In the latest edition of Gambles’ Rambles, our regular contributor Ken Gambles pondered the worthy title ‘a reflective narrative on the role of altruism in a capitalist hegemony’ before deciding: ‘Nah, just a memory of Quinny’s testimonial.’ Monsieur Salut remembers it, too, as the game for which he bought a ticket knowing he had no hope of being there (remember those non-attendance tickets that boosted the proceeds?). He missed a great occasion, which special connections made greater still for Ken …
Do not read this in expectation of more of the gravitas and import of some recent offerings on the site: fascism, Gallic journalism, weighty Irish eligibility issues and even Little Feat.
It is also a deliberate diversion from the blasted Olympic Flame and all that “jollity” of the Jubilee junketing. But it’s nonetheless heartfelt, a fond memory and small thank-you to one of the most remarkable men in our club’s proud history, “Sir” Niall Quinn.
Along with with most Sunderland supporters, I suppose, I was looking forward to watching the Republic of Ireland at the Euros given the strong connections with SAFC.
Despite some decent performances from John O’Shea the results were disappointing, all the more so because of the limited time on the pich for James McClean and the non-appearance of Kieran Westwood.
And I realised with a bit of a jolt that it had now been 10 years since a much more successful Republic team (despite the Roy Keane incident) had appeared in the 2002 World Cup Finals in Japan/South Korea. That team was particularly high in my affections primarily because of its part in the Niall Quinn Testimonial game at the SOL.
I had been introduced to Mick Holland, Matt Holland’s dad, in a local pub in Knaresborough and over the years became a good friend, so much so that I was able to get into the players’ lounge at the Stadium of Light whenever Ipswich were the opposition enabling me to meet some of my favourite players such as Superkev, Tommy Sorensen and Niall Quinn himself (he had arranged the passes for us).
A week before Quinny’s testimonial, which received excellent coverage in the press, Mick Holland told me Niall had invited Matt to have four guests at the game and would I like to come. I had already bought my ticket and made arrangements to travel but the possibility of being behind the scenes was exciting and I eagerly accepted.
On arrival we were shepherded up to the James Herriot suite where a sumptuous range of food was on offer, and waiter service too. Foolishly having necked fish and chips before departure, we declined the free food yet> But what a pleasure it was to see Niall and his wife and family socialising and welcoming guests despite the pressures of the occasion.
The game itself, Sunderland versus a Republic or Ireland one, was fairly entertaining with Niall playing one half for Sunderland and one for the Republic and it was good to note Man City supporters out in force to pay tribute to a fine footballer and even finer man.
When Dermot Gallagher blew the final whistle we moved into the foyer before being admitted upstairs for the presentations. This proved a marvellous opportunity to mix with players from both sides as well as other notable guests.
Roy Keane’s absence from the event was a huge talking point (presaging events in Japan shortly afterwards?) but everyone present was accessible, friendly and willing to sign autographs etc.
I chatted to Andy O’Brien (I know he played for the Mags, but I did teach him at school) and also to Shay Given telling him how devastated my daughter was when he signed for Newcastle.
All the Irish and Sunderland players were very amiable and willing to converse, but Mick McCarthy was his usual laconic self and despite our shared birthplace was reluctant to engage in too much conversation. In contrast Charlie Hurley was a real gentleman. It was a delight to meet in the flesh one of my all-time heroes and he didn’t disappoint, more than happy to talk in detail about the 60s and his team-mates. What a great bloke.
The main part of the evening, the speeches and presentation of the testimonial money to the two children’s hospitals in Sunderland and Dublin then took place. It is easy to forget what a wonderful gesture this was for a professional footballer to GIVE £1 million pounds to benefit children. It puts people like Jimmy Carr and Gary Barlow to shame, doesn’t it? If any proof were needed of the specialness of Niall Quinn here it was and he was later to confirm it with his unbelievable commitment to our club in a time of great need, with Drumaville and his chairmanship.
I felt extremely privileged to have been a part of such a memorable evening, although at the time didn’t realise how Mick McCarthy, Niall and Roy Keane would play a large part in our history.
Furthermore, as he promised, Matt Holland swapped shirts to be able to give my daughter a Sunderland shirt and she is still the proud possessor of Darren Williams’s testimonial one signed by Jason McAteer.
Perhaps sometime in the future James McClean might be as fondly remembered as Niall Quinn is now, assuming a very special place in all Sunderland fans’ affections. Thank you Niall for letting me be a small part of an unforgettable evening and thank you also for all you did for Sunderland AFC.