Niall Quinn: 'Education must come first for young Irish hopefuls'
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Niall Quinn: 'Education must come first for young Irish hopefuls'

AT 6"4, Niall Quinn is a big man. Is it any surprise then that his shadow hangs over the FAI?

Having earned his stripes as Sunderland's chairman, where his emphasis on deepening roots in the local community endeared him to the club's supporters, Quinn - in sporting terms at least - has found himself at a loose end.

Four years have passed since he left the Stadium of Light, and while his time is filled with business and punditry work, there are no shortage of Irish football fans who'd love to see him lead a revolution and kick down John Delaney's door.

He isn't interested, he claims. Yet, when he spoke in Dublin last week, you could have been forgiven for wondering if it was a manifesto, rather than an ex-footballer, we were listening to.

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"I'm very passionate about Irish soccer," he said. "And it concerns me that if we have a system where it is deemed acceptable for our young players to leave their education behind and head off to somewhere like Stevenage, then I'm sorry, but that system is broken."

Given a chance, Quinn could make a fair stab at fixing it. Yet any time he has offered his services, Irish football have turned him away. First it was the FAI, who offered and then withdrew their invitation for him to become the Under 21 assistant manager in 2004. A year later, a posse of League of Ireland clubs emailed the Sports Council's CEO, John Treacy, and expressed their dissatisfaction with Quinn sitting on a committee charged with reforming the League. And finally, that same year, his plan to invest in Shamrock Rovers was turned down. "We ended up going to Sunderland instead," says Quinn.

While those three rejections don't quite compare to the Apostle Peter's triple denial in Scripture, it still beggars belief that someone as genuine and as talented as Quinn could be told where to run and get off. "Who knows why?" he says. "Possibly because the Roy Keane-Saipan issue still had to go through people's system, possibly because when I came home from England after retiring, I played Gaelic Football for my local club in Kildare rather than soccer. But trust me, I haven't lost any sleep over it."

What does keep him at wake at night, though, are deeper, more troubling issues. As middle age approaches, he no longer thinks like a player, instead as a parent. A product of Irish football's old order, he now wants to update it.

“Everyone says a footballer's life is the best life in the world but when I retired, I initially found it difficult to accept, because that's part of the psychological barrier you have to get over when you quit football," he says. "I was your typical player who lived up on top, and when it ended for me, it ended poorly. I went through a bad six months after I left as I think 99% of all footballers do.

"Mine (his post-football depression) wasn't public, and when Sky asked me over to do games, I found it difficult to pick up the phone and tell them no. That was the period of my life I was in.

"Geoff Shreeves persisted and eventually himself and one of the bosses came over to see me in Dublin, and I went to the first game, I felt people were looking at me going into the ground, saying 'he shouldn't be here'. But it got better, I felt easier after a little while."

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Yet things were still difficult when he stepped onto a podium at a fundraising dinner in Dublin to talk about his experiences as a player. Bluntly, he confessed his depression in front of an audience. Yet that was a decade ago and in the ten years since, he has created several new identities for himself. He is better known now as Quinn, the former Sunderland chairman or as Quinn, the guy on Sky, than he was as Quinn, the striker who played up front with Robbie Keane.

Still, for all the emotional hardship, he isn't unhappy with the way life panned out. What he does regret, though, is his failure to mould Sunderland into the type of club that Southampton and Swansea have become. "They have an identity," he says. "Managers come and go, but they all fit into the model that has been created. The club has a philosophy. The manager is told, 'this is how we do it here'.

"I didn't create an identity at Sunderland, we just went with whatever the manager brought. So with Roy Keane, it was the Manchester United way. Martin O'Neill brought his ideas, Steve Bruce gave us his stance on things and through the years, we bought and sold players who couldn't fit into the different managers' identities. If they didn't work out, we moved on and on and that's how football works.

"But if I was back again, it'd be different. Everything in your club has to come up through the academies and work its way through. And as a chairman, you need to have the strength and conviction to stick to that principle. That's my football regret.

"There are others – the players we did sign, the ones we didn't, but mistakes in the transfer market are a fact of life. We knew that, at day one, you live and die by the signings.

"But in terms of development, while I'm proud Sunderland are still in the Premier League - it's the longest run they've had - and while I am proud I was there at the start of it, I am annoyed we didn't bring through more young players.

"I think of the wall, when you come through the door at Sunderland, where there are photographs of all our managers from every year since the Academy opened. There are pictures of Peter Reid, Mick McCarthy, Roy Keane, Steve Bruce, Martin O'Neill. All their pictures are all there. And you have the Christmas tree of teams from under-8 upwards, so on a big long bench, there are about 60-70 kids, right the way up to the top where you have the top two or three, and on that tree over the last few years, you pick out the ones that have made it. And out of hundreds of kids, there are just about eight who have come through the system.

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"So I'm telling that story because I want people to know how hard it is to make it. I want parents to know that education has to come first because, okay, I left the education system to try and make it as a footballer in England. So you could say, who am I to preach?

"But I was up against the best in Scotland, England, Wales. These days our young players are up against the best young players in the world. So the test, for me, would be that if my son was going through the football system would I be happy about that? And the answer is no.

"If he gets there somehow from 21 onwards, then maybe I'd be happy. But I regret things. As Sunderland's chairman, I  brought players over from Ireland and stopped them finishing their education. Young Niall McArdle was a typical example of that. He's a very clever guy, but he's had to go back and revisit his education and I, as chairman of Sunderland, stunted his development. The odds are so huge now for Irish players making it in England that we're better off trying to make something for them here. They should try to get an education at least.

"We could get away with it 25 years ago. If you didn't have your Leaving Cert, your degree, you could just go and play football and take your chance, and even then the fallout was horrific.

"But now I think it's almost a necessity for a young lad to complete his education. Don't think he can do it when he is at a football club. It's too hard. All the emphasis is on football. So that's why I'd rather a system that saw my son actually have a better chance of making it if he waited until he was 18, or even better, if he was 21 before he went over.”

He knows his words may go unheard not because they don't make sense, more because the Irish football world doesn't want to listen. Their regret could prove greater than his.