By Joe Behan
Over the years, the Irish fans have been treated to some great footballers, among them Liam Brady and Paul McGrath. McGrath could be described as a hero, but he was also world class.
Mick McCarthy, more of a hero, was not world class, but he always did a great job and marked some of the best forwards out of the game. Captain Fantastic, as he was known, was a no-nonsense defender very similar to how his coach, Jackie Charlton, was as a player. Hopefully, Mick remains a hero and brings the team to the 2002 World Cup.
Expected to captain the Irish is Roy Keane, who is playing brilliant for the green shirt at the moment. Keane is without a doubt one of the top players in the world, but he may not get the status of hero — for a while, anyway.
The player who may well turn out to be the 2002 World Cup hero is Niall Quinn. He must not be written off. The Cu Chulainn of Irish football may find Japan/Korea to be his Tir na nOg. Myth has it that Quinn can hurl the oul’ slither as good as any from the ould sod. For now and for Sunderland, he scored two over the weekend.
Sunderland 2, Charlton Athletic 2
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When Steve Brown made it 2-0 for Charlton Athletic, it looked like Sunderland were on the verge of collapse with 30 minutes remaining. But with 15 minutes left, the Mighty Quinn came to the rescue. Kevin Philips sent over a great cross for Quinn to nod home a smashing far post header. Two minutes later, Philips was taken down and when McCann sent over the free with loads of hang time on the ball, the one and only Quinn was waiting with his favorite spearhead. Up he rose and down went the ball with conviction toward the post and into the back of the net.
“Quinn may be coming to the end,” said Charlton manager Alan Curbishley, “but I am sure that while he is around, Sunderland will always be very difficult to play.”
The two pulverizing trademark headers by Quinn saved Sunderland from back-to-back defeats at home. It’s not the first time this season that Quinn has produced such heroics.
Two key headers produced the match winner against Blackburn Rovers. Against Rovers, the mighty one came off the bench with 30 minutes remaining. The Rovers found it difficult to handle Quinn’s huge presence as he flicked the ball here and there to create chances. Then, with 10 minutes to go, up the lanky Irishman rose for a Stefan Schwarz cross and yet another trademark header.
In the final minutes of that game, Quinn was heading off his own goal line, saving the day for Sunderland to win.
Reid is proud of his business savvy, having paid little more than _1 million five years ago for Quinn.
“I wish I could find another one,” Reid said. “But they don’t grow on trees, these types of players. Everyone knows what I think of Niall Quinn. People have been quick to write him off, but at a sprightly 34, I don’t think there’s any reason to do that. He’s fitter than he’s ever been.”
“He’s a great leader and has tremendous experience,” said fellow pro Kevin Kilbane. “He has so much influence in Sunderland. Young players realize he’s a legend and they listen to him. He is absolutely magnificent.”
Northern Ireland’s newest talent, 20-year-old George McCartney, said: “He’s still young enough. He still has a lot to offer. He has a great influence in the club and helps everyone along.”
Top of Mark Kinsella’s list to be ready for Ireland’s last game, against Cyprus on Oct. 6, is Quinn himself.
“I just pray he doesn’t get injured,” he said. “He is a vital part of the Irish team.”
The 6-foot-4 Quinn was born in Dublin on Aug. 15, 1966. He made his league debut for Arsenal in 1985 and moved to Manchester City for _800,000 in 1990. At Maine Road, the big man became a force under Reid and the likeable Quinn was an all-time favorite with the supporters.
It was no surprise when Quinn became somewhat injury prone. Carrying around a big frame like his cannot be easy on the joints and the back.
Reid moved on to Sunderland and in 1996 Quinn looked like he was finished. The papers were writing him off. But Reid stuck by the Dubliner and that loyalty was questioned when Quinn missed most of his 1996-97 debut season for Sunderland. But back he came with a bang to the 1997 playoff final. Then, in 1999, Sunderland were premier material and Quinn was yet again a huge favorite with supporters and critics. He was voted Sunderland and North East Sportswriter’s Player of the Year after notching 21 goals.
The defiant Quinn is now doing it again and, with fingers crossed, he may have found a way keep his back in check.
Quinn now has Mick McCarthy to thank for talking him out of retiring from international football and Arsene Wenger for introducing pilates to club football. The rejuvenated forward has changed his daily routine to keep his back in check.
Former Arsenal and Sunderland pro Steve Bould, who played until he was 38, has introduced Quinn to pilates, an alternative exercise with focus on back rehabilitation. Quinn must start the day off with some serious stretching.
“Being able to equalize with two headers against Charlton makes every sacrifice worthwhile,” was the typical response from the Irish veteran. “The days of just going to training and then slipping off for a game of golf or to the bookies are long gone for me.
“Now I have a class before training every morning after I’ve dropped the kids off at school before I even get myself going. When I’m finished, I go to the gym and then to the jacuzzi.
“[Back problems] can do your head in. But I really feel I have won the battle and I can certainly see myself going on until the end of the season at least.”
Question is, can the Mighty Quinn be fit and ready for World Cup 2002, and if so, can he score those vital goals?