the injury was much slower to heal.

"I remember the very last game, at Wimbledon away when we were relegated. I was awful. It was embarrassing. I couldn't run. I was playing on one leg. I had it cleaned out again and put-in a good, strong pre-season but four games into the new season it was as bad as ever. I couldn't bend it properly or get any power from it jumping. A couple of surgeons looked at it again and said there was nothing they could do."

Thirteen years after leaving Dublin for London, Quinn had touched the lowest point in his career. He phoned the PFA (Professional Footballers Association) and asked them to post-on the insurance forms. He put his house in Durham on the market and began to make plans to move home. Cathal Dervan, then sports editor of Ireland on Sunday had offered him a job as a football writer. There was nothing else for it but to quit.

Peter Reid asked him to try one more specialist in Bolton. When the surgeon opened him up, the cruciate seemed fine but two bones had started to knit, three inches below the knee and he decided on some corrective surgery. Four weeks later, he ran on as a substitute and played well at Nottingham Forrest. A week later he scored against QPR.

"That's probably the greatest victory of all, to comeback at the age of 30 to a set of fans who thought I was past it. I'll never forget that goal against QPR. They ran onto the pitch and lifted me into the air. I thought that day would never happen again."

It did. In the next nine games he scored 11 goals and hasn't looked back since. Neither have Sunderland.

WEDNESDAY evening in Durham. The waft of charred steak has blown from the kitchen. Ashling and Michael have gone to bed and the dishes have been done. He pours another glass of wine and explains why he has missed the last three games, and hasn't played for Ireland since his outstanding performance against Estonia in October. A muscle problem that sends his back into spasm when he jumps and twists and lands is the simple answer. All it needs is three weeks rest. But things are never that simple in football and his recovery has been hampered by the demands of the game and his loyalty to Peter Reid.

"It's funny, people say he never has a bad word to say about me but I remember one of the funniest. Well actually it wasn't that funny at the time ... but when he was manager at Manchester City, we played Blackburn at a time when (Chris) Sutton and (Alan) Shearer were the SAS. We went in at half-time 1-0 down. Peter came in and threw his jacket on the ground and there was tea everywhere. 'SAS' he roars, boiling with rage. 'S A Bleedin S! LOOK AT MY SAS!' And suddenly he points at me and Mike Sheron: 'SOFT AS SHIT!"'

The relationship with Reid dates to March of 1990, when Quinn's career at Arsenal had reached the doldrums.

"Ireland had just qualified for the World Cup and I wasn't getting a look-in. The Arsenal reserves were playing a friendly against a non-league team called Welling Utd and I was fined because Cheltenham was on and I was late for the bus because I'd backed Mouse Morris' horse Trapper John. Peter was assistant manager at City to Howard Kendal at the time and they came down to watch the game and signed me next day."

In his first season under Reid at Manchester City, Quinn scored 20 league goals and was transformed from an Arsenal reject into one of the best strikers in the Premiership. In the four years they've worked together at Sunderland, the 34-year-old Dubliner has galvanised the club as captain and is still scoring goals. (His goal against Newcastle in November was voted Goal of the Season in a recent supporters poll.)

"Someone asked me the other night how come I've got such a special relationship with him but it's hard for me to explain. We're not buddies. I don't drink with him or share the same interests and though I wouldn't be afraid of him, I still find myself taking a deep breath when I'm knocking on his door. But if he told me to clean the terraces after games, I'd do it.

"And when I've a back injury, and Peter Reid wants me to play because we're playing Man United and I know that if I rest it and don't do anything for three weeks I'll be fit to play Andorra and get a (goal-scoring) record, you'll understand why I'll go and play for Peter Reid. From the day he came down to Welling he has had nothing but belief in me. How can I not pay him back?

"I'm training harder now than I ever did even with the back injury that I've had. We had a really hard day this morning and then I had to go straight-up, no lunch, and do my Pilates (an exercise work-out to strengthen the muscles of the back) for an hour-and-a half which was hard work. I didn't do that for 15 years as a pro; I'd come home and be in the bookies for the first race or be out on the golf course. I wish I had known as much about my body when I was younger. Perhaps they were telling me and I refused to listen but it's more precious now. Everything is more precious now."

Frustrated that he will carry the injury into the Portugal game, he hasn't fixed a date on the end of his international career. "I can't look beyond the Cyprus game (in October) at the moment. I'm desperate to play against Portugal, and I should be okay if I can do a 'Paul McGrath' (train lightly) for the next two weeks but I'm not playing to my full potential or going into it the way I'd like. These things happen, unfortunately, when you hit 34 and 35.

"I am positive I can do a job for Sunderland next year but I just feel it's a bit harder in terms of international football because you have one chance every six to eight weeks and you have to be spot-on because you're playing the best in the world. What I'm not going to do is fizzle out by playing poorly. I'd be devastated if someone had to tell me I'm not good enough any more."

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