Quinn finds a way to game's heartlands

Player's decision to give his testimonial million to charity has helped restore football's soul
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Rather like Bob Geldof after the decision to launch Live Aid, Niall Quinn occasionally wonders what he has taken on in announcing that the estimated £1m profits from his forthcoming testimonial match – now looking a conservative figure – will go to charity. "I had teletext on, checking the racing results," he said, "and heard the announcer saying they were going to Westminster, where Tony Blair was maybe beginning to show allegiance to Sunderland rather than Newcastle. And suddenly there he was, talking about me. I thought, 'what have I done? I've created a monster'."

All the signs are that it will be an entirely benevolent one. The response has astonished the Sunderland and Republic of Ireland striker, from stewards, ground staff and video companies saying they would work for nothing, to £200,000 worth of tickets going in the first two hours before the phones crashed; at Old Trafford, "where I always get stick", he was clapped down the tunnel.

Most significant for Quinn, amiable and eloquent, but 18 years a pro in the cynical world of the dressing room, was the reaction of his club-mates: "Normally you get hammered for anything in the press, but there was just quietness and then one or two were like, 'well done'. The fact that I didn't get stick made me think maybe I've done something right."

The storyline would doubtless have been considered too far-fetched for Footballers' Wives – a player gives away a million? Yeah, right – but it was as if the national sport suddenly wanted to prove it had a soul after all. In the current climate of lurid headlines, Quinn's gesture was all the more appropriate: "Somebody said that if we'd given Max Clifford £1m to promote this, he couldn't have done the job better. Football's gone through the mill this season, with the [threatened] players' strike and through individual problems with players, crowd trouble, and other things the public were uncomfortable with. There's absolutely no doubt in my mind that's why we've got the reaction we have."

As well as children's hospitals in Sunderland and his native Dublin benefiting by some £500,000 each, every player in the testimonial match will be sponsoring a child's education in Africa for three years. "It might prick a few consciences," Quinn said, before adding with his usual disarming honesty: "And it may just ease mine. I've been 18 years in dreamland and now it's pay-back time."

Acknowledging that he has lived a privileged existence, now reflected in his ranch-style house with stables near Sedgefield, he quotes a lyrical Irish journalist's verdict on him without demur: "He's been to Fortune's kitchen and licked the pots clean."

Yet misfortune has also lured in the 6ft 4in former Gaelic football and hurling junior from time to time, notably for two serious knee operations. One kept him out of the 1994 World Cup, which has made the Republic's qualification for this summer all the more gratifying. The back problems that dogged him throughout the campaign are kept at bay only by a strict regime of stretches and limited training, in which he joins the rest of the Sunderland squad for two days a week.

Last Wednesday's appearance against Russia to earn an 88th Irish cap proved less arduous: a 30-second cameo as one of Mick McCarthy's 12 substitutes, without touching the ball. Not surprisingly he was in fine fettle at a Dublin hotel the next morning in confirming plans for the testimonial match at the Stadium of Light on 14 May between Sunderland and the Ireland squad that McCarthy will have named the previous week for Japan.

Quinn, who played for Jack Charlton at the 1990 finals, with McCarthy as his captain, has every expectation of being on the list of 23, though he acknowledges that the nippier, more mobile partnership of Robbie Keane and Damien Duff will be first-choice. His task over the next three months is to stay fit and see off the challenge of one or two of the next generation of Irish strikers, like Crystal Palace's Clinton Morrison and Millwall's Richard Sadlier.

"Clinton has burst in towards the end of qualifying and shown he can handle the big time. He's a character, for sure. Richard is getting right back into form and was so excited waiting to go on and make his debut, he was giddy. That took me back a bit. I'm just pleased to be able to offer back-up, or add to Mick's best line-up."

It is a generous assessment. But generosity, as the past month has proved, is not the least of Niall Quinn's many virtues.

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