The A-Z of forgotten football heroes: Q - Niall Quinn

He may be better known as a chairman and pundit these days, but Ireland legend Niall Quinn was one of Sunderland's greatest ever forwards

The A-Z of forgotten football heroes: Q - Niall Quinn
Niall Quinn celebrates winning a penalty for Sunderland in a 1-1 draw at Middlesbrough | Photo: Stu Forster/Getty Images

Nowadays, Niall Quinn is probably best known in footballing circles for his punditry, and his previous role as chairman at Sunderland.

The Irishman is one of those players who the youngest generation of fans see as a face on the television rather than a top-class athlete - yes, Michael Owen did win the Ballon d'Or, we promise - but it was during his playing career that he found his home from home in the North East.

In a career spanning three decades, Quinn represented just three clubs - a single appearance in the Thai first division aside - and racked up almost a century of international caps which included two World Cups. It was a long, and largely successful journey from his youth days at Manortown United to being awarded the freedom of Sunderland in 2013.

Gaelic games and Aussie ambitions

Quinn had a reputation in Dublin as a future athlete from an early age. He played football, Gaelic football and hurling, captaining a Dublin colleges tour of Australia with the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) and playing in the 1983 All-Ireland Minor Hurling Championship Final as a teenager.

He was offered a career in Australian football, but opted for a sport a little closer to home.

His decision was a good one. The same year as that hurling final, he signed his first professional contract with Arsenal. A strapping young man of six foot four, Quinn was a centre-forward but his size meant he was occasionally deployed as a defender in the Gunners' reserve sides. 

Within a few years, though, his best position was no longer in question. 18 goals in as many games for the reserves in 1985/86 saw him thrust into first-team action for an important game with Liverpool. He scored one in a 2-0 win, and his career was off and running. 

It was to be his only goal of the season, but the new year brought 16 more appearances and laid the foundations for the campaign to follow.

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A second start at City

In 1986/87, Quinn was a key figure. He scored 12 in 48 appearances as Arsenal, now under George Graham, won the League Cup but the signing of Alan Smith at the end of the campaign saw his first-team chances fade. He remained at Highbury for another couple of seasons, but couldn't force his way back in and eventually transferred to Manchester City in early 1990.

Again, he scored on his debut - this time against Chelsea - and his first full season would be the most productive of his career, scoring 22 goals and booking his place at Italia 90.

Quinn claimed one of his 21 Ireland goals in a one-all draw with the Netherlands in the group stage, but it was his only strike of the tournament as a Toto Schillaci goal eventually saw the hosts through at their expense in the quarter-finals.

A second home at Sunderland

Quinn's spell in Manchester spanned seven seasons, 66 league goals, and saw the advent of the Premier League in the early 90s, but it was at Sunderland where Quinn said he truly found his place.

Joining for a club-record fee of around £1.3million in 1996, he once more scored on his first outing for a new club, netting a brace on debut against Nottingham Forest

However, things turned sour early on on Wearside as he suffered a serious knee injury which saw him miss six months of the season. The Black Cats missed him badly, and were relegated in his absence.

However, in 1997 everything changed. Sunderland moved to the Stadium of Light, where he became the club's first goalscorer, and signed Kevin Phillips. The pair's partnership was to become the stuff of Mackem legend.

21 goals in a 105-point promotion season saw him win numerous local awards, though it was Phillips who stole most of the headlines with 25 strikes of his own.

Quinn knocked in another 14 in the Premier League to keep Sunderland up, and stayed there for a further three seasons before calling it a day at the end of 2002/03.

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Niall Quinn's Disco Pants

His return to Sunderland as chairman in 2006 brought about an unlikely relationship with Roy Keane, who had been sent home from Ireland's World Cup squad in 2002. Quinn had apparently taken the side of the management and Mick McCarthy at the time, but their reconciliation on Wearside paid dividends for the club as they were promoted back to the Premier League at the first time of asking under Keane's management.

Quinn was replaced as chairman by Ellis Short in 2011, and given the freedom of the city two years later. 

It was not the greatest honour he has received from the city. That came from the club fanzine A Love Supreme, which in 1999 released a version of the popular terrace song 'Niall Quinn's Disco Pants', which they adopted from his former employers at Manchester City.

The anthem reached number 56 in the UK singles chart in early 1999, and was emblematic of a touchingly close relationship between the Irishman and the club's fans. With the Black Cats in dire straits under the directionless Short now, perhaps they could do worse than give him a call.

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This article is part of a regular feature series, 'The A-Z of Forgotten Football Heroes'. Check out the last entry, on everybody's favourite Blackburn-based Norwegian, here.