"I learned my trade at Arsenal, became a footballer at Manchester City, but Sunderland got under my skin. I love Sunderland."
—Niall Quinn, The Autobiography
Irishman Quinn was Sunderland’s record signing at £1.3 million when manager and former team mate Peter Reid persuaded him to pass up a lucrative contract in Malaysia to sign for newly promoted Sunderland prior to the start of the 1996-97 season. It looked money well spent when he scored twice and led the front line superbly as Sunderland swept Nottingham Forest away to record a 4-1 victory in the second game of the season at the County Ground. A serious knee ligament injury sustained the following month was however to disrupt both Quinn and his new teams rhythm, forcing the former Arsenal and Manchester City man to miss six months of the season.
On his return he never looked completely fit, with rumours constantly circulating that his career, at aged 30, might in fact be at an end. Without someone to knock home the goals Sunderland fought to the end before going losing at Wimbledon to be relegated on the final day of the season.
Fully fit at the start of the 1997-98 season Quinn was joined up front by late starter to the professional game, Watford’s Kevin Phillips. Totally different in size and shape the two were nevertheless to enjoy at times an almost telepathic understanding, especially after Manchester City’s Nicky Summerbee was signed in November 1997 to produce the sort of crosses Quinn could exploit with his superb aerial ability.
It was Quinn that had the crowd at the newly opened Stadium of Light roaring their delight when he scored the first league goal there, and with a goal from Phillips Sunderland were quickly into their stride by beating Manchester City 3-1.
In March 1998 Quinn scored his only treble during his time at Sunderland as Stockport County were beaten 4-1. Yet despite winning at Swindon Town on the final day of the season, Sunderland just finished outside the automatic promotion places taken by Middlesbrough and Nottingham Forest.
Beating Sheffield United in the semi-final set up Reid’s side for a place in the Wembley play-off final. Playing poorly in the first half and a goal down it was Quinn who got his side back into the match when he brilliantly headed Summerbee’s corner beyond Sasa Ilic and into the Charlton net. It was to spark wild celebration.
Then after the sides had traded goals, with Phillips breaking Brian Clough’s scoring record for the season by scoring his 35th of 1997-98, it was Quinn who again put Sunderland ahead. It was a fine goal, Geordie scumbag Lee Clark swinging in a deep cross which found Quinn backing away from his marker. The Irishman used his chest to perfectly control the ball before firing past Ilic from an acute angle.
Charlton though weren’t done as after taking the lead three times, Sunderland was pegged back to draw a great game 4-4, with Sunderland born Clive Mendonca scoring three times for the Adicks.
If losing the subsequent penalty shoot-out 7-6 disappointed Sunderland they didn’t show it the following season. From the off they were in charge at the top, and were to go on and record a then record number of points - 105.
Quinn’s scoring touch returned, and he ended up with 21 by the end of the season. One of his most important came at Loftus Road in January, heading home a last minute equaliser and a month later he was repeating the exercise as Sunderland edged past Wolves 2-1 at home.
It was probably however the game at Valley Parade against promotion rivals Bradford City that moved him into legend status, when after powerfully heading Allan Johnston’s cross into the net on 72 minutes to make it 1-0 he then donned the goalkeeper’s jersey after Thomas Sorensen was forced to leave the pitch with a neck injury. Sunderland won 1-0 and cemented their position at the top of the League.
In April with more than half the crowd behind them Quinn scored Sunderland’s third at Gigg Lane. Sandwiched between Phillips four the 5-2 victory over Bury ensured promotion. On the final day of the season both men were on the scoresheet, as with skipper Kevin Ball collecting the Championship trophy Sunderland beat Birmingham City 2-1.
With his popularity on and off the pitch at an all-time high A Love Supreme Fanzine released a CD entitled ‘Niall Quinn’s Disco Pants’ and the song can still be heard regularly at home and, in particular, away games. It got to 39th in the charts. Funds raised went to the MacMillan Nurses, well done lads.
Come the start of the Premiership campaign Sunderland had four points from their first four games when they made the short journey to what was then St James’ Park. On a night of incessant rain Newcastle were leading until the 64th minute.
Then Quinn met Summerbee’s free kick from the left with a glancing header, and the ball dropped neatly inside Tommy Wright's right post.
And when Phillips later rammed home the winner the few hundred Sunderland fans allowed entry went absolutely mental, including the author of this particular piece.
On October 31st 1999 Quinn played probably his finest game in a Sunderland strip when in addition to scoring two fine goals he led his marker England centre-back Sol Campbell a merry dance as Spurs were beaten 2-1.
His goals were majestic when after pulling away from Campbell he took the ball on his chest and fired a right-foot volley past Ian Walker and into the top corner for his fourth goal of the season. His fifth arrived within 12 minutes in similar fashion as he again used his chest to control a cross before dispatching it into the back of the net with Walker hopelessly exposed.
The Ireland international also played with distinction against Manchester United in December. Without the injured Phillips alongside him, Quinn playing up front his own demonstrated the art of keeping the ball whilst allowing Sunderland’s midfielders to get forward in support. He also scored his sides second before Alex Ferguson’s team profited from some dubious refereeing decisions to snatch a 2-2 draw.
Later, in April 2000, Quinn scored with a delightful lob in a 2-1 win at Southampton that put Sunderland within touching distance of a EUFA Cup place. Failure to beat Bradford City at home ultimately proved it was a step too far but with a seventh placed finish Sunderland had shown they had what it takes to compete with the best.
It was something Sunderland continued to demonstrate during the following season, although there was more than a touch of fortune about the opening day’s victory over Arsenal in which Quinn headed Mickey Gray’s cross home for the only goal of a game totally dominated by the away side.
In November back at St James’ Park Quinn had the travelling hordes again in ecstasy when, following Don Hutchinson’s equaliser on 68 minutes, he buried another Gray cross to give the away side a 2-1 lead. Never the greatest of tacklers though Quinn then blotted his copybook with a poor challenge on Rob Lee that had referee Graham Poll pointing to the penalty spot. Rescued when Sorensen saved Alan Shearer’s subsequent penalty kick Quinn joined his teammates in delirious celebration at the end of the match.
With Sunderland in the last eight of the League cup there was therefore disappointment when Reid chose to rest him in the quarterfinal tie at Selhurst Park and without him Crystal Palace triumphed 2-1.
Sunderland though was in with a chance of qualifying for Europe through a high-place League finish. That was especially the case when returning from injury Quinn had a simple finish as Sunderland raced into a 2-0 lead at Easter against Spurs. The Cockneys though, inspired by Tim Sherwood produced a wonderful second half performance to come off winners 3-2 and in the end Sunderland again finished seventh amidst rumours that Quinn was to lose his strike partner as Phillips sought to boost his international chances.
Both men were to remain at Sunderland for the 2001-2002 season. It was to prove a difficult one, with Reid’s side only just avoiding relegation. With Lilian Laslandes signed, to play alongside Phillips, Quinn was on the bench for the Blackburn game early in the season. Coming on he headed Stefan Schwarz’s cross powerfully home for the only goal of the game. Against Leeds at home he turned provider by chesting the ball perfectly into Phillips path as the Peacocks were denied a return to top spot, Sunderland winning 2-0.
On Boxing Day he gave the 7,500 away fans something to shout about when he headed home twice in the first half as Sunderland won 3-0 at Blackburn Rovers. Seven games without a win in the New Year though had Reid under pressure and there was relief when Quinn scored the only goal at, another relegation threatened side, Derby County. It was the big man’s final goal of his career and as his sixth goal of the season it was probably his most vital as come the end of the season Sunderland finished just one place outside the relegation zone.
It was clear that Sunderland’s fourth season in the top flight was going to be difficult, the promotion spirit engendered in 1998-99, on which Reid’s side had flourished, having long since dissipated as the Scouse manager sought salvation in alcohol.
Niall Quinn though had other things to think about during the summer of 2002. Ireland had qualified for the World Cup in Japan and South Korea. Key to the side’s success was going to be the form of skipper Roy Keane. So there was dismay when angered by the poor facilities provided by the Football Association of Ireland he packed his bags and set off home.
With appeals for him to change his mind failing to move the Manchester United man, Quinn and the rest of the players publicly backed manager Mick McCarthy who Keane had lambasted in the press. Keane had previously left Quinn disappointed when he failed to appear for Ireland at the latter’s testimonial at the Stadium of Light organised at the end of the season. Drawing a crowd of 37,000 all proceeds, around a million pounds, were donated to charity.
Without Keane Ireland did well enough at the World Cup, going out on penalties to Spain in the last sixteen, one round less than in 1990 when as part of the Ireland side Quinn lost 1-0 to hosts Italy in the last eight. Earlier Quinn had scored the vital equalising goal in the final group match with Holland that finished 1-1. With 92 caps and 21 goals Quinn enjoyed a long and distinguished international career.
Quinn was unable to see out the 2002-03 season and it was as a ‘peace maker’ that he ‘enjoyed’ his most memorable moment. Amidst a poisonous atmosphere off the pitch Sunderland had hauled themselves level against Manchester United courtesy of a goal from the player signed to replace Quinn, Tore Andre Flo.
Then late on in the game Roy Keane lost his temper after a tangle with one of his strongest critics, fellow World Cup squad member Jason McAteer. Sent off, Keane was roundly abused as he made his way off the pitch when Quinn, on as a substitute, ran towards him with the intention, agreed beforehand, of offering a conciliatory handshake that would be seen as bringing down the curtain on affairs at the World Cup. Sir Alex Ferguson though was having none of it, and Quinn was left looking slightly foolish. He was though to have the last laugh because four years later, as newly appointed Sunderland chairman, he was able to persuade Keane to take over as manager at the Stadium of Light where in his first season in charge he returned Sunderland to the top flight.
Quinn’s final appearance for Sunderland came against West Ham United in a 1-0 defeat on 19 October 2002. Coming on as a second half substitute he almost grabbed the equaliser on 76 minutes but his delicate half volley came back off the post with David James well beaten. Without his aerial abilities, link up play with Phillips, all round team play and charisma Sunderland slumped to relegation with only 19 points come the end of the season.
Of course if Niall Quinn was finished on the pitch for Sunderland that didn’t prove to be the case off it!