Book Review: Niall Quinn – The Autobiography

Niall Quinn – The Autobiography (London, Headline Book Publishing, 2002)

Niall Quinn played football for Arsenal, Manchester City and Sunderland, a career spent almost wholly in the top flight of the English game, from 1983, when signed by Arsenal and brought over to London from the Republic of Ireland, to 2002, when he retired after the 2002 World Cup. That is almost two decades, during which Quinn also played in the World Cup Finals and the finals of the European national championships for Ireland: he played in all the qualifiers for the 1994 finals in the USA, but a cruciate (knee) injury prevented him playing in the finals tournament. Quinn’s career crossed several boundaries, not just the cultural one between Ireland and England, and the political one between Gaelic games and association football. The book emphasises the difference between the culture of the game in the 1980s and the post-1992 Premiership-led football culture: money is at the heart of this transformation, producing a different breed of recruit – less innocent, more grasping, less loyal and much more mercenary.

Two other sporting cultures feature prominently in the book: the community-based Gaelic sports of the Republic; and horse-racing, including not just attendance at racing meetings and some dabbling in ownership of horses, but also the gambling into which past generations of professional footballer were often drawn. Quinn’s story also reveals the deep-rootedness of the drinking culture for his generation of player, in particular in his young days at Arsenal with other publicly-declared victims of alcoholic excess, Tony Adams and Paul Merson, when all-day and all-night benders were the norm for single young men living alone in unglamorous accommodation in unfashionable parts of a strange, seductive city; and in the setting of the international calendar of the Republic, when a day or two before a vital match, a surrogate manager – Jack Charlton’s son, whilst Charlton himself was off on one of his extra-curricular ‘earners’ – would weakly plead with the squad to stick to a mere six pints before considering some sleep.

Quinn has written the book himself, it appears, as there is no acknowledged co-writer, collaborator or ghost-writer – though in his acknowledgements, he does thank Tom Humphries, ‘a literary giant disguised as a sports reporter.’ The book is written in the first-person, and in switching tenses. Typical of this latter technique is the following: ‘Spain started well. They fancy that they might win this strange World Cup, and for a little while we could believe that’ (p.3). This is the objective tone of the chronicler mixed with the observation and interpretation of the commentator or pundit. It lends authority to the writing – gives you a sense of ‘I was there, and you can trust that I know what I’m talking about’ – and tension to the commentary – ‘will they, won’t they’ we think, even if most readers know that they (Spain) didn’t. For over four hundred pages Quinn sustains this technique, providing analysis as well as anecdote, reflection as well as headline, throughout seventeen chapters, a prologue and an epilogue. If Quinn is the warm-hearted, grateful, long-lasting, lucky Everyman of his own story, his foil is the troubled Manchester United and Republic of Ireland captain Roy Keane. Cleverly, the structure of the book is based on a double narrative: Quinn’s crossing of the cultures and boundaries mentioned above; and Keane’s infamous walkout from the Irish squad on the eve of the World Cup Finals, in Japan in 2002, and the subsequent fortunes of the Keane-less squad. This is effective and canny. Quinn himself, despite the record he holds for goals scored for the Irish national side and the impressive, injury-defying longevity of his career, was no household name in the lobby displays of national bookshops. Keane though would be, and this ensures that the Quinn autobiography is more than one man’s story: in some ways, produced as promptly as it was in the autumn following the 2002 finals, it stole some headlines from Keane, whose own autobiography was published soon after. Alongside this, the revelations on the nature of the drinking culture within football ensured that publication would secure extensive coverage and reviews. Indeed, the book won the award for Sports Autobiography of the Year.

The prologue is titled ‘A red Carnation’. This is a reference to Jack Doyle, who is pictured (between pp. 86 and 87) prostrate on the canvas, concerned personnel taking the gumshield out of the sprawled boxer’s mouth. This image is captioned: ‘Whatever disasters befell him, Jack Doyle always walked on the sunny side of the street. His attitude to life has been an inspiration.’ Quinn’s father Billy used Jack Doyle as a metaphor, a shorthand for the vicissitudes of fate and fortune: ‘Don’t do a Jack Doyle on it now, will ya … Don’t do a Jack Doyle’ (p. 2). Whatever befell Doyle in life – imprisonment, VD, bankruptcy, stardom and Californian romance, friendship with movie stars, destitution – he ‘took it all without bitterness and even in his destitute days he’d walk the streets of Dublin with a red carnation in his breast pocket, still a little swagger about him’ (p. 9). Quinn ‘loved that story’, and reports that it sustained him in all the lonely absences from the teams through injury, through all the excesses in the bars and bookmakers of North London, during the tortured introspection of the Roy Keane affair, and at the heartbreaking penalty shoot-out as the Republic lost to Spain on penalties ‘somewhere in South Korea.’

Quinn’s autobiography touches on the classic themes of the socially mobile working-class male who achieves the metamorphosis to the status of successfully enduring sport professional: the early loneliness and yearnings for the childhood and community culture, the self-doubt, the fear of injury, the comeback, the faith in mentors, adaptation to new settings and a nostalgia for the culture that he entered, and redemption via the love of a good woman. It is especially good on the loss of innocence and the context of that loss: the transformation of football into marketed commodity within the wider framework of a celebrity culture.

© Alan Tomlinson, November 2005