Irish football hoping Quinn can help plot path to a brighter future
The game here can’t afford any more hot air or wrong turns or bold plans that come to nothing
Niall Quinn: The immediate response to Quinn’s appointment should be one of cautious optimism. It certainly can’t make things any worse. Photograph: Ciaran Culligan/Inpho
“When its three o’clock in New York, it’s still 1938 in London,” said Bette Midler in a moment of perfect acidity.
The Football Association of Ireland is a bit like that in the sense that no matter what the actual year in the world, in Irish football it always seems to be 1988. The same faces and voices keep turning up.
Mick McCarthy, the current coach, has been a big part of Irish football teams dating back to the monochrome 1980s when RTÉ didn’t even show all the qualifying games live and Eamon Dunphy was a young and hungry football writer on the up.
Roy Keane has come, gone, come again, left again, then returned as assistant coach and is currently gone. But it’s hard to imagine that, a bit like Phil or Grant Mitchell of Albert Square, he won’t return to the show when we least suspect it.
And now into the psycho-drama that is the spectacular mismanagement of the FAI steps Niall Quinn, one of the most beloved of all of Big Jack Charlton’s revered heroes and a vivid reminder of the era when Irish football was like the champagne bottle that never stopped flowing. Ole Ole Ole Ole…
You hear the name now and a collage of images comes rushing through; the gangly upstart at Highbury, Niall Quinn’s disco pants; the totemic front man at whom Packie Bonner would grit his teeth before punting a ball through a hundred livid, insanely tense Ireland games in the hope that the big fella would get a touch, a knock down, a crucial goal. And he did.
He was there for an age; there as the sort of unelected Head Boy during the shambles in Saipan, there afterwards as chief executive at Sunderland for the reunion with Keane and here now that the FAI has been brought to its knees and that its staff, both central and national, have been working through a period of horrible, fearful uncertainty.
The thing about Big Niall is that when he speaks, you tend to listen and you want to believe him. I’ve only had a few fleeting encounters with the man and all left me with a positive impression.
The first time I met him, visiting some young Irish apprentices hoping to make it at Sunderland, Quinn was a senior player at the club in the twilight of his years. It was a dank January afternoon on Wearside. Quinn was whiling away the post-training lull by playing a game of headers over a makeshift badminton net with a few of the other players. He couldn’t have been more helpful of friendly. A long conversation, then, by phone, when he published his autobiography. One or two fleeting meetings.
He always comes across as sincere but not without a sense of fun. He’s on the record for enjoying a good night out, a sing song, the horses, Gaelic sport: an 1970s Dublin child who has stayed loyal to and obsessed with the pastimes of his era. And he’s a natural on television; a smooth and articulate communicator who holds an audience and who you find yourself quietly rooting for, particularly during those moments where he turns ultra sincere and his voice goes kind of throaty and you fear he might be on the verge of tears. He is easily charming and can be relied upon for a bit of light humour; in some ways, he’s the greatest captain that A Question of Sport never had.
The immediate response to Quinn’s appointment should be one of cautious optimism. It certainly can’t make things any worse. The appointment of Roy Barrett, from the unforgiving and highly accountable world of stock brokerage, as independent chairman of the FAI, indicated that there is an understanding that the grown-ups need to be in charge now.
Quinn’s appointment as deputy chief executive was a surprise given that he had previously ruled out such a role. One of his first tasks will be to meet with staff next Monday to assure them that the association’s financial position is “not as bleak” as it appeared to be.
And it’s easy to imagine Quinn excelling at this sort of task. It’s easy to imagine him gathering a staff that has been left demoralised by the unravelling of the association and urging them to allow themselves to be more optimistic about the future.
This, after all, is someone with a long track record of having a strong empathetic streak: who gave away the entire proceeds of his testimonial back in 2002 when such altruism was both hugely admired and considered daft; who coughed up eight grand so supporters to get taxis home from Bristol after they’d been kicked off a flight for singing Niall Quinn’s Disco Pants when he boarded the same plane. He exited with them, called the cab: the positive publicity more than covered the cost of the fares.
Quinn has been voicing both his concerns and his vision for what the FAI might become for well over a year. The Football Visionary Group he led released a report last May with the ambition of overhauling and reimagining Irish football as a thriving, profitable, well-marketed domestic entity capable of producing international-calibre young players.
It was heavy on wow and light on how. To many Irish football fans, some of the ambitions, such as a League of Ireland team qualifying for the Champions League by 2028 would have seemed like the stuff of fantasy.
The gulf between the administration of Irish football and those actually coaching the game was illuminated the very same month when the Football Forum, hosted in the Mansion House by Minister Shane Ross, was held on an evening of a full programme of games in the Premier and First Division. None of the league managers could attend.
With a deficit of €62 million hanging over Irish football, the next decisions taken by the people now in charge of the FAI are crucial. If the staff are presented with a front man and voice who can make them believe in a future again, then it will be something.
If Quinn’s charisma and the residual respect he commands from his football life can begin to attract financial investment to the league; if he fully believes he can drive a sort of U-turn for the domestic game, then who knows?
If this is to be the clean new page for Irish football, then you have to wish Quinn and company the best. And in a way, it must be. Because there can’t be any more hot air or wrong turns or bold plans that ultimately amount to nothing. The situation is too fragile for that. Someone has to drag Irish football into the new century.