Football: Quinn all set to rally the old Republic: On Wednesday, two tribes clash in Belfast, the USA at stake for one. Joe Lovejoy meets a relaxed Republican elder

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The Independent Online
AS the old king might have said, Bugger Bologna. The big match next week is not England's beached whales versus the tiddlers of San Marino but Ireland's north-south domestic scrap at Windsor Park.

The Republic need to win, and ruin Billy Bingham's farewell ceilidh, to be sure of qualifying for the World Cup finals, and that stunning 4-1 defeat at home to Spain last month has stretched Irish nerves tighter than a Dubliner's waistband. Having spent most of the last four years poring over maps of the United States, Jack's jolly green giants suddenly find themselves lost in Belfast rather than Boston.

Any encouraging sign is seized upon with characteristic Celtic enthusiasm, and much has been made back home of the improved form of Niall Quinn, the towering totem who embarrassed the Manchester United defence with those two colossal headers last Sunday. Dominant in the air, better on the ground than he is given credit for and the very epitome of team spirit, Quinn personifies the Republic's football.

Scoring twice in the Manchester derby, only to finish on the losing side, had left him with mixed emotions. The result had been 'a kick in the guts', and he had been 'pretty depressed', but he is not the sort to stay down for long, and was glad to be 'in nick' going into what he describes as 'the biggest cup tie of my career'.

Not so long ago he was pretty depressed, full stop. When Manchester City sacked Peter Reid as manager, Quinn contemplated leaving with him, convinced that the club's ambitions did not match his own. There is a release clause in his contract, and only some elusive footwork by he of the Cuban heels prevented him from invoking it. 'I felt maybe it was time to go, but the chairman (Peter Swales) kept putting me off when I tried to see him, and by the time I did get to see him Brian Horton had been in charge for a week or two, and I was happy with the way things were going.'

Crafty stuff by the wiliest of chairmen but, for a time, it had been touch and go. Quinn, articulate and persuasive, had been the players' spokesman, and had criticised Swales's handling of the club's affairs when the public campaign against him was at its height. Strong words were spoken - without regret. 'I've never been afraid to say what I think. A lot of people wanted to say what I did, but wouldn't risk it. I'd do the same again, without hesitation.'

He had felt compelled to speak out when he found a new general manager, with no background in football, making disparaging remarks about playing matters.

'My first experience of John Maddock was after a game we'd lost, and this guy was sitting there, slagging the whole team off. I thought: 'What the hell's going on here?' Then the manager got sacked the next day, and I thought it was all a bit much.

'If somebody had taken the time to explain to the players what was going on, it might have been a bit easier to accept, but no one did, and for that week or two I was pretty fed up with the whole thing.'

Was. Past tense. All's well that ends well, and Quinn has been pleasantly surprised to find the new regime an improvement on the old. To the relief of the Blue Moonies, he signalled his renewed commitment this week by selling his racehorse, Cois na tine (Gaelic for sitting by the fireside), and investing the six-figure profit in a new house, in Altrincham.

'Brian Horton's style of play is suiting me a lot better. I'm getting more chances. I felt I wasn't getting as many as I should have had under Peter Reid. We are passing the ball more, and I'm not asked to do so much, so deep.

'I'm not having a go at Peter, but he left it up to us a lot. He'd say, 'Play it as you see it', and when things weren't going well, the other lads would try to hit me with the long ball, rather than risk losing possession in dangerous areas.

'Brian Horton has said, 'Let's forget all that. Let's knock it around, and have the confidence not to worry about losing the ball.' That's made a big difference. I can play much further upfield, and not come into the play until later, when I can do something where it counts - like against United.

'Under Peter, if David White or Mike Sheron was working well off me, we looked a really good team. When it didn't come off, though, it looked poor. I think that sometimes happens with Ireland, who play a similar way. We have a certain system, and when it doesn't come off, it looks very poor.'

Never poorer than against Spain last month, when the Lansdowne Road fortress finally crumbled, after repelling all comers for eight years. Jack Charlton, for once, was outfoxed, and manager and team alike were nonplussed by the Spaniards' ultra-combative game plan. 'They put one over on us,' Quinn says, wincing at the memory. 'They did what we do best, and did it better on the day as well.

'We had just me up front, the idea being that as soon as we got good possession in midfield, Roy Keane and one other midfield player was to join me. That way it would be harder for their markers to pick us up.

'The problem was that we didn't get good possession in midfield - not once. Their midfield four were not typical at all. They weren't the usual lovely little ball-players who do you on the break, they were absolute terriers who wouldn't let our lads settle at all. Any ball I got was a clearance out of defence, when our midfield players were back there, helping out. I was isolated. It didn't work at all.

'If our spirit wasn't as good as it is, the result would have been devastating. God, it was the worst night ever. Between their second and third goals there was a spell of 10 minutes when I found myself playing football while I was feeling physically sick.

'That had never happened before. I just couldn't believe what was happening. The level of expectation was so high. We were within touching distance of the World Cup finals, and to have that happen was awful.

'We were saying beforehand: Don't panic if we haven't scored after an hour. Be patient. Then, lo and behold, we're 3-0 down after 20 minutes, and they're putting on a show. Their players have suddenly grown a foot taller, and they're knocking it around like world beaters.'

The failed experiment with a one-man forward line is unlikely to be repeated - and certainly not against the North on Wednesday. 'I think Jack knows I'd rather play with someone alongside me. I've played with a partner in every other match, throughout my career, which speaks for itself, really.'

John Aldridge, his established accomplice, missed the Spain game through injury, and is doubtful again. 'Obviously I'd like to play with John, but I thought there was a good case for David Kelly last time, and I'd be happy if he came in. I've played with him at youth, Under-21, Under-23 and B team level, and we've never been on the losing side together.'

Defeat in Dublin had been greeted with knowing looks all round, and the suggestion that an ageing team was on the slide. The World Cup would undoubtedly be a final fling for Aldridge, who is 35, Kevin Moran (37), Pat Bonner (33), Paul McGrath (33) and other thirtysomethings such as Ray Houghton, Ronnie Whelan and Kevin Sheedy. Quinn, though, is confident that the old guard can roll back the years for one glorious last hurrah.

'You would have to say that it's the last chance for some of them, but their determination to do it one more time will see them through without showing their age.'

Always look on the bright side, as they say in Manchester, and Quinn believes experience will be as valuable as youthful vigour in a match of Wednesday's importance and intensity. 'It's not going to be one for the faint-hearted, that's for sure. It's probably the biggest cup tie I've ever played in. It wasn't meant to be a decisive one-off, but right from the start, when the fixtures were announced, everybody looked at this one and thought it could be The Game, which is how it has turned out, of course. We had a chance to qualify without needing to win this one, and we'd have loved to have done that, but it didn't happen, so we've come to the crunch. The Big One.'

As big as the quarter-final Quinn played against Italy in Rome, three years ago? 'Fair point. Other than those World Cup finals, this is the biggest game Ireland have ever had. When we qualified last time, it was a cavalier effort from a group of lads who weren't expected to do well, but some big reputations were made in Italy, and now we've got to live up to them.'

Players had come and gone, but that unrivalled team spirit was a reassuring constant. 'A few faces have changed. Mick McCarthy was very influential as captain last time - quite a loud person at the best of times. We also had Frank Stapleton, who helped the younger players a lot. They're no longer there, but Kevin Moran is a very experienced player who has taken over the role of helping the younger ones, and the prominence Andy Townsend has risen to over the last four years is incredible. He is the one who pulls the strings - on and off the pitch. Those two are our major influences now.'

It was going to be difficult, no question. The North, if anything, would be even more tigerish than Spain, but at least there would be no surprises this time. Quinn and company know what to expect, and forewarned is forearmed.

Defeat had served to sweep away a creeping complacency. 'Six weeks ago, everyone was asking, 'How do you think you'll do in America?', and perhaps we allowed ourselves to be affected by that. Now it's, 'Jesus, you've got to win this one for us, and we'll worry about America afterwards.'

Cois na tine? Plenty of time for that when the World Cup is over.

(Photograph omitted)