DAVID PREECE: Why legend Niall Quinn and Tony Coton changed Sunderland's path in history
Everyone's a legend these days, aren't they? It's used frequently to describe any player who has spent a few seasons at one club without being a total disaster.
The frivolous nature with which it’s bandied about has assured the loss of its gravitas, a detraction of its true weight of meaning.
Well I’m going to use the word today and I’m going to attach it to someone who deserves it, prefixed to his name as if he was present on the Queen’s birthday honours list: Niall Quinn.
It was in these pages where I read it was the 10 year anniversary of when Quinny became the figurehead of the club and the piece by Chris Young drew me back to the day he arrived at Roker Park in the August of 1996.
To me, as integral as Peter Reid’s appointment was to the club, as much as Bob Murray’s determination to see the club move away from the financial millstone that was Roker Park, Niall Quinn’s arrival was one of the major catalysts that has made Sunderland the club it is today.
Before then, we were at best a mid-table side, scratching around, unable to even compete with the top end of the second tier, never mind those in the newly formed Premier League. But all that changed in 1996.
Peter Reid might have been the driving force behind changing the mentality of everyone at the club, but the signings of Quinny, along with that of Tony Coton, were pivotal moments in the club’s modern day history. The change in the atmosphere around the place was tangible. Their sheer presence lifted the place. Without any disrespect to any player that was there at the time or any that had come before during my time there, TC and Quinny were in a different league.
That Championship-winning year was built on endeavour and the meanest defence and if we lacked anything it was players who embodied true class.
From the moment he walked into the club, Niall was exactly that. The kind of genuine class that we had missed since Eric Gates. A player who made others better, not through traditional leadership qualities but simply with his game. Between himself and Coton, they dragged the rest of the squad up to their standards in their own subtle, and not so subtly, ways.
TC would sit and hold court in the dressing room, reeling off story after story that had the whole place in stitches. I’d find myself struggling to breathe because I was laughing so much. Some of the stories were true, some were shaggy dog stories that lured you and slapped you around the face with a punchline.
On the training pitch he seemed a colossus and in the few short months we trained together I quickly realised the huge leap I had to make from where I was to where I wanted to be. I’d strike balls at him from the edge of the box and he’d seem unbeatable.
Quinn was...well, he was just Quinny. To describe him as jovial would be to rob him of the effect he had on those around him. Without any effort, he was like water between pebbles on the beach; connecting everyone together with his sensible voice of reason and a tone that somehow assured you everything would be all right, his words feeling like a comforting arm around your shoulder. If there was a more amiable man in football, I’ve yet to meet him.
The fact we were later to be robbed of both of them through injury was devastating and there is little doubt we would have survived if both had remained fit for the whole of that season.
Quinny’s knee injury came at the same time I had my wrist operated on so much of the first few months of that season were spent together. Being injured as a footballer is hard and it was up to the injured players to help each other on the days your negative voices would get the better of you.
I was 20 years old, wondering if I’d ever be able to play again and whether he could see I needed picking up or not, Quinny helped me through those dark days. We’d go to Tony’s Tea Rooms on Fulwell Road, a place where it seemed like no matter how much you ordered, Tony would only ever take a pound from you for it. Quinny would never let me pay.
On the way back to the ground we’d make a small detour so the big man could “just take a look and see what the horses were doing.”. “How much have you got on you?” he’d ask. I’d pull out out a fiver and he’d smile and say “Come on. Let’s see if we can turn it into a tenner.”. We usually did.
As a fan inside the dressing room, and like many others in the stands, I’d had my reservations when we signed him. I don’t mind admitting that I had my own preconceptions about Quinny. The little I knew was mostly based on nothing more than his appearance. A gangly forward who could head the ball and that’s it. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Naturally he was focal point, a target to play off, but what a target. And his touch. His touch, be it with his head, feet or chest was deft. It’s too hackneyed a phrase to say he had a good touch for a big man but he was clever with it too. He’d play head-tennis against the gaffer and Brace and he was just brilliant.
I bumped into him after the Everton game at the end of last season and seeing him again makes it easier for me to put the word legend next to his.
We all know what he means to the club and what the club and the city means to him and it’s easy to paint him as a saint. It’s easier for me to picture him that way as I’ve seen him dressed as a monk for our Christmas party that year. An apt outfit for the man given what he has done for Sunderland.
Niall Quinn, a true legend, in every sense of the word.