Football: Quinn enjoying sweet life again

Veteran who endured misery of career-threatening cruciate problems is now relishing strike partnerships at both club and international levels.
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The Independent Online
LIFTING HIMSELF after the disappointment of Macedonia, where the Republic of Ireland came within seconds of qualifying directly for the European Championship finals, has not been a problem for Niall Quinn. The club games have been coming so thick and fast - big ones, too, when your club is challenging for the Championship - that he has hardly had a moment to dwell on it.

In fact, for someone who, three years ago, was on the verge of quitting the game after a second cruciate ligament injury in the space of four months, life could not be sweeter. Since his troubles he has tended to look on the bright side, anyway. "Everybody goes on about how close we were to qualifying," said the Sunderland totem, "but we were also very close to getting absolutely nothing. We should consider ourselves lucky to get to the play-offs."

One can only hope, for the sake of the Irish, that more of his colleagues have been thinking the same way prior to tomorrow's first leg against Turkey at Lansdowne Road. Quinn sympathises with his manager, Mick McCarthy, who since Macedonia a month ago, has had to live with the nagging memory of that 94th-minute equaliser without the welcome distraction of club football. "It's like the guy who has a bad game on the last day of the season and has to wait three months to put it right," Quinn said.

If Ireland are to put things right in these play-offs, Quinn and one or two others will probably have to replicate their club form in Dublin tomorrow night. "I think I'm a cleverer player now," said Quinn, who was 33 last month. "I don't run around like a headless chicken any more, I know when and where to go."

At least now he does not have to shoulder the burden of goal-scoring in the Ireland team alone. The emergence of Coventry's Robbie Keane, who has made the step up to senior international football from the Under-21s as seamlessly and as excitingly as he has bridged the gap between the First Division and the Premiership, has been a God-send for the Irish.

"If there is one thing I hate, it's playing up front on my own," said Quinn. "I nearly cry when a manager tells me to do it. It's a horrible job, but it's good to do it every now and again because it makes you realise how valuable your strike partner is."

Quinn is fortunate these days to have a good one both at international level and club level. And they, in turn, are fortunate to have someone as experienced and selfless as Quinn to learn from. If Sunderland's Kevin Phillips should come on as substitute at Hampden Park tomorrow and help England steal an advantage against the Scots in their play-off, they will have Quinn to thank. "Both guys are so willing to learn and improve - that's the buzz for me," he said. "They're not trying to do their own thing, we're really working as a partnership."

After just one game, Phillips' England career has yet to take off, but Quinn reckons when his first goal goes in, the floodgates will open. They tell me he's scored 73 goals in 85 games for Sunderland - not even Wrighty or Rushie can compare with that."

Quinn has never enjoyed his football so much as he does now. And to think that three years ago he had alerted the Professional Footballers' Association of his intention to quit the game when he consulted one more surgeon and discovered that the problem was not so much his cruciates as two bones in his knee which had grown together. Suddenly, instead of being put out to grass and making a career out of his hobby of owning racehorses, he found himself a declared runner again. "I'm probably more intense about my football now," he said. "The spirit, the atmosphere, the whole buzz of football in the North-east, it's great to be in the thick of it all. Although we were far and away better than anybody else in our division last season, you'd probably only really get going on the Thursday or Friday before a game. Now it's a huge game every four days, but it's not a worry. Bring them all on, I say."

There were some who were not sure that Quinn could cut it any more in the top division and they almost had the player himself believing it. "A lot of people said I've proved people wrong, but I didn't think I had to prove anything," he said. "The last couple of years have gone well for me but some people wouldn't have known it because we were playing in the First Division.

"With all the hype about the Premiership even I began to wonder if the league had changed so much in the last couple of years that I wouldn't be able to cope. And to be honest, when Chelsea beat us 4-0 on the opening day of the season and Leboeuf and Desailly led me a merry dance I had to scratch my head and think about it, but since then it's all gone very well."