It's a wonderful life. The wind which cuts in from the North Sea and across the fields at Whitburn is so fierce it might peel the paint from the cars gathered in this green crease of land where Sunderland football club train.
And what cars. BMWs. MGs. Rovers. Porshces. Any variety of big wheels. You can tell when the lads have received their big signing-on cheques. Flash chariots on the gravel the following week. Except for Niall Quinn. Keeps the car and stows the cheque in his pension fund.
In this set-up, Niall Quinn is literally and figuratively the big man. He loiters behind the goal, the wind slapping into his bare legs as he windmills his arms and calls pieces of gossip into the wind. He leans forward towards the gale like a disused telegraph pole. If the wind stops suddenly he might just fall.
Peter Reid dispenses cups of coffee to the odd fan who has come to watch the punishment. Reid's boys set off on a great looping lap of the training fields. Niall Quinn is no great runner, but he's always game. He loves this business, loves these days. Lately, perhaps, he's starting to count them.
He drags the last out of the day, getting in an hour of head tennis when training ends, and arrives back at the ramshackle, prefab dressing-room long after most of the big wheels have screeched away. The apprentices are gathering up the towels and the gear. He showers in one of the little cubicles, the shower fed by a massive corrugated-iron tank out back.
This cold, dank precinct is no place for a man to spend more than a minute or two bollock naked. You could get mildew just standing there. He hops about from one foot to the other as he gets into his leisure gear, chatting all the while to the kids about their recent exit from the FA Youth Cup.
It's a happy place to be. Sunderland are just cruising along on the crest of a nine-game unbeaten run. QPR this weekend. WBA next weekend. When the first team are motoring, a football club is a happy place. The kids listen intently to Big Niall Quinn. Maybe any one of the kids knocking about here has more skill than Niall Quinn ever had, but skill isn't what it's about. Six Irish boys came over to Sunderland in August. Two of them have gone home already. It's not always about skill.
When Niall Quinn was at Arsenal as a 17year-old, a prospect whose name always appeared in sentences near the word `gangly', they made him go off to a big wall to kick the ball against it, trying to keep it up in the air, just to improve his skills.
"Pretty degrading when I think about it. Loads of people have more skill than I have, but that's not the end of it. I'm in teams and scoring. That makes me better or luckier or whatever. "When I'd been a year and a half at Arsenal Paul Mariner got injured the day before I was to go to Port Vale on loan. Arsenal rang at the last minute and said to stay. I was making up the numbers. I remember on the Friday the list for travelling went up and my name was scribbled in at the end and Paul Mariner's was crossed out. We trained and Tony Woodcock slipped and did his groin, so I got in for the game against Liverpool. Then United. Then Spurs. After a month we were at Oxford and I was thinking what a kip it was. I got 18 games on the spin. I could have gone to Port Vale and never been heard of again.
"This is an unbelievable life you know. You've always got to be grateful for it.
"You never lose the buzz of walking out, with a game ahead of you," he says. "Never. If you do you're gone."
Gone. His knees nearly turned him into a goner. His damned, treacherous knees. He has been 14 years in England and has just over 300 league games under his belt. He has played an international for about every five league games he has played. Strange ratio. Low mileage.
In the last four miserable years of his career, he's lost two seasons, had his legs opened eight times and played less than 50 games. Any wonder he looks around the Stadium of Light and appreciates its dream-like possibilities like an open-faced schoolboy.
"The most I ever had was a hamstring or a twisted ankle," he says, when he takes you back to the beginning of his troubles. "Then we qualified for the US World Cup in Windsor Park on a Wednesday night in November. I played on the Saturday against Norwich, played on the Monday against Ipswich and then on the following Saturday against Sheffield Wednesday. I chested a ball, turned and my studs got stuck in the ground and I felt something go in my left knee. It was quite painful and the physio came on and looked at it. I played on for about 20 minutes and went off."
They decided to have a closer look at it on Monday. He was so non-plussed he remembers that he went to see the Sawdoctors on the Saturday night, heaving young ones about on his shoulders all evening, wondering if the stiffness in his knee might mean him missing the League Cup game with Forest the next Tuesday.
That Monday they cut him open, found his cruciate dangling and asked him if he'd like to call his wife. She'd be seeing a lot of him for a while.
SOME people he looks up to but can't really understand. Old players with 15 years of good times behind them and yet they are inexplicably bitter. Niall Quinn could have a lot to be bitter about, but he's so glad that the big adventure happened that he can't stop laughing about it.
He arrived in London at 17 with a big smile looping across his face, but it was a couple of years later before George Graham made a man out of him and took the smile away for a while.
"I joined at 17. My contract went up in increments - £125. £150. £175. For the first two years I was in the youth team and the reserves, but then I broke into the first team."
His first £175-a-week contract was up and he was playing in the first team. Should have been a strong hand. He went in to see George Graham, the new Arsenal manager. "I was on £175 and he offered two years at £175. No rise. Me and Martin Keown. Martin just left. I bought it. I signed for two years. Played 42 games the first year. I remember Graham Taylor rang after I signed and he was talking big figures and he said to me I know George is probably only giving you £300 or £400 a week. I was too embarrassed to talk to him. "
He played every game that season and the next spring there was only a year and a bit of his contract to run. Arsenal began looking at a new, longer-term contract. The talks broke down and then he got called into George Graham's office.
"He'd read that book, How To Be A Manager. His seat was up here and you were on a little stool looking up at him. So false. You knew going in, `Oh God, here we go, he's read the book'. "He said to me that he didn't think he could play me at Wembley in the Coca Cola final if I didn't sign the new contract they were offering. I said I wasn't bothered, even though I had about 18 people coming over to see me in it. A while later he came back and said to me that, okay, he hadn't had to sign anyone else and as long as he hadn't to sign anyone, I'd remain in the team.
"A week before the cup final he put me up to £300 a week. I thought it was decent money. I didn't want to sign and then have him buy somebody and be stuck there, so I signed and thought something would happen. Two days later he bought Alan Smith."
He was stuck then on a four-year contract. Alan Smith was brilliant. Steve Silvermint brilliant. Never booked. Never injured. Never less than brilliant.
So Niall Quinn was the king of the Holloway Road for a while. Every Paddy who ever knew the knotty grains of a dozen bar counters along that north London artery suffered the same delusion some time or other.
Living with Mick Kavanagh and Paddy Hughes in flatland. He'd hear the boys fiddling and cursing, cold-fingered, with cement-encrusted laces early in the mornings as they struggled with their work boots. He'd hear them clattering about before hitting the frost and pre-dawn darkness.
"Hey boys," he'd shout from his warm sanctuary under the blankets, "don't forget your shovel if you want to go work. Any chance of a start, Sir."
"Oh Yeah, fuck you, too, Quinny."
He remembers the boredom of life after George Graham froze him out. He got so bored that he worked odd days on the sites himself. A day holding buckets as a tar road grew out in front of him. Another couple of days he spent bending and lifting, bending and lifting with a gang of tackers. Bought him some status and good yarns in the pub, but mother of divine jaysus, the work was hard.
If it wasn't for Jack Charlton still picking him his career would have gone all out of shape. It nearly went bang one morning. He never missed training, but he was aware that, off the pitch and away from the ground, he was sliding into the habits of the bad pro.
One morning he turned up with a skinful of froth still inside him. He could handle his drink and he hung with good people, but the smell of a good night doesn't disappear easily. George Graham, as salty as a presbyterian's porridge, passed close.
"Fuck me," said the manager, "You smell like a brewery, Quinn."
His words hung there like a foggy breath. All the tensions and dislike and frustrations waiting to either explode or be defused. Every player waiting to see what happened.
"Yeah, well," said Quinn, "so would you if you drank as much as I did last night."
George Graham passed on, his head shaking and the corners of his thin lips fighting off the upturn of a smile. Kid had a backbone. Not long afterwards the kid had a transfer to Manchester City, too.
"That's the way I roll through life. The bank manager will ring up and tell me I'm overdrawn at the bank and I'll have him laughing and I'll promise him a bundle of tickets and, if you like, that's the way I roll through my life. If that stopped it would be time to quit. I know too many old players who are bitter and twisted."
When Peter Reid was boss at Man City he rang Niall Quinn up one night after an away game to Crystal Palace.
"Quinny you had a nightmare today."
"Yeah I know. Shocker. Dreadful." "Anyway I'm glad."
"AC Milan were making inquiries about you. They came to see you today."
And all he could do was laugh. Still gives him a chuckle. Rollin', rollin', rollin'.
September and on the day when Ireland play Lithuania in Vilnius, Niall Quinn is sitting in a specialist's office in Bradford. The office belongs to Mr Bollin, a knee surgery revision doctor. Mr Bollin has made an exploratory expedition to the inside of Niall Quinn's leg.
Six games into his career with Sunderland, in August 1996, the cruciate in his right leg this time had snapped. Another year gone. Most of Ireland's World Cup campaign wiped away. The rehabilitation path was all the more heartbreaking for being so cruelly familiar. To come back from one cruciate in a career is heroic. To come back from two. Rarely charted territory.
He came back at the end of the season. Survivor. He remembers the last game of the year, Sunderland tightroping across the relegation canyon playing Wimbledon. Five minutes into the second half he couldn't run. Waved himself off.
Here he is, months later, in Mr Bollin's office in Bradford, bracing himself.
Niall Quinn has already tended to the matters concerning the imminent end of his football life. He has contacted the PFA and excavated the details of every entitlement. He has secured a job of sorts writing about soccer for a Sunday paper. He has turned his thoughts to the world of horses.
If it ends here with a frown and a browful of crumpled professional concern from Mr Bollin, then so be it. He will leave the great adventure behind as cheerfully as he joined it 14 years ago.
Those damn knees. They stole the prime of his career from him, but in the end they couldn't write the ending. Mr Bollin is happy enough. He needs to cut a groove between two fused bones, lubricate between them and prescribe a lifetime of cod liver oil. He needs to warn about the long-term effects of so much gnarled scar tissue, but, hey, Niall Quinn will trade sprightly senescence for a few more years of football life any time.
Five weeks later Ireland are in Brussels and Niall Quinn is on a coach, climbing the spine of England, from Portsmouth back to Sunderland. He leans back on the headrest, his ears are piped full of commentary from Brussels through a walkman. His head is full of shuffling thoughts. He has just played his first full game after injury. Scored a goal. Survived again. Felt good. It's been a long time since he's had that spring in his legs. And Ireland are level in Brussels.
A few years ago, when Ireland qualified for the last World Cup, he was allowing himself the daydream that if the cards fell right he could possibly spin four World Cup final trips out of his football life. Not bad for a kid who only played soccer when there was no hurling going on. Now. He's still looking for his second World Cup and that story is a scar as discernible as the lines which track the skin on his knees.
Back in 1994, when Ireland were getting ready for the World Cup, Quinn recovered from his first cruciate snap in record time. By April he was rearing to play football again. The World Cup was two months away.
And. . . "Francis Lee said I wasn't going. Full stop."
He got his surgeon to send Lee a letter stating that he should be playing football, that it would be good for him to play football. Lee never budged.
Quinn sent Jack Charlton the letter as well. A detonation from Jack might shift Lee. Jack was at a do after Kevin Moran's testimonial. He faxed the letter and gave another copy to Mick Byrne to hand over personally. "But you know what Jack is like. I thought he could have made an issue out of it. He never tried an ounce. I don't know, I think he was an old friend of Francis's, roomed together at the Mexico World Cup or something. He never tried."
He knew he was fit to play. Instead he went to the World Cup as part of RTE's team and travelled with the hacks on the media bus, trailing along in the wake of his teammates.
Just to rub salt into a very open wound Manchester City played him for 90 minutes in a pre-season game against Chester two days after he got back form the World Cup.
"It hit me when I went to get back in the first team the next season. Uwe Rosler and Paul Walsh had done well, they were the crowd favourites and they had kept us up the year before. I was on the bench for at least 10 games of that season right at the beginning. Everything was changed. From being top man and going to the World Cup to this. Jason McAteer and Phil Babb were moving clubs and in the papers every day. I realised that it really was a big thing to miss."
He says that this is the only parcel of bitterness which he carries about with him. Maybe that and the fact that City screwed him over about money he was owed when he had a sweet deal to take him to Sporting Lisbon all but signed. But he's still laughing and his eyes aren't clouded by any of it. Back on that bus from Portsmouth. Belgium are 2-1 ahead at the death and if the World Cup is a big thing to miss, well he's going to miss it again. News of the Brussels disaster spreads throughout the bus and sympathy bounces back to him in the form of gentle pisstaking for a few miles.
His head is in turmoil.
The next day one of his racing syndicate's horses wins a big televised race and is promptly installed as favourite for the Triumph Hurdle at Cheltenham "There's always something else. I've always known that about football. There's always something more. Whatever the best days of the life I've had in football, or the worst days, there is always something more out there. I haven't had deaths in my family. Nothing in football is like the knocks in the world outside."
There must have been a thousand Irish kids at least who went to England since 1983 with the same soccer dreams and sappy smiles that Niall Quinn started out with. Where are they? He knows his luck and celebrates it every day.
He is in Durham town, now, under a lowering December sky, heading southwards. He lets his passenger out at a red light and points his dark blue, sensible family car towards his home 20 miles further south. Big guy with a smile looping across his face, counting the kisses which life has bestowed on his happy head. It nearly ended. Then it didn't. This unbelievable life rolls on.
"My wife (Gillian) used to hate that about me. She could never get a good row out of me. I can always see something positive, something else. It nearly ended, but I shrugged my shoulders at it really. I would have come home and played hurling or football with a local team or something. We have a house in Kildare nearly built. Now I've got a while longer out of it and I'm grateful for it, but I've been grateful for it from the start."
He's away, this gust of fresh air in the cynical professional world. Away and down the long slide again.
QPR this weekend. WBA next. The rhythm of life. O lucky man.