Getting a CD player instead of a medal for Anfield ‘89 made up Niall Quinn’s mind to leave Arsenal

The Ireland international saw the writing on the wall for his Highbury career
Getting a CD player instead of a medal for Anfield ‘89 made up Niall Quinn’s mind to leave Arsenal

Happier times at Arsenal, as Niall Quinn celebrates with captain Kenny Sansom after the 1987 Littlewoods Cup Final victory against Liverpool at Wembley 

Niall Quinn didn’t get on the pitch for Arsenal’s famous title win at Anfield in 1989. Just two substitutes could be named in those days — and Martin Hayes and Perry Groves got the nod as Arsenal’s back-up.

But Quinn was very much part of the travelling party and sat on the bench. Indeed, in the scenes of jubilation that followed Michael Thomas’s injury-time winner, the Ireland international can be seen leading the wild celebrations, ignoring manager George Graham’s pleas for restraint and respect for the crestfallen home team.

Having made his debut in 1985, and started 81 times, Quinn’s impact at Highbury had diminished since Alan Smith arrived from Leicester in 1987, but he played his part in the 1989 run-in, scoring in the April win over Everton. Indeed, since the Gunners won the title only on goals scored, that strike against the Toffees was as important as any other.

Michael Thomas of Arsenal (right) scores past goalkeeper Bruce Grobbelaar (centre) of Liverpool to score the title clinching goal during the League Division One match at Anfield in Liverpool, England. Arsenal won the match 2-0 and the championship. \ Mandatory Credit: Allsport UK /Allsport

Michael Thomas of Arsenal (right) scores past goalkeeper Bruce Grobbelaar (centre) of Liverpool to score the title clinching goal during the League Division One match at Anfield in Liverpool, England. Arsenal won the match 2-0 and the championship. \ Mandatory Credit: Allsport UK /Allsport

But three appearances in all wasn’t enough for a medal and Quinn had a rude awakening when the title celebrations resumed in an official capacity. 

“We had this big do, they invited 1,000 fans to the Dorchester hotel for the presentation of the medals to the players who’d won the title — it was a big, big event,” Quinn told the From The Horse’s Mouth podcast.

“As the names were being called out for a medal, one of our players who hadn’t played enough games, but who was coming out of contract and they wanted to sign a new contract, was called up for his medal. So, I thought, that’s great, if he’s got one, I’ll get one.

“My name didn’t get called out.

“But later on in the night the chairman came over to our table and rather than calling me up on stage he handed me a silver tray.

“Mr (Peter) Hill-Wood, he was ever-so old Etonian, he went, ‘Young man, delighted that you gave an impact. It was great. What position did you play?’ I was just like, oh, okay. Thanks very much. Okay, I didn’t get the medal, grand.

“I also got a JVC, whatever it was, DVD player — it wasn’t even DVDs, CD player in those days.

“So I just took the two of them and left and went home on the N29, the night bus.

“That’s how much they were paying me at the time. I couldn’t afford a taxi home. I wasn’t in the team, so I wasn’t getting bonuses and what have you, and appearance money.

“So, I got the N29 bus home, and I thought several times of just chucking it. The fact of the matter was, I was gone very soon afterwards anyway. I went to City.” 

Quinn handed in a transfer request before the start of the following season, though he didn’t leave until March 1990, when Howard Kendall signed him for Manchester City.

“I never really felt like an Arsenal player after that night, even though I’d been there six years, I’d played 90-odd games for them, I’d scored 20 goals, I think.

“It’s a part of my career that was a great learning curve, and to be at Arsenal, to get the breaks I did under Don Howe initially, and George Graham for the first 18 months, I was in the team all the time.

“But then to be the number two, you eventually crack and say, right, I’ve got to go somewhere else.

“I said, I’m off now, and I did everything I could to leave, and eventually — because the windows used to close in March in those days. You could go all year around, and I got in literally on the last day at five o'clock.

“I went up to Man City and my career changed.

“So as good as it was in the early days, it was a tough station for three years.

“Alan Smith was brilliant, and I’m not giving out about it. Alan Smith came and was superb, one of the great centre-forwards Arsenal have had, but he never got injured, and he never got booked.

“We didn’t have seven subs like you have now. You’d two at the most, one when I started then two.

“It was difficult, but I’ll always be grateful to Arsenal for giving me the break, that’s for sure, but I was glad to get out of there.” 

Niall Quinn celebrates scoring againts the Netherlands in Palermo at Italia '90 

Niall Quinn celebrates scoring againts the Netherlands in Palermo at Italia '90 

Quinn ranks his debut goal for Arsenal — a match screened live on RTÉ’s Sports Stadium — alongside the strike for Ireland against Holland at Italia ‘90 as the most important of his career.

“One was my debut for Arsenal against a great Liverpool team, and Bruce Grobbelaar dropped one in similar circumstances. It was my debut, and I followed in the hope that he’d drop it, and he did.

“Then the second one, Hans van Breukelen was the Dutch goalkeeper. Messy goal, but again I followed in hoping he wouldn’t save it properly.

“Why did I do that? Because Pat Rice was my youth team coach at Arsenal and every day after training, we would do finishing, and he made me follow in after every shot.

“He said, one day, this will work for you, and it was actually two days, two big days. I ended up staying in the Arsenal team.

“Obviously, you score on your debut against Liverpool, you stay in and you become a player, and my international set-up, that was the first competitive match I was ever picked to start, and I stayed in the team for 10 years afterwards.

“So, they were two very important goals for a run-of-the-mill hope or belief that the goalkeeper might drop one."

Quinn also credits Jack Charlton for refining his centre-forward play with a less-is-more approach, except when it came to winning the ball back.

“He’d stop in the middle of training and he’d go, ‘what are you doing? You’re running around like a headless chicken, just stand still’.

“I was taught to go for the ball, and I was working on my touch and I wanted to show off to him that I had a good touch, and he went, but you’re not here for your touch.

“Get to the far post, hold your ground.

“He’d shout and scream at me, and it took a while, and I think he said himself in an interview one time, ‘Niall wasn’t listening for a few years, but once he started listening and got the hang of it, he became a bit of a player’. So, he took all the credit for that, you know?

“One day, when I dropped back in to be a fifth midfielder, so I had to make a line of five - now, they do it today in a more military fashion, but in our day, it was unheard of, and I was going, hang on a second, we’ve got the ball, we’re going forward, and I have to run back into midfield in case we lose it?

“He went, ‘yeah, and if you don’t like it, go and play for some other country’.

“I remember John Aldridge one time saying, publicly — anybody who plays up front for Ireland is going to turn their legs into tree stumps running that much.

“I remember Jack got the hump about it, bringing it up in a team meeting, and his answer to it was, ‘John, now you’ve got to do it twice as much or I won’t pick you again’.

“That was Jack’s way. He was very rough and tumble about it, but he was also so adamant that it was going to be his way or the highway, and the way he changed how Ireland played our football from Eoin Hand’s time, John Giles originally to Eoin Hand’s time, to this new era that he brought in which was really focused on making sure that teams didn’t overrun us, and that we stayed in the game, and that if we got bits and pieces on it, we would be competitive.

“It was primitive, but I think it was primitive when we had the ball because we were very much a long-ball team.

“But off the ball we were doing everything that Klopp is asking his Liverpool players to do now in terms of making a wall when you haven’t got the ball, and making sure that the number 10 of the international teams, of the opposition teams in them days, used to always run the show against us and there was always too much space they would always have a great game against Ireland.

“So, we just cut that out and made sure that the work rate we had between one of the front players at least dropping back, having five in midfield, that that number 10 always had a wall in front of him, so he hadn’t got by and got through us.” 

Niall Quinn was talking on Paddy Power’s podcast, From The Horse’s Mouth, which you can listen to at podfollow.com/horsesmouth

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