As part of the build up to the Ireland v Wales football World Cup qualifier on Friday 24 March, the Ireland Luxembourg Chamber of Commerce hosted a memorable evening on Wednesday with former Ireland record goal scorer Niall Quinn. Still trim and looking every centimetre of his 1.93 metre frame he still cuts an imposing figure even at the age of 50. 

This may be down to the schedule he continues to maintain. Following on from his on-field exploits with his national team, Arsenal, Manchester City and Sunderland football clubs, Mr. Quinn has also been chairman of Sunderland football club, a successful businessman in his own right and is currently a Sky Sports football pundit.

Opening the evening, chamber president Joe Huggard spoke of the similarities between the open economies of Ireland and Luxembourg and how, even though the two countries may be competing for business at an economic level, their similarities mean that it would be beneficial for the two nations to cooperate at a political/policy level over matters of mutual concern such as, for example, Brexit. In passing the stage to compere Geoff Thompson and guest of honour Niall Quinn, Mr. Huggard also reminded the packed audience that the chamber is always looking for new members, details on the website

After a brief introduction from Geoff Thompson, Niall Quinn took the stage. Former sports stars often have a lot of stories, but sometimes their presentation skills can let them down. This is certainly not the case with Mr. Quinn, whose humour, frankness and humility combined in an easy flowing speech which, as with the Q&A session afterwards, was unerringly held together by that most important of public speaking supports, a theme. In this case, the theme was “a pat on the back”. 

From his opening remarks, in which he said that he had come to Luxembourg not least because, even at the age of 50, he still needs a “pat on the back” through to his closing comments where he said that even though a rollocking can sometimes be good for short-term results, to get the best out of people “still, to this day, I would promote a pat on the back”. This theme of support, encouragement, vulnerability and a liberal sprinkling of “pats on the back” gave Mr. Quinn’s stage time a coherence and a warm human nature.

There were far too many humorous, and frequently self-deprecating anecdotes about his football career both on and off the park to quote them all here, but a couple of the more serious ones particularly stood out. The first was his regret over the World Cup quarter final against Spain in 2002, which went to penalties. Despite being a striker he didn’t volunteer to take a penalty, and Ireland were eventually eliminated in that penalty shoot out. Mr. Quinn freely admitted that he had lost his nerve, and that it is something that haunts him to this day. 

He also spoke about the joint testimonial accorded him by Sunderland Football Club and the Irish Football Association in 2002, all of the proceeds from which were to go to local charities in Sunderland and Dublin (an act of generosity which prompted Roy Keane’s “who does he think he is, Mother Theresa?” put down). 

The match was a sell out, but he received a letter from a man in prison who could not go to the game, but who offered to donate £10 if he could be sent a “non-attendance” ticket. Quinn was so moved and motivated by that gesture that he organised open sales of non-attendance tickets of which 27,500 were sold, which helped to raise the total sum raised to over £1 million.

Following retirement from his football career and from the sunlight of constant adulation, particularly in Sunderland,  Quinn, like many elite sports people, found it difficult to cope and, by his own admission, went into a dark place. So much so, it seems, that his wife was prompted to follow a degree in psychology, specialising in the transition of sports stars into a “normal” life out of the limelight. So much so, indeed, that Mr. Quinn himself was inspired to launch the “Catch a Falling Star” initiative to better prepare footballers for the trauma of post retirement. He quoted the statistics that 3 in 5 ex premier league footballers divorce within 3 years of retirement, and 2 in 5 will become bankrupt.

At the close, Niall Quinn signed some footballs that will be used as prizes for ILCC events later in the year, posed for photos, answered questions and left an audience feeling as though it had itself received a 1.93 metre “pat on the back”.

Image: Geoff Thompson, Niall Quinn, Joe Huggard. © Ali Sahib