Inspiration alone is not enough but it does give you a head start when morale begins wither – especially if you are two heads taller than anyone else about. For two hours, from breakfast canteen to state of the art gymnasium Niall Quinn spread inspiration to the wilting Sunderland team at their boldly titled Academy of Light training ground on Friday morning. It was only when we drove away that he said quietly, “I just wanted to give them a lift.”
As chairman, since 2006, of Sunderland, he had spent the previous day in London speaking out on behalf of others at a Premier League meeting. The next afternoon he was to host the club’s reclusive American owner Ellis Short at the Stadium of Light while watching the team continue their winless-since-November run by drawing 1-1 with Wigan. It’s a pressure he will talk of later. But emphasizing the positive, stressing what sport in general and football and racing in particular can do for the psyche, is what Niall Quinn is all about.
As so often, it traces back to the beginning. His father Billy was a teenage hurling sensation for Tipperary who had to emigrate to Britain to find work as a steel erector with McAlpines back in 1954. But while Billy’s own chance was gone by the time he returned to live in Dublin, he passed on his love of playing all sports to his fast growing son. “When I was 14,” remembers Niall, “I used to play soccer in the morning, Gaelic football in the afternoon, and then go in goal for the senior hurling team in the evening- and that was only Saturday. When people say you should protect children from playing too much, I think it’s nonsense. Kids need to want to play,” he adds before closing tartly –“so do Premier League players.”
In just 43 years Niall has done a lot of playing in every sense. In the summer of 1983 any disappointment at getting beaten in the All Ireland Minor Hurling Final was soon tempered by the arrival at his door of first Terry Neill from Arsenal and then Dick Seddon with a bigger offer to play Aussie Rules football with Melbourne. If in your first game for The Gunners you then score at Anfield against Hansen and Lawrenson, you don’t need any hot shot sensation to say you don’t know what early fame is all about.
Nor, for that matter, should any partying tyro imagine that Niall has not been there before him. Not surprisingly the three participants in the Tony Adams, Paul Merson, Niall Quinn three day drinking binge which began at Windsor races on Monday night and ended in a Greek club called “Winners” in Enfield on Wednesday morning have different versions of the exact itinerary. But for Niall it is not even his favourite celebration.
“It was Gold Cup day 1987,” he confesses, “and as I wasn’t even in the Arsenal squad for Saturday I took the only ‘sicky’ in my life and spent the afternoon (hardly incognito?) in a pub in North London where my friend and I backed Charter Party at 16-1. It was a big bet for us so we ordered a bus for the pub and went up to The Forum in Kentish Town and saw The Pogues and Kirsty McCall who had just had a No 1 at the time. From there we went to a place called The Thatch which was a late night Irish club which we left at 6 in the morning. I had left home with £40 in my pocket, when I got back I had £42. It was a magical memory.”
Over twenty seasons, 141 goals and 475 appearances for Arsenal, Manchester City and Sunderland, and a then record 21 goals from 92 games with Ireland, Niall has bridged the complete change in football culture from ignorant hell-raising to high-tech and mega-salaried athleticism. But through it all he has never lost his belief in people. “Human beings,” he wrote tellingly in his award winning autobiography, “aren’t an exact science. It doesn’t have to be dead solid perfect. There’s an intangible called spirit.”
Indeed this is the quality that positively glows from him as we turn off the South Shields road into the training ground. The drizzle outside may be mocking its Academy of Light title but in the gleaming modern canteen manager Steve Bruce and his assistants light up immediately as their friend but definitely boss comes in. Football talk turns to racing as Keith Bertchin remembers playing with Mick Channon and his manager recalls the punting enthusiasms of his team mate Bryan Robson. “And I tell you, Robbo was hard too” adds Steve with the admiration of a man whose magnificently broken nose reminds us how few prisoners he took in his own glory days with Manchester United.
But for all the badinage Steve and Niall and all the others know that it is winning their present battles that count, to end the lean spell they have endured since drawing 44,000 to watch them beat Arsenal at the Stadium of Light in November. As Quinn wolfs down the full egg, bacon and beans breakfast, Bruce tells of how new signing Alan Hutton should be ready to play, and that Benjani might come on as substitute. His voice is warm and positive but he can’t disguise the ache as he says – “what they need is a bit of luck to give them confidence. It will come.”
As we then whirl off through the offices and reception to the far end of the complex where the Academy’s young hopefuls have their separate centre, Niall points to a face amongst the rows of red and white striped portraits on the wall. “That’s Jordan Henderson,” he says, “we are putting huge store into this operation and he is the first one who looks as if he really might win through.” Next day’s skilful cross to enable the Kenwyne Jones equaliser suggested the prophecy may yet come true.
If it does the player will receive medical, nutritional, athletic and analytical support beyond the imagining of the young Quinn making that first journey to North London back in 1983. “We want to be sure we are really up to speed,” says Niall smiling at the rows of hairdryers on the dressing room wall, “but they have to realise what’s wanted of them, that this is a place where some of the fan’s loudest cheers are for a tackle. It’s part of their culture, of the hard days of the ship yards. They want people who will work for the shirt.”
And horses who will too. For Quinn and all Sunderland fans no afternoon last summer matched what happened at Newcastle’s Gosforth Park on 27th June. “We have a syndicate led by Terry Alderson who had that Latolme who twice fell at the second last in The Champion Chase” says Niall, “we got two horses and called them Roker Park and Horatio Carter ( after Sunderland’s former ground and their legendary hero) and said to Kevin Ryan if they could win on Plate Day, we would never ask him for anything. Roker Park won the Sprint and on the loudspeaker ‘Thommo’ said ‘1-0’ to Sunderland. When Horatio Carter won by a short head an hour and a half later and Thommo said ‘2-0’ to Sunderland, the crowd booed and Terry gave them ‘the arm’. Great days!”
This relish for racing is based on more than a wish to rub Newcastle and bookmaker noses in the mire. Niall’s wife Gillian is a niece of former Irish flat champion Johnny Roe and has herself won Irish National Dressaage competitions back home in Kildare. When Cois Na Tine, their very first racehorse whom Jim Bolger trained to win all four of his races as a two year old before being sold to America, was later found on a meat farm in Nevada, the Quinn’s paid $6,000 dollars to ship him back to recuperate on their then farm in Sedgefield before giving him a new lease of life as a stallion in Ireland.
The racing tales keep tumbling out as we approach the iconic Stadium of Light set high above the Wear on the site of a disused coal mine. Of trips from Cheltenham to Sedgefield and of the three consecutive years when Halmahera came up in the Portland, and of the need to keep the faith in these straitened days. “In Ireland race is part of life and evokes incredible passion,” he says, “what’s more it is something we are best at in the world. So even in these difficult economic times, I think it is a heritage that must be protected.”
Back in the Sunderland offices looking across at the stadium, it seem fair to query just how much economic pressure Quinn and Sunderland themselves are under. But, despite some Jeremiah columns about their slip towards the relegation zone, Niall’s mood remains compellingly optimistic for a man who, with no previous business experience, brought in a bunch of Irish racing and property friends (The Drumaville Syndicate) to take over the club and front it up as chairman.
It’s history now how he also brought in his mercurial Irish team mate Roy Keane who galvanized the club into the Premiership in his first year only to bow out two season later whilst last May “The Black Cats” had to go to the final game to ensure top status survival. Meanwhile a chance meeting with financier Ellis Short at the Ryder Cup saw him take over from the Drumaville Syndicate and both impress and educate Quinn in the process.
“Ellis is a very private person,” says Niall, “but he has an Irish heritage, he really buys into what this football club is doing and he insists that we apply real business logic to what we do. I talk to him every day (Mr Short duly called as we drove to lunch later), he is interested in what the team is doing but he also makes me think through what I am doing as chairman, what players we are buying, how our other operations are going”
In their short association Quinn and Short have traded players well enough to significantly reduce the debt and to make great strides with their non football business winning a tourist award last year for the 150,000 head input from the Stadium of Light’s three capacity concerts, one for Oasis and two for Take That. But, unsurprisingly for someone who was given an honorary MBE for donating the £1million proceeds of his 2003 testimonial match to charity, it is the wider work for the community that evokes the most pride.
The SAFC Foundation is the largest operation of its type in the country. “We work with up to 5,000 children every week,” says Niall now looking out of a Sunderland themed classroom high in the stand with the River Wear curving far below. “We have over 100 staff, 67 of them full time. Our motto is ‘Lighting up Lives’ and we have outreach projects in the disadvantaged parts of the city and classes here with the purpose of using the power of football to give kids who have had problems one on one support and a chance to go forwards. Sport does inspire – racing does too.”
Finally we come out into the ongoing drizzle. Three kids are standing outside waiting to do their stint with the Foundation. The first two ask for an autograph but the third lingers back awkwardly as Niall comes over and gently chides him for the somewhat ill timed wearing of a black and white Newcastle shirt in Sunderland. Something tells you that this kid will become a convert. He won’t be the only one.