Italia 90: A transformative goal and halcyon days for Niall Quinn

Seeds for his Netherlands goal were planted when he swapped Highbury for Maine Road

"It really was the making of me," says Niall Quinn now of the famous goal he scored 19 minutes from time against the Dutch in Palermo at Italia'90. Not just that goal, though, or that game, but the tournament and what were, for the then 23-year-old Dubliner, the transformative few weeks of club football beforehand.

More than a decade later, Quinn recalled that on March 14th 1990, he had played just 14 games in three seasons for Arsenal and was far from sure if he would even make Ireland's Italia 90 squad. In the weeks that followed, though, his fortunes were transformed by a move to Manchester City and on June 21st, he secured lifelong national hero status back at home by capitalising on the mistakes of Berry van Aerle then Hans van Breukelen to score a goal that would put Jack Charlton's team into the knockout stages of the country's debut World Cup.

As he reflects on it now, he still manages to sound just a little startled by the scale of the turnaround.

Michael Kennedy, the London-born solicitor who died this week, had played a small part in it all by helping to negotiate his contract at City after Howard Kendall had come to watch him play in the Arsenal reserves and then made the club an offer.

“It was a World Cup year and I wasn’t getting much game time,” he recalls, “so as soon as I heard the message he left on my answering machine, I was gone.

"I had two lives at the time," he suggests. "I got on with my football, my understudy to Alan Smith life, but then I also lived my life away from football and I was happy to sort of mix both worlds.

“But then when the move to Man City came, that was it; I was primed for, you know, really getting stuck in and making the most of my career at that point.”

Four goals in nine for his new club helped keep City up which, along with the two he got for Ireland in a 4-1 defeat of England B in Cork, seemed to convince Quinn himself that he could have a part to play. Having been fairly peripheral, though, he still had a good deal of ground to make up.

"From my perspective, Aldo was flying, Frank had started off (the campaign) and Cas was starting to make waves... then there was David Kelly, myself, John Byrne and even Bernie Slaven looking for a sniff of anything, wondering will any of us get a look in here because the others were way ahead of us."

Miserable encounter

Quinn was left to sit out the first group game, against England, and failed to somehow save the day after coming on six minutes from time for Cascarino in the second, that miserable encounter with Egypt.

In the days that followed, though, with his chief rival for a starting spot Cascarino clearly drained of confidence, he squeezed his way into Charlton’s starting XI to face Holland.

“I think back and remember a training session after Egypt when I stood out; when everything I did was just perfect. That would have been a factor in Jack saying ‘I’m gonna change it’.

"Then in relation to the goal in the game, I think of Pat Rice; my youth team coach at Arsenal drilling into me that one day a goalkeeper will make a mistake and that by you following in you might score goal. It was almost as if he wrote the script.

“That night, I’d say nine out of 10 would have just put their hands on their hips and said: ‘Yeah, I’ll get the next one but, for some reason I kept going; van Breukelen dropped it [a difficult back pass] and I am grateful to him forever after.”

Quinn recalls the days that followed with obvious warmth.

“It was a great time for us all. Meeting the Pope - Cas winding up Mick [BYRNE]on the way there, asking if he’d have his wife with him... the fans, Charlie Haughey.

“Telegrams were still a big thing and we would gather around in the evening to read all the latest telegrams. And people were bringing videos over and we could see what it was like back home. I remember us thinking: “This is big”.

He ran himself to a standstill over 120 minutes against Romania and was too sore and tired to take a spot kick or to really celebrate after the penalty shoot out victory. He and Dave O’Leary left the hotel by themselves and found a little restaurant to eat in. There, they ended up encountering the Romanian goalkeeper and skipper, Silviu Lung, who was accompanied by his wife and two members of the squad’s security detail.

After the quarter-final against Italy there was just disappointment, on a personal level that Charlton had taken him off after 53 minutes when he still felt he had something to contribute, and as a part of a team that felt it just came up collectively short on the night.

Sing song

“I had still felt confident in the game and wasn’t happy to be taken off but I remember that night we had a bit of a sing song with family around the hotel pool, a sort of farewell to Italy before we flew home the next day and I remember singing then, which wouldn’t have been me. It was another sign that I had come out of my shell a bit over those few weeks.”

The crowds in Dublin still stand out for him but that was only Act I of Quinn’s homecoming.

As the rest of the players headed off to the sun for breaks before pre-season training, the striker had a detour to take before starting to prepare for what was, arguably, his best ever season in England.

“I went up to a friend of mine, Frankie Kilbride, in Longford and he brought me on a tour of all the country music venues in Ireland, and he got me a few quid for appearing before all the bands. I’d do my bit, they’d all sing Ole Ole Ole then the band would come on and I’d f**k off. I was doing two or three of them a night.

“My two friends…Kiddo and Nudge, the two of them lived in London with me, they came for the week too. We had a driver called Niall, we slept in the car and had nothing but fun.

"I think I supported them all, Declan Nerney, Louise Morrissey... you name it. We started in Edgeworthstown, we went to Roosky, Letterkenny, down to Mayo, Castlebar, down to Kerry, across the Waterford… Jesus I did a week of it.

“In the space of a few weeks I’d gone from being a young fella, struggling at Arsenal and suddenly there were these halls that were packed to the rafters…I was like the Beatles for a week. It was f**king pandemonium... a brilliant thing to do.

“But when I did get away on a holiday,” he says, laughing, “it was that, not the World Cup, I needed to recover from.”