Get Carter: Sunderland on a wonder run

Simon Turnbull talks to a totem about his new heady heights
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The Independent Online

NIALL QUINN may be approaching senior citizen status in professional football life but even he was not around the last time Sunderland won five successive matches in England's top division. "Haven't got a clue," the veteran centre-forward replied when asked to date the historical feat that he and his team- mates stand to match if they beat Aston Villa at the Stadium of Light tomorrow night.

NIALL QUINN may be approaching senior citizen status in professional football life but even he was not around the last time Sunderland won five successive matches in England's top division. "Haven't got a clue," the veteran centre-forward replied when asked to date the historical feat that he and his team- mates stand to match if they beat Aston Villa at the Stadium of Light tomorrow night.

"My gosh!" he exclaimed when informed that an emerging right-winger by the name of Adolf Hitler was finding German lebensraum in the Rhineland at the same time as Raich Carter was leading Sunderland to a fifth straight win in the olde First Division in 1936.

It's a long time, too, since Sunderland found room at the top in the top division. They last finished in the upper half at the end of the 1955-56 season - two months before Peter Reid was born. After 42 years of hurt (subtracting 1973 and the fantastical FA Cup win), a four-match winning run and occupation of a top-three Premiership place for a fortnight has come as a blessed relief to Sunderland's vast, long-suffering, support. As one fan, writing to the Football Echo last week put it: "I am horrified to discover there have been no letters slagging off Peter Reid, Bob Murray, Samson the Cat or anyone else. After all, we are only third in the league and playing attractive football."

Not that Reid's players are being swept along on the crest of a red and white euphoric wave. "We're on a nice little run all right," Quinn said. "But it's not something we're getting carried away with. We only have to remember that Chelsea game at the start of the season. We were taught a lesson and I think that's what drives us on. No one's complacent. We know what can happen if we switch off.

"There is a great feeling about the place at the moment, though. The club, as a whole, is in great shape. The reserves are doing well. The kids are doing well. You've got one or two players starting to make the breakthrough now. You've got young Michael Reddy..."

Young Michael Reddy has hardly had time to make a breakthrough, his first-team career comprising the 48 minutes he played as a substitute in the half-strength Sunderland side beaten 3-2 by Wimbledon in the Worthington Cup at Selhurst Park on Tuesday. In 48 minutes, though, the 19-year-old - a £30,000 pre-season signing from Kilkenny City - made a sufficiently striking impression to be the talk of the north-east football scene all week.

"One or two people have asked me to compare him to Michael Bridges," Quinn said. "He's only a baby compared to Michael Bridges but in terms of raw ability he's better. I can't give it to you any plainer than that. He has all the raw ability in the world and he's only been getting the proper coaching for a couple of months. He's definitely one to look out for."

Which is more than was said of young Niall Quinn when he first left Ireland to chance his luck in English football. As a 16-year-old trialist with Fulham, he was told by Malcolm Macdonald that he would never make a centre-forward. "To be particularly precise about it, he said as long as he had a hole in his arse I wouldn't make a footballer," Quinn pointed out, strictly in the interests of accuracy.

It was not the first time Supermac had talked through his ample bravado ("I'll put 10 past Hereford," he famously remarked on the eve of Newcastle's 1972 nightmare on Edgar Street). And, like a Ronnie Radford rocket ripping into the Meadow End rigging, the Dubliner to whom Macdonald gave the bum's rush has been going strong for some considerable time now. An international footballer for 13 years, and a leading figure in the Republic of Ireland's Euro 2000 play-off against Turkey, the totemic Quinn typifies the Sunderland success story.

Twice on the verge of hanging up his boots because of a cruciate knee ligament injury, he has become a vital cog in Reid's team. Run through the rest of the Sunderland line-up and you find other supposed spare parts functioning impressively in a smoothly efficient machine: Kevin Phillips, a little-known Third Division player when Reid bought him for £325,000 two years ago; Nicky Summerbee, surplus to requirements at Manchester City two years ago; Alex Rae, a rockbottom resident of the Marchwood Priory Clinic a year ago; Gavin McCann, off-loaded by Everton for £500,000 last year; and Michael Gray, discarded by Manchester United as a teenager. "We have players at the club who have been underrated," Quinn said, "but I would imagine there's a good few of them that any team in the Premier would like in their side. I think we really have a good squad here.

"When I signed a new contract at the end of last season it was more or less put to me that I was getting three years to help the club take the next step - to consolidate in the Premiership - in that time. But, being greedy, I would hope that we could do that a little bit quicker - and that I could play a game in Europe for Sunderland. I'd really love that. If, by the time my contract's run out, I've played a game in Europe for Sunderland it'll really feel as if I've achieved."

It would indeed. Only once before have Sunderland fought on the European front. And Niall Quinn was a seven-year-old in short pants back then. Mind you, at 33, he's still in short pants - exposing one or two shortcomings on Malcolm Macdonald's part.

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