The Tall Guy
A life spent licking the pots clean in the Lucky Kitchen
Tossed around on football's currents for 19 years, Niall Quinn tells Tommy Conlon an unlikely survival story
LAST weekend Niall Quinn came down to London with the Sunderland squad, played 15 minutes against Arsenal on Sunday and stayed to promote his autobiography on Monday.
Everything in football is fluid, he says in the book, people move on, it changes all the time.
If Peter Reid, the Sunderland manager, hadn't offered him a job as player-coach after the World Cup, he said on Monday afternoon, he would be back in Kildare by now running a new business. That plan is on hold.
"I'm going to help Peter out as best I can and, God forbid, if anything happens Peter . . . " He paused to consider the scenario. "I'm not sure what I'll do."
Later that evening Peter Reid was sacked.
Sunderland FC then spun the roulette wheel for would-be Premiership managers. It stopped in the slot held by a Mr Howard Wilkinson, formerly of Leeds Utd and England.
Wilkinson took his first session with the players on Friday things had happened fast. Quinn doesn't have a coaching contract. He does have a one-year playing contract and won't know until this week what plans, if any, the new manager has for a veteran with such high mileage, the self-described "Ancient Mariner" of football's dressing rooms.
"I'm not a priority," he said on Friday evening, "there are more important things to be decided, I don't want to go breaking his door down about my future. I want to wait and let things settle down."
Everything in football is fluid. He might stay, he might go, but at 36 he is no longer vulnerable to the upheavals of an industry that has tossed him around on its currents for 19 years. He nearly went under a couple of times during that long odyssey, but he has come out the other side, a winner on points, with money in the bank and the freedom, if he wants, to walk away for good.
He was, he insists, football's accidental tourist. He didn't go after it, the game went after him. Arsenal brought him over for a look, he scored three goals in his first trial match, two more in his second, and on October 12 1983 he signed a three-year contract. Nineteen years ago yesterday. More or less just like that.
The only knockback in this otherwise charmed passage to the paid ranks came the previous year when, after a trial at Fulham, the club's manager, Malcolm MacDonald, politely informed this strip of a gosson that he would never make a footballer, "as long as you have a hole in your arse." In the standard story of any sportsman who has defied the odds, this sort of rejection provides our hero with the extra motivation needed to prove them all wrong. But Quinn wasn't too put out. In fact he didn't bother trying to prove MacDonald wrong didn't bother said arse at all. He just went back to the hurling, the gah and the schoolboy football. And it is quite possible that this blithe disposition helped him through many of the crises that waited like landmines throughout the length of his meandering career.
That career was supposed to finish at this summer's World Cup, bookended by the autobiography in which he collaborated with Tom Humphries of The Irish Times. It is a high-class job, thoughtful, funny, nostalgic, occasionally poignant. "I wanted to call it The Lucky Kitchen because I feel as if I've been to the lucky kitchen and, as Tom said a long time ago, I've licked the pots clean."
But there is a consistent sense throughout the book that Quinn undervalues the ability he had, and the personal qualities that helped him survive in the game for almost two decades. You can hardly get lucky for 19 years and you could argue that, if anything, he was distinctly unlucky. George Graham froze him out at Arsenal for three seasons; in November 1993, now at Manchester City, he snapped his cruciate ligament and missed the rest of the season, plus the '94 World Cup; management at City lost faith in him after the injury he was left in the wilderness for a further two seasons until Reid rescued him in 1996; seven games into his new career at Sunderland, he did the cruciate in his other knee another season gone. After City, and before Reid, no one wanted to know in England: cash was low and prospects so poor he almost moved to a club in Malaysia. In his first comeback games at Sunderland, his knee failed so drastically that he was booed off the pitch, spat at by fans and faced retirement at the age of 31. He was ready to cash his injury insurance policy when another surgeon diagnosed the problem and liberated him for what has been, personally and financially, the most rewarding period of his life in football. "This surprise Indian summer." But it was close.
Throughout his career he was shadowed by self-doubt about his talent. In his early years he drank, gambled and drifted. He repeatedly describes himself as an optimist, if anything he's a survivor. And for that alone, he feels lucky.
"When I say I've been lucky," he writes late in the book, "I know what I'm talking about. I've seen greater talents than mine go to waste or cut down. Paul Lake and David White, who were with me at Manchester City, were sublime footballers. The game was tough on them. Dave and Paul had more ability, dedication, desire and athleticism than I had. They got through the early rounds of the lottery, they were spotted, played well in trials, made the first team and still it was taken away from them. I shouldn't have been on the same team as them, yet it happened for me and it never happened for them."
David White works in the family's scrap-metal business. Quinn occasionally sees Lake when he calls to Sunderland selling physio equipment. He often thinks too of David Rocastle, the gifted Arsenal midfielder. He met Rocastle on his first morning as an apprentice, walking out of the tube station at Highbury. Lose the duffel coat, advised Rocastle, you'll get murdered for it by the lads. A lovely guy. "A couple of years ago," writes Quinn, "Brian Marwood, our old team-mate, rang me to say that Dave had died of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma at the age of 33."
Quinn thought about him again last Monday. "I didn't even know he was sick." That's the way it is. Transient work-friendships are not confined to football clubs, but nowhere else is there such a contrast between the public show of unity, for example, when a team scores a goal, and the private attack of amnesia as soon as someone leaves the car park for the last time. You could call them hypocrites, except it isn't their fault.
"Teams are organisations we pass through," he writes. "Teams are an illusion. I don't call, I don't write, I don't even think of them that often. Football is not a game of sentiment, it's a world of me, me, me."
Quinn says he will leave the game without one friend. "I haven't a friend in the world in football. Deep down, what I call friends. I mean I talked about players (in the book) who were well known that I've done it to, there's also guys who never made it who you were close to. You went through their problems and they went through yours and then suddenly you move on. You've got a new contract, they haven't, and you move onto the next set of friends, and the next set of friends and luckily for me, the one thing I kept was my friends from Dublin, three or four people who kept me right over the years. But I think, in defence of footballers, if the manager doesn't think you're good enough he'll soon get rid of you so for all this bonding that you're meant to be doing with each other, you know there's a guy in the room next door who could end it all anyway the manager."
In his early days at Highbury he was "astonished by the casual hardness of life on the training ground." This of course included that time-honoured footballers' ritual known as taking the mickey. He laughs at the schoolboy silliness of the carry-on. "I was never involved in much but what we used to do the kids who cleaned your boots, every Christmas you'd get them to stand up on the skip that all the kit would be in and they'd have to sing Christmas carols in front of the whole staff for their Christmas money. I can remember when Andy Cole was at Arsenal, he was the only apprentice who wouldn't do it, he just wouldn't, so he didn't get his Christmas money. But there was another guy, who never made it, and he gave the best rendition of Good King Wenceslas you ever heard, he was like Harry Secombe!" The day he scored three goals in his first trial game, a "fairhaired kid" scored six. "I'm Paul Merson," he said, "we must be a million on to get a contract after this."
One day, years later, Quinn switched on the television and saw Merson in tears at a press conference. His old mate was announcing to the world that he was addicted to alcohol, drugs and gambling. A short while later he rang Merson's father.
"Fred, it's Niall Quinn."
"All right, Niall."
"Saw Paul on the telly. Really upset for him. I was thinking of giving him a call only I don't have his number any more."
"Listen, Niall. Part of his treatment is that he's not supposed to speak with you."
"Well, could you tell him that I'm asking for him and thinking of him."
"Well, we're not actually supposed to mention your name to him."
Not long after this, Tony Adams wrote his book Addicted.
"At every junction on the road to Tony's alcoholism," writes Quinn, "I seemed to be with him, leading the way. I was young and carefree and we were living like kings, but two of my friends were laying down the seeds of heartbreak, addiction and broken marriages. What happened to Tony and Paul sucks the colour out of some of the best memories."
Later he adds: "When I look back over this stretch of 19 seasons, I can't help but notice that a river of alcohol runs through it. Many of the people who have passed through my life during this time have been alcoholics. I'm not one of them, touch wood. I'm conscious that I could be seen as a poster boy for alcohol but I've had nothing but good times over the years. It's never been a problem. I've swam in the river without getting wet another piece of luck, I suppose."
Or maybe it is just the way of his nature: naive, sociable, immature, decent, but, at his core and from the beginning, a happy human being. Not capable, it would seem, of holding onto bitterness and anger for the people who treated him badly in football at times jeopardised his career. He is not afraid to speak freely, and he has nothing to gain by not attacking George Graham for the way Graham buried him at Arsenal, or Brian Horton and Alan Ball, both of whom wrote him off at City after his cruciate collapsed. But there's no vitriol there.
In 1985/86 he broke into Arsenal's first team, scoring on his debut against Liverpool at Highbury. He was on £175 a week. "The lads on the building sites were earning more than me," he recalled on Monday. He knows this because he was sharing a flat at the time with a few Irish building-site soldiers "The boys thundered about at break of dawn," he writes, "looking for boots and stuff, while I searched for the coolness on the other side of the pillow. 'Good luck, lads,' I'd shout. 'Don't forget your shovels'." In the weeks he drank too much or gambled too much, the lads wouldn't see him stuck.
In the summer of 1986 Graham took over at Arsenal. Quinn's contract was up. The parsimonious Scot gave him a £7 rise. By the time he left the club, in March 1990, he was on £350 a week. "Arsenal done me," he said this week, "I played for Arsenal for buttons." Or rather he didn't play for Arsenal for buttons he had started 14 league games in three seasons. Michael Kennedy, agent to the footballing Irish, negotiated his deal at Manchester City. Suddenly he was on £1,000 a week, a figure that would be dwarfed in the Premiership era. "I got my own back at Man City to a certain extent and then Sunderland later on where I did, I earned money, especially in the last three years. I've earned money that I couldn't have dreamt about so, I got my own back on the industry."
In 1990/91 he was voted Player of the Year at City. Peter Reid had taken over from Howard Kendall when they played Derby at Maine Road in one of the last games of the season. Quinn scored with a first-half volley from outside the area and when their goalkeeper, Tony Coton, was sent off for bringing down Dean Saunders some ten minutes later, he went in goal and promptly saved the penalty. "What nobody mentioned, and nobody ever shows, is that from the resulting corner, I went out, bowled a few players over and made a Pat Jennings style one-handed catch. That pleased me more than anything."
It is quite probable that he ended up in Tommy McKenna's Ard Rí ballroom that night. There in that Moss Side ballroom of romance Quinn jived to The Indians, waltzed to Big Tom, and sang More and More and More not to mention It's You It's You It's You to Joe Dolan.
"Ah it was great," he laughs, "I just loved the characters that used to go to see them. The Ard Rí's closed now but there were great characters, In different circumstances they'd have been back in Ireland, but they had to come over and work really hard and I got in with that crowd in Manchester, as I did in London, the kind of neo-Irish scene, and it was just great fun, great laugh. Even now in Newcastle there's an Irish pub that I go up to occasionally. It's just lovely to go back to your roots."
He belonged to a new emigrant generation, many of them university graduates, most of them anxious to keep their distance from those who had gone before. The stigma was a bit close to the bone. Quinn had no hang-ups about that he immersed himself in that world. In the life he led and the company he kept, there was maybe a bit of the navvy about him too except he wore football rather than builder's boots. He is as Irish as a bucket of turf, happily so. "I still love a good pub," he writes, "a place where people meet and talk."
Much of that generation has come home, Quinn hopes he'll be back soon enough too.
His book is full of the Saipan affair but ultimately it is about a life in football that was much bigger, and a lot more interesting, than that sad, tedious tale.