So Niall, we’ll get it out of the way first! The World Cup in 2002, and Saipan. Could you just go through it for me in your own words.
There was a World Cup there, I think people forgot that it was actually one of those brilliant things that happened, and it was an amazing tournament. It was the best world cup i’d been to. I’d been to Italy obviously in ’90 when it all started, ’94 even though I didn’t play I was in America, and the Japan World Cup and Korea, it was just wonderful, the way it was organised. Believe it or not, the facilities, once we got there, as opposed to the island of Saipan, we didn’t want to make marks on the turf, it was like Wimbledon’s tennis courts or something, when training, it was incredible. The people were so proud of their country and wanted to show off everything, thats what I brought home you know? Maybe I’m a selfish footballer, I know the rest of the world were going mad. In some respects we had to pretend we were all upset when we came back, we had to almost let on that we didn’t enjoy the tournament because everybody was cracking up at home, but for me it was the best tournament, when you weigh up all the different things. Obviously Saipan happened, and there’s no point in saying it didn’t happen. I got over it. I got over it very quickly you know? And I understand, as a media spectacle it dragged on and on and on and everybody had a theory and all the rest of it, but those who did stay, banded together, should have beaten spain, we know that. Thats the regret I have from the world cup, personally not taking a penalty when all the young lads were so keen and enthusiastic and I stood back when they all went “I want one, I want one”, and looking back really, there was a probably a time where the youthful exuberance… I should have pulled it back and said “no”, but I didn’t do that. So thats my regret for Japan, I don’t regret Saipan at all, would have been best if we didn’t have Saipan, but it’s not something I lost sleep over. I lost sleep over that Spain game, we should have won that night we were by far the better team.
Was it a relief to get onto the field after the media circus?
In some respects yeah, we went one nil down against Cameroon in the first game if my memory strikes me right and there was a feeling “we gotta do something here guys”, you know? The knives will be out for us, the media will have their stories nearly written by half time, and we got back into it and we should nearly have won the game, and that lifted confidence. And then, we started to believe a little bit more I guess, like all teams in a tournament, regardless of what happened in the run up. The Germany game was always going to be the crunch game for us, it was always going to be huge.
You got a knock on for Keane’s goal.
(Laughs) Yeah, I came on late, and got some game time, and Robbie scored a famous goal and suddenly we were back in kilter and we looked ok. We werent’ brilliant against the Saudi’s in the next game, I think it was the last game?
Yeah it was the last game of the group.
We thought it was going to be a formality, a case of turning up and playing football, but they gave us a big scare, certainly for the first half. Robbie scored a goal for us, and Gary Breen, and Damien got us a bit of a fortuitous one. There was a bit of anxiety in the air. But we got to the next stage, we got to the next phase, to play Spain. You’re starting to believe then. The Spanish game wasn’t working out for us either, like the Germany one. We started slow in all the games really. I got back on the pitch for the Spanish game, and I must say it was one of the favourite games I ever played in, other than the fact that the result in the end, you know, they were really, you could tell taht they were an emerging team, that the players they had were the very very best that the world has to offer and we were there matching them and our spirit was overcoming them for long periods of the game, and we just didn’t get the break, we didn’t get that penetrative push, that one more chance would have got us in extra time, especially when they were basically down to ten men because they’ve used all their subs. We huffed and puffed. The penalties themselves, obviously I spoke about regret there, but they weren’t too clever either, a couple of their lads took bad penalties, and even the winning penalty, the lad who went to Middlesborough, Mendiez or…
Mendiata yes, he hit it badly, straight down the middle. Shay had just put his foot to get it after having dived and it hit a bobble and just went over Shay’s foot if you ever look at it. The penalties were scrappy and obviously huge regrets. My last time ever to wear a green shirt, you know, that all struck me at the one time, because I hadn’t contemplated that beforehand, we’d have been going on to play the Koreans.
With the way it panned out, the tournament, do you think you would have had a good chance against the Koreans?
Well, you’d like to think, seeing as we were able to physically dominate Germany, and physically dominate Spain, you know, that the Koreans wouldn’t have troubled us in that aspect. Now whether they would have been too quick for us and whether they would have been too clever for us, because they had a great world cup as you know, would we have handled the home crowd… I don’t know, its an interesting one, I’d love to have had the crack at it and see! All in all though, we came back, we knew there was problems at home, people were mystified by what had happened in Saipan. I think it was a little bit embarrassing that we were asked to go to the phoenix park, (laughs) I don’t think the people wanted to go there, nor the team. We didn’t think we were being asked to do it, but then we got to Dublin airport and we were told we had to. There were things like that, it was all a bit disjointed, whatever about reports… Not the Moriarty report that’s a tribunal! They had another thing anyways…
Genesis I think.
Oh Genesis that was the name of it yeah! Don’t know what all that was about. There was lots of people who felt they had to be doing and saying things, and you know, as I said to you at the start, I really enjoyed the tournament. Yeah it was a big thing, I understand the level that people, you know, the lengths and level of sort of… negativity and the lengths of disagreement with what had happened and all the rest of it. But you know, football is a selfish world and I loved every minute of it, after Saipan.
When ye came home, it was straight into the European Qualifiers.
Yeah, well I’d finished then. I was still living in England, I stayed working with Sunderland as a player/coach till October, and obviously I didn’t get to the early games. But I can remember Mick going to try and win a game, the one game I did get to, I’m thinking it may have been against the Swiss, I can’t quite remember who it was.
I think it was probably the Swiss game yeah.
Yeah I think it was the Swiss. Mick was level with ten minutes to go. I think he might have put a forward on him, he went for it, they broke away and got a goal, and you could tell the knives were out and Mick’s reign was going to come to an end shortly afterwards you know?
And was there extra pressure on McCarthy after Saipan?
I’d imagine there probably was because of the mood, people still didn’t understand… I think even if we won the World Cup a lot of people, half the country, wouldn’t have understood why Roy Keane didn’t play in the tournament. It was just one of those things you know, football throws stuff at you, you know. Everybody looks at footballers lives and sees the glamour, and its “Oh I’d love to be doing that aren’t you very lucky?” but there’s some really tough times, and that was one. When the media swing against you, its really really hard. When you’ve injuries its really really hard, you know there’s so many things that can sort of knock you out of kilter and footballers are there to be shot at and the manager probably more so than anybody, and Mick had to make way then, hint of inevitability once the thing turns you know, and when the natives are restless in any sort of sphere it makes life difficult and the FAI chose to terminate and I think they went with Brian then, if my memory serves me. And Brian inherited a team that should have been full of confidence having had a really good world cup. Youth was on their side, but Brian inherited a team that was kind of a little bit… had gone a little bit cautious and cagey because of you know, not having the momentum after the world cup, it had took a backwards step almost as Mick Left. And Brian worked hard on that, with a more cautious approach I think, and it just, he didn’t quite get there. He was close to a couple of tournaments, very nearly having been a mile out of the first one he took over, very nearly got us there, right in it until I think the last game, and similiarly then with the next tournament. And the FAI made a change, I understand. Agree, I don’t think I ever said I agreed with the decision but I understand why they made it. They wanted to spruce something else into life, you know, they were building a stadium, they wanted to make it… I also know, or I think I know, that they didn’t have the funds to do a Trappatoni or an international manager, and Steve ended up getting the job. By his own admission, now looking back, I dare say he would say it was too early. Thats easy to say now, but he had to grasp the opportunity, you know, he didn’t have a stable FAI, you know to do… It’s like any manager, even at a Premiership club, you need a strong board from the day you go in there, and the FAI were still a little bit, you know, in the headlights regarding Saipan, the Genesis report like you said, the fact that there was another tournament without qualifying, and they had to come up with a lot of money for the stadium, so it was a tricky time. I remember, at this stage I had obviously finished football, and I went to do the commentary for Sky on Steven’s first game. I think, if memory serves me well, it was against Sweden. And the lads were unbelievable, they ran to the line after every goal, and I thought, “Jeepers this fella has a chance now”, you know, these fellas might just come back to the form that they can… Then I think they played Chile a couple of months later, and the place was full. I think he played five at the back, played a very negative game and Chile beat us easily, and I think the cracks started then, you know, his honeymoon was over…
Was the criticism he shipped unfair?
Ah yeah, a lot of it was very unfair. Here’s a guy whose played over 100 games for his country, he’s given his first important job, and a hell of a job it was, and I suppose he wasn’t given much time by the media, and they went for it and, was it linked to Saipan, was it linked to… I don’t know why it was so sudden, that they didn’t give him a bit of time. I mean, very few people talk about this, and people from Stan’s point of view say, you know, I think they went one nil up, against Cyprus, and we stayed one-nil up for 85 minutes and the crowd booed because it was only one-nil. I think it was something like that, you know, a couple of years later, Trappatoni gets a one-all draw and they cheer him off, so its amazing what…
It’s media perception?
Its a lot of perception. You have to earn your stripes too, and again, it just didn’t happen for Stan. I think, to me then, at that point you would have worried about where the FAI were going to go. Everyone knew that the stadium was going to be a burden, because it came at the wrong time looking back, it seemed a great idea, but people couldn’t afford tickets anymore. Friendlies weren’t suddenly a source of income they were actually a struggle, I’d imagine, to break even, and so the FAI terminated again and went with Trap.
What was your reaction when he was appointed?
Well, I think it was a brave appointment. My reaction was, “I hope he gets the things we always had in my day, the importance of team spirit, the importance of going that extra yard for those around you. I knew obviously, tactically we were going to be a different team, to Jack Charlton’s team, and I accept that and I think that everybody has the right to do the tactics of their manager and I’d never question that, but I was just hopeful that he would be able to knit up all the players from the different eras… new ones coming in, and the old ones et cetera, and tie them all into his beliefs and get a team spirit going, and thats what I was looking at, and you have to say, the results he’s got…. It mightn’t be the prettiest and most direct of football, there might have been times when he could have gone for the jugular and won more games, because, you know, you’d be fussy as a fan when things start to go well (Laughs). All in, he’s done exceptionally well, and to bring us to a tournament, coming from the place where he took over the team… A lot of talk about, “Oh, he doesn’t have a great team to pick from”. I became a better player because of what I did with the international team. I wasn’t doing great at Arsenal. I’d go away with Ireland, come back and life would be great, so the international scene is important to develop players and to make them better players anyway. And I think that’s whats happened. He’s developed maybe a dozen players who are comfortable international players now who might have been expected to struggle because they’re not playing in the top four, top six teams in the Premiership, and he deserves great credit for that and we’ll all be truly behind him in the summer.
Do you think that winning games means more to the Irish fans than playing Barcelona type football, or is that even in question?
(Laughs) Well, its funny you know. Stoke play a particular type of football that their fans love because Stoke were in the doldrums for so long. Jack Charlton played a type of football that the fans loved because we were in the doldrums for so long. If we have a good tournament we’ll get used to this, and from now on, the coaches up and down the country coaching kids teams will be doing it Trap’s way. I’d love to see that happen, I’d love to see us have a real successful tournament, I think it’s set up nicely for us, on the basis that we’re totally written off at this stage. I had a look at the bookies and the odds, what the experts are saying, it’s even probably a bigger write off than 88 or even 90 where we were meant to be also rans you know? So I think that kind of thing will suit us, we will be a surprise package I hope, for the others, not for us, because we all know our strengths. I think it would be a great boost for us if it started to go well, you know like, one rugby match, Ireland v Australia if you remember, in their world cup recently gone by, the whole country got such a lift from one game that wasn’t near the final. If we could just make a statement in one of these three games which gets us into the next round I think it would be fantastic to build on and thats probably when I’d start getting really jealous about not being out there at the tournament and having to had to give up football.
How do you think it will pan out? What kind of results would you predict?
I’d say they mightn’t admit it but I’d say the Italians are very scared. I think they know that its a real awkward one for them, and they know us well from our previous couple of meetings, and they’ll know they’re in for a hell of a game. I haven’t seen enough of Croatia to think that they’re miles better than us. There are people out there in the media who are saying they could be the surprise package, that they could be favourites, that they could do this, that or the other, that they’ve got all these wonderful players, but you know I think there’s a chance for us in that game. The Spanish game, we’d want an awful lot to go right for that game to go our way, but a frustrating draw we know would hurt them more than us!
Someone like Fernando Hierro pulling Niall Quinn’s shirt maybe?
(Laughs) Well I don’t think we’ll ever get a penalty like that again, the guy tried to take my shirt off from the bottom up which was funny. Who knows, we might get a break or two and hopefully Trappatoni gets his eleven that he wants all perfectly fit and firing, and we can do something in all three games.
Looking at the squad for the tournament, do you see it changing drastically, even at all, beforehand?
I suppose there are 15 or 16 that’ll definitely go, there are three or four others who probably deserve to go because of what they’ve done for the team already, but maybe, outside James McClean whose an obvious one to mention, that may be doing enough to say we can’t go without him, and thats, you know, there’ll be people at our club… David Meyler, whose just getting going now, if he puts in a dozen good premiership games between now and the end, he could start to make a late run for it, but you know, there;s a load of Irish players doing great stuff now in England. You always, if you look at all the teams that have gone (to major tournaments), there’s always one or two that come from nowhere and become important in the tournament. It happened to us with Ireland. Jack I can remember, when he told Gary Waddock at the airport in Italy that he wasn’t part of the squad and that he could stay if he wanted, and brought in Alan McLoughlin. And none of us had even met Alan before and he was at the hotel waiting for us and we all felt really awkward but Alan played an important part, and of course, a year later, a couple of years later he got us to America with that goal at Windsor. So you know, Jack got that one right, as harsh as it was, and I wonder if Trappatoni will do something similar. Even in my time, in 1990, nobody had heard of Schillachi before the tournament and he became a legend. And the manager was widely criticised for picking him for that tournament and he turned out to be a hero. Didn’t do an awful lot afterwards mind you! The world cup has a habit of doing that. Paolo Rossi, years ago, his career looked finished, he got thrown in the squad, scored loads of goals and became a legend because of it, and there may be somebody who’s probably not a regular Irish starter now and that might open up for him.
I know you’re slightly biased, but the way James McClean is playing at the moment… If he keeps this form up, would it be a travesty if Trap didn’t pick him?
Well, what are we in now? We’re in February, so if he keeps it up over the rest of the season, if he does get a run in the team. One thing I think, and I know Trappatoni will look at this, his off the ball performance is phenomenal you know? The effort and resilience he shows in getting, in stopping players on his side becoming attacking options for the other team. I mean, he covers the work of two people at times. He can tackle, he never dives in and lets them slip by. He always holds them up and forces them back. Gets into position as quickly as he can, you know, he’s…. Everyday training has really brought him on, training six days a week has probably been a major difference from his time in Ireland and… it just shows you that there are smashing players there, maybe in every county in Ireland, that if things fall right… The belief, the desire, that James has. The talent he has naturally, you see some of the balls he puts in to the box, his dribbles, his shots on goal…. He’s got a lot of talent and that desire level, and with the right kind of coaching, with a manager like Martin who believes in his and gets the best out of him, the sky’s the limit for him, and hopefully Trappatoni sees it the same way.
Sunderland are doing great at the moment actually.
(Laughs) Yeah we’re doing ok aren’t we?* Martin has got everybody energised, he’s got everybody infected with that energy.
He’s like a Duracell bunny on the touchline isn’t he?
He is yeah! He’s like that in the office as you know. If he’s going over to see the scouting department, he’ll run across, and of course, as a consequence, everybody around him starts running. And it’s amazing, everybody gets things done. Its… Off the pitch, on the pitch, its been a joy to behold, because… It’s not done through modern, scientific…. bullshit, for want of a better word. It’s done through pure passion, professionalism, desire levels, respect of the players abilities and I suppose creating almost a family of players who’ll stick together through thick and thin. And that doesn’t come in a bottle with a fancy name, you know? It’s just class, and it’s lovely to see it when its in full flow.
I read a statistic the other day actually, that if the Premier League had started the day O’Neill took charge, you’d be third in and in the Champion’s League spots by now.
We’d be top of the league actually, somebody said! Jesus its hard to believe… Well look, Sunderland has been a tough station, I knew it was tough when I went back, five and a half seasons ago. It was in a pretty low place, for every reason. Financially, emotionally, the place was drained. There was a losing mentality there. Roy Keane came in, never mentioned that actually, looking back on football… Roy Keane came in, did a magnificent job, lifted Sunderland out of the depths, and it’s been a struggle over time, to make more gains than that, and Martin has come along and we look set to have a really, really flourishing future ahead of us with him so…
Hopefully the end of the season will go well anyway.
Just going back to Irish football, to the international scene. The game in Paris (November 18th 2009) was seen as a watershed.
(Laughs) Yeah, unbelievable.
How do you think it rates in terms of the great Irish games, including the ones that you played in obviously?
Well, it was an heroic failure, and this time you can truly say it was heroic failure. We were by far the better team and we did get cheated. I suppose, the bitter and twisted bit of me would forever see that little snivelling French manager laughing at the media afterwards, when the media suggested would they replay the game, and the disrespect he held us as a team, and even as a nation, because we were all hurting so much. I was glad. It sounds terrible now because I don’t have that much bitterness in me, but I was so glad that France were awful for the tournament. Ireland would have brought so much more to the party had we been the ones lucky enough to go, so that would be something that when I think about that night comes to mind… But yeah you’re right, I should think about the performance, how good we were. On another night I think we would have won by two or three goals, had we had a bit more luck around goal. It was just tough to take. Look, we’re over it now, of course we are, but it came at a time when the world cup, going to a world cup, would have meant so much, not just to the FAI but to the whole country really. We were reeling off bad news politically, in the economy, all the rest of it, and we were cheated out of it, lets not forget that. But, well done Trappatoni, he gathered the lads back together, got them believing, kept them believing and here we have this tournament coming up now and its great, so hopefully we’ll do something really good in this one.
Talking to you about Croke Park or the Aviva might not be warranted, but the Lansdowne road era, you played in a fair few games there, to say the least. What are your memories of Lansdowne Road as a place to play in?
Well, remember, I went to secondary school, I was 12, I went to Drimnagh Castle. It was half days on wednedays, and Lansdowne had no floodlights so Ireland played all their games on a Wednesday afternoon. I can remember going down to Lansdowne, it was real early, you know, the likes of Paddy Mulligan was playing, Terry Mancini, just to throw a few names at you. Mick Kearns was the goalkeeper from Walsall. Seamus McDonagh, who is actually our goalkeeping coach, was also involved at the time. Davy Langan of course, he was a great hero of mine, and I ended up rooming with him six, maybe seven years later when I got in the team. They were the guys I remember. Liam Brady was obviously a great hero, Frank (Stapleton), Dave O’Leary, they were all… Mark Lawrenson. Gerry Daly, you know I can physically remember standing on Lansdowne watching all these players. Terry Conroy, you know… Great great players. Micky Walsh, you remember Micky, he was a really good player, from Blackpool originally, went out to play and settle in Portugal. Mick Robinson.
(Laughing) You’re throwing names at me!
(Laughs) They don’t mean anything to you? Well, they were the guys that I went to see. Don Givens at the tail end of his career, who was the international record goal scorer, and Frank, who was desperate to take it it off him. Thats what I remember first about Lansdowne, I also remember going to watch Liverpool, just after they won the European Cup. They brought the European Cup to Lansdowne and the crowd invaded the pitch with about five minutes to go so the match didn’t end. (Laughs) I was young when that happened. Then of course, suddenly you’re picked to play a game there. It was a great experience, obviously. I came on as sub, a few times before a debut there, and one of those games before my debut there was against Brazil. I came on as a sub against Brazil, me and a guy called Ken DeMange, who was playing for Hull City at the time. We came on as subs with about 20 minutes to go, couldn’t believe our luck that Jack asked us. Liam Brady scored an excellent goal that day, i don’t know if you have ever seen it. We were strolling around nightclubs that night saying “Hey girls I don’t know if you’ve seen it but we beat Brazil today!” (Laughs) Great memories. They were in the real early days, I was still in the under-21s then. There’d be days you’d be called into the squad to sit on the bench. Didn’t get on that often, I think I got on against Luxembourg for Euro 88, and one other team I can’t remember. And it was really only… I suppose Lansdowne really only started becoming really meaningful for me after 1990, because by doing well at the tournament in 1990 I was the first choice striker, and really, until we played Holland… And I earned my stripes against Holland in the World Cup in 1990, and until we played Holland again in qualifying for 2002, which was 11 years later, any time I was fit, I played. I was first choice in that 11 year period, and thats when Lansdowne meant the most to me. I can remember flicking a really important goal against Denmark, against Schmeichel, we ended up getting a draw out of if. And of course, with what happened in the next game, if we hadn’t got that draw we wouldn’t have gone to America. So there was some big moments that happened for us in Lansdowne, and I think, to me, when the crowd… in that second half with fifteen minutes to go, they were capable of sucking the ball into the net. The emotion that used to be in the stadium in them days. I think as it went on, and as we reached the later stages of my career, yes the suits started buying all the corporate seats, and there was something a little bit different about the crowd, it was, “well we’re celtic tiger now and we expect this”, and we had to work hard to get them going but it was never like that at the start. I’ll just point back to one example of that. Davy Langan would start a run down the side of the pitch, he wouldn’t even have the ball, and the crowd would roar. They would scream at whoever had the ball to play it to him, and he was a Trojan, he used to work so hard up and down. There were real genuine football people in them days, and here I am now on the other side of the fence, looking for international revenues for Sunderland. It’s my job, and I’m not giving out about commercialism in football, but when I started there it was a different story and they were great memories.
Was it in Lansdowne that you broke Frank Stapleton’s record?
I did yeah, I broke Franks’ record against Cyprus. Kevin Kilbane crossed a ball for me. I think it was the last game in qualifying… No I think it may have been a friendly before 2002, I can’t remember. I know I equalled it out in New York, against South Africa, and luckily Mick gave me a few more chances to try and break it and I broke it. And at that point, I was starting to be used as a sub, I’d had cruciate injuries and stuff and I was happy just to get any game time just to help the squad along. When I went out to the 2002 world cup, a bit of me thought, is it selfish? Should a younger player be coming in? I had the conversation with Mick, and he said you never know, we might need you out there, I also need you to galvanise the troops, we all have to stick together. Little did we know, that that became far more important than we ever thought. Far more necessary I guess. What could have been a bad tournament, as I said, and what could have been people’s perception of “Oh God that was awful, terrible”, to a man I think everyone in the squad would say that once Saipan was out of the system, it was a memorable tournament for us all. We’re here now, this is the first one since… Great. I hope we have no issues with players beforehand. I can imagine all the prep… nobody will be worried about all the preparations, and we can go and surprise a few people.
Hopefully. The Carling Cup is, or was, the flagship tournament for the Aviva. You played in that tournament in Iceland… Small tournaments, but do they mean a lot to players, if you win it?
Well the small tournament in Iceland was the first tournament I think that Ireland had ever won as a nation. Iceland obviously were in it, and I think the Czech Republic, or Czechoslovakia as they were at the time. We were this merry band of lads who were delighted to be on the trip, had this new manager who, with the greatest respect hadn’t really enamoured himself by this time. He was dismissive of the media, he told Dave O’Leary who was a great favourite of the Irish fans that he wasn’t wanted anymore. He set about getting ego out of the dressing room and getting hard workers and grafters, and it was right at the beginning of that phase, so it wasn’t straight forward. He hadn’t won everybody over by that point. But he gave me my chance, so naturally I would have ran through a brick wall for him, and still would today. That’s the measure, the emphasis that he had on my career, and looking back on that time, I can remember team talks on that trip, I was rooming with Mick Robinson, he was a star at the time for Liverpool. He later went out to Spain and I think he’s a TV chat show host in Spain now, believe it or not.
As you do!
As you do. And that was the start for me, I was mixing with all these people I used to go and see, and we won the tournament, and had a great night out after the last game. The other thing I remember is, Miss World kicked the game off against Iceland. She’d just won Miss World, Miss Iceland had, and it was our kickoff and so I think it was Frank who I was playing up front with. They went back and she kicked off with me and I knocked the ball back, so coming where I had, playing minor hurling a year or two earlier, to kicking off an international match with Miss World, it was fantasy stuff!
You were like George Best.
Well not quite, I didn’t get her number! (Laughs)
The Carling Cup, it was looked at as… There’s still a bit of controversy over it, the Scottish FA are looking for some money or something but, do you think it should be an annual thing?
I don’t know really, as I said earlier friendlies have been mortally wounded, unless its a real glamour one you know? I remember Wembley went crazy there for a friendly because Ghana were in town. The Ghanaians brought huge colour and a huge crowd to the friendly in Wembley there the season just gone by. It’s a difficult one, because Trappatoni will want as many players possible for friendlies to make up the last little bits of his squad for the next important game, so that, there’s chances there. The crowd are saying, “Well ok, it’s only a friendly. Tickets are so expensive now that I’ll wait for the qualifier”, and the expense of putting one together, the FAI are looking at it saying… It’s just really awkward. They’re certainly not what they used to be. A friendly used to be the same as a qualifier when I started playing. You were wearing the shirt and that was all that counted. You wouldn’t let anybody beat you in that shirt. I can remember… I’m not surprised that they’ve diminished somewhat. I remember going down to Turner’s Cross for a friendly international. Before Ireland went to a major tournament, maybe 90 or 88. Jack, every time there was a break in play, Jack stopped and came out and had a team talk in the middle of the pitch, and ran off! (Laughs) You could hear all the crowd, this Cork crowd and they were going mental! And every time there was a free kick Jack would say “this should be a free kick for us, this is where we want to play from”, and the referee would point the other way! The crowd were going bananas down in Turner’s Cross, it was a really funny time. The Munster selection team were shaking their heads, saying “this is ridiculous, we’re being used as training guinea pigs here”. And it was billed as a proper match, so sure look, there were loads of stories like that. They were all great days, and I think we won in the end!
You played with a lot of players who would have qualified for Ireland under the granny rule, and there’s been a lot of controversy over the likes of James McCarthy and Aiden McGeady. James McCarthy moreso perhaps, because he hadn’t declared either way up until the Macedonia game last year. Do you think its a worthwhile policy of pursuing players under the granny rule?
Well, gosh, if I look back now on the team I played with. I mean, Chris Hughton was a great favourite, and was a brilliant team player for Ireland, and everyone took to him, and he took to us. Superb guy, great leader in the dressing room. Seamus McDonagh, before my time. Seamus… I remember, when I knew Seamus first, his dog was called Thurles, and he used to carry an Easter Lily on his jacket. Far more Irish then I ever was, you know, or anybody around us was. And trying to say that because his father had to leave because there was no work in the fifties and sixties… My father came home, and I played hurling. I was lucky, I feel lucky that that happened to me. But my eldest sister was born in England, and I have no doubt that we’d have been reared very Irish. Kevin Kilbane, for instance, his mother and father were from the west of Ireland. There’s possibly one or two who seem to have abused it and turned up when they liked. I think Robbie got upset about that one time, and that can be difficult. But in my time, when you look at the players who were born outside Ireland and played, even in the 1990 team. Dave O’Leary and Paul McGrath would fall in there, they were both born in the UK, even though they spend the majority of their youth here. I can honestly say that somebody who wants to play for Ireland because, not only have they got Irish background and have been brought up Irish, but they’re doing it to please family, to please their father, their mother. Mick McCarthy would always talk about his dad and the pride he gave his dad when he wore the green shirt. When you hear that coming within a dressing room, then there’s never going to be too much of a problem. Its the guy who comes in and goes, when the national anthem is on, “which one is that, is that ours?, which I’ve known! (Laughs) There’s stuff like that, but in the main I think that the manager will suss people like that out and suss whether they’ll be able to play a role or not.
Do you think it’s going to be a big lift to the country, Euro 2012?
Ah yeah I hope so. As I say, the rugby match (Ireland v Australia) proved that we’re desperate for some kind of international success to take our minds off the everyday economy here, and it got us going in 88 and 90…. The country felt good about itself, and please god we’ll do the same now.
Who’d be the most influential player in the last decade of Irish football, in your opinion?
You have to look at Robbie and what Robbie has done. To have a conversation about the last ten years and to not mention Robbie’s achievements would be really wrong. My finest bit of punditry- I don’t do punditry as a rule- but I used to, I did it for three years when I finished football… Coming off, after Robbie’s first goal, I think it was against Argentina, I might be wrong but it would have been around that time. I was stopped coming off the field at Lansdowne and asked about Robbie because he’d got his first goal, I think he was 17 at the time, and I’d spent the four days training with him. He was like a jack-in-the-box, he couldn’t sit still. Mick had to tell him to shut up when he was giving team talks and stop playing keepy-ups… I said to the reporter, it was live on TV at the time, and he said, Robbie, is he one for the future, could this kid one day break the scoring record – at the time it was Frank Stapleton’s record- and I said, “I think he could double it”. They were my very words. From what I saw, this kid could double this thing, and he could score 40. And I’m reliably told that it went back to studio and I was instantly dismissed as a total fool, and that I shouldn’t be saying stupid things like that. Not only did he get 4o, but he’s on his way to trebling it! I always look back, I mightn’t have been the greatest pundit that ever lived, but I got that one right.
Standout game of the last ten years?
Well, when you quit, a lot of emotion goes through you. You look at the first few games and think “Could I have played? Could I have made a difference? Did I quit too early?”, and obviously there were hard times like that, but I suppose, for negative reasons the France game stands out, of course it does. But I tell ya, I really enjoyed the Italian game, the draw in Croke Park. We were full of that old enthusiasm, the whole “you’d get there no matter how” thing. There were some great goals scored that night. Unfortunately we got too carried away with having scored, with the excitement. Because it was a young team, in general, and the Italians came away and got an equaliser, but, to me, I felt that last roar, just before we got the second goal, I felt that this was what it was all about, and this is what I remember the most, so for getting a feeling of a surge of pride and a surge of, you know, “Yeah, that’s us”, that game was probably the closest to when we were in our heyday.
Looking forward now instead of backwards, is there a bright future in Irish football? Who would be the players you look forward to seeing in the next five or six years?
Well, you’d have to look at James (McClean). You’d have to hope that Dunnie (Richard Dunne), Duff, or Robbie, the guys who were around in the u-18 team all those years ago, that they’ll last as long as they can. But in return, as they’ll exit, I do think the future’s bright, I do think that one or two can come from nowhere. I’d love Trappatoni to go and look at Wes Hoolahan. He was the standout player for Norwich the other night against us (Sunderland), even though they didn’t play particularly well. Excellent again at the weekend, I think he has a future. Long, Shane Long, I think he’s ready. I know it slowed down for him a bit in recent weeks, but up to that point he was doing very well, and I’d be very comfortable with him. Kevin Doyle, he got his goal at the weekend, and he’s going to be around for a very long time. He’s a player who, I regret that… We were very interested in him at Sunderland at one time and we didn’t push the button, and I’ve come to regret that on many occasions. I think he’ll be fine. I think this tournament will tell us a lot, and will create maybe two or three new stars for Irish football. It’s hard to pinpoint one, but obviously my hope is that McClean makes it, and he’ll have a great tournament, and he’ll come back to Sunderland worth twice as much as before he went!
(Laughs) Ye won’t sell him though!?
(Laughs) No probably not, but you know, he would be the one, if I was getting personal about it all. And I’d like to see the three lads, I don’t know how many tournaments are left for Damian and the boys, and Robbie and Dunnie. I’d like to see them having a brilliant tournament. I’m not trying to retire them off or anything, but I’d like to see them lead the way they have done.
Trappatoni won’t last forever. Who do you see in line as a future Irish manager? Would you put yourself in the mix?
No definitely not, no. That’s an interesting one. He’s still in there so it’s hard to do, you know? I suppose, with sort of Irish links, Brendan Rodgers might be someone who’ll come into the frame in the future. There’s some nice things happening out there, and it’s not about what people are doing now, it’s whenever Trappatoni has decided he’s had enough I guess, and we could have a brilliant tournament and he could stay on for four years, who knows? He doesn’t look like he’s slowing down any, so we won’t just retire him off yet! We’ll see how it goes. He’ll have brought respectability, a whole new respectability, to Irish football, and I think when he does go, it’ll be a more attractive job then perhaps it had been in the past, as the FAI search for replacements, you know, Mick, Brian, and eventually they got Trappatoni. Surprising he came at the time, but he did, and we might be in a better place to attract managers and what-have-you, as time goes on.
* This interview was conducted before Niall Quinn parted ways with Sunderland to spend more time with family and to concentrate on his company, Q-Sat.