NIALL Quinn secured his status as a "legend" after forking out £8,000 to ferry 80 Sunderland fans home when their flight was cancelled by an over-zealous pilot.
Quinn paid for a fleet of 18 taxis for stranded supporters to make the 310-mile trip from Bristol back to Wearside after easyjet grounded the plane – claiming their buoyant mood was a security risk.
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NIALL Quinn forked out 8,000 to ferry 80 stranded Sunderland fans back home after over-zealous airline bosses cancelled their flight.
Quinn rallied a fleet of 18 taxis for the 310-mile trip for fans after easyJet grounded their plane – claiming their jubilant mood was a security risk.
But the chairman, who was also on the flight, hit back today – vehemently denying fans were badly behaved.
Problems started as joyous fans arrived at Bristol airport for the 9.25pm return flight to Newcastle after their 1-0 victory over Cardiff on Saturday.
Airline security ticked off fans after breaking into a chorus of "Niall Quinn's Disco Pants" as the chairman arrived at check-in.
After the 124-seater aircraft was boarded, concerns were raised by staff about the behaviour of fans and the plane was surrounded by police.
Officers boarded the flight and removed 12 fans – including a man with learning difficulties and another who was cheered by fans for waving his false leg.
The other passengers were left to wait for about an hour in their seats and were told delays were being caused by paperwork and then concerns over security, before the captain announced the flight was being cancelled.
Two vans of police officers then arrived and escorted supporters back into the terminal.
Fans were left stranded in the airport waiting for a flight the following day – until Quinn announced he was paying for taxis to get them all home.
He and staff ordered a fleet of 14 taxis and four six-seater mini-buses for the trip back to Wearside.
He also ensured others who decided to stay were safe before he and his party got in one of the cars and started their own journey home.
The gesture left fans astounded and reaffirmed Quinn's legend status.
Quinn told the Echo today: "Saturday's journey home from Cardiff was certainly one of the more eventful ones.
"The situation developed, which led to the cancellation of a flight for the 100 or so loyal supporters.
"Myself and members of my staff were on board this flight and vehemently oppose the airline's view that there was disruptive behaviour onboard the plane.
"The mood was humorous and everyone was in good spirits after our fine victory.
"Nonetheless, we were faced with a situation were our fans were stranded and needed assistance.
"The club was happy to arrange transport back to the North East.
"The group included children, elderly and disabled fans and their safety and wellbeing was paramount.
"We also deny the airline's claim that overnight accommodation was offered and this was witnessed by several independent parties.
"Thankfully everyone returned home safely and we will now draw a line under this."
Supporters who got a 10am transfer yesterday were also met by police when they got back in to Newcastle.
A spokesman for Avon and Somerset Constabulary said: "Safety is paramount in a situation like this.
"The captain takes the final decision on who flies on his plane.
"He decided that the football fans should not fly and we supported him in providing assistance and removed them from the airport."
A spokeswoman for EasyJet said: "EasyJet has a zero-tolerance policy towards any unacceptable behaviour onboard or towards its staff and the flight was consequently cancelled.
"The airline offered those passengers not involved a free transfer onto the next available flight and hotel accommodation and would like to apologise for any inconvenience caused to them."
Supporters speak out
JIM Russell, of Fulwell: "I got in one of the taxis and all the way home I was thinking if the airline had reason to react like that.
"A few people had had a few drinks, but the atmosphere was good and I never thought there was any threatening behaviour.
"What a man Niall Quinn is. He was a legend for us before this because of what he's done for Sunderland, but how many football chairmen would help their fans like this?"
Carol Dennis, 53, from Chester-le-Street, was stunned when she was one of the people asked to leave the plane .
"I couldn't believe it," said the grandmother. "I started crying and asked why I was being singled out.
"They said I'd pressed the call button, but I'd done nothing of the sort. They threw off one lad who was sitting asleep causing no problems and they picked out a lad who has learning difficulties.
"The airline totally over-reacted and I won't be using easyjet again.
"I don't know what any of us would have done without Quinny. He's a saint.
"I feel embarrassed because I'm a Sunderland supporter and we don't want to be associated with this kind of thing. People who weren't there will blame drunk football fans, but Niall would not have helped everyone as he did if he thought we were troublemakers."
Michael Branthwaite, from Ashbrooke, was caught up in the rumpus, despite not being in the south west to follow Sunderland.
He said: "There was a bit of boisterous behaviour in the queue before people boarded the plane, but a policewoman had a word with a couple of people and that should have been it dealt with. A few people had had a drink, yes, but it was a happy atmosphere and I didn't see any aggression or abuse."
ECHO sports writer IAN LAWS was one of the passengers left stranded. Here he gives his account of the day.
WHEN Niall Quinn implored Sunderland fans to join him on his journey with the club, he could not have guessed it would result in such a remarkable trip as this.
When we were called to our gate to board flight 576, Quinn was again the focus. There was a brief chorus of "Niall Quinn's disco pants", which ended as soon as security staff asked the singers to settle down.
The first sign of a problem came when one fan was taken out of the front area of the queue to be lectured about his behaviour. He had been in high spirits, but I didn't see exactly what prompted airport security to eventually escort him out of the departure lounge.
On board, I saw no one leave their seats during the wait, other than to go to the toilet, and I saw only one incident of aggression.
Some passengers did become impatient, pressing the call button in order to get the attention of crew and ask what was happening.
At about 10pm, the captain announced he was checking paperwork before the flight could depart.
Fifteen minutes later, blue flashing lights illuminated the area outside and a handful of police boarded the plane to remove, I estimated at the time, eight to 12 people for what the captain announced as "posing a threat to the security of the flight".
Among those removed was a man listening to music. I was sat near him. He was not abusing staff.
Another was a disabled man who gained a small cheer when he removed his false leg.
Another taken away, and looking very distressed, was a young man with learning difficulties who had explained to me only minutes earlier how he lived for these trips.
By this time, Quinn and his club staff had decided to leave the aircraft.
Most passengers remained calm. One man became agitated and his behaviour was not acceptable. He didn't have to be asked to leave; he walked away.
Finally came an announcement at about 10.45pm that easyJet was not prepared to fly these passengers to Newcastle. We all had to leave the plane.
People left the plane in an orderly manner. easyjet officials, via a police officer, offered to reimburse passengers for any accommodation costs involved in having to stay in Bristol and arranged alternative Sunday flights for some passengers.
By now, Quinn was back in front of his people pledging to get them home. He'd tried and failed to organise coach travel, so told everyone that he would pay for taxis to get them home.
One fan, who had told me earlier that he loved Quinn so much he would give him a kidney, suddenly changed his mind. "The bloke's a legend," he declared, "he can have both of my kidneys."
At a cost of 380 per car of four people, Quinn paid for them to get back to their Wearside homes.
A few remained at the airport to catch a morning flight, but most jumped into the convoy of cabs.
At 12.50am, I joined three fans I had never previously met and started on the road home. Quinn was still waiting to go. He'd make sure everyone else was sorted out first.