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“Niall Quinn was irreplaceable” - Roker Report meets... Paul Thirlwell (part two)

In the latest edition of ‘Roker Report meets..’ we talk to our former midfielder Paul Thirlwell. In part two we discuss Niall Quinn, why Howard Wilkinson wasn’t as bad as people make out and becoming captain of the club that he supported as a boy.

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RR: The more the seasons went on, the more Peter Reid seemed to have faith in you, but by the time you got into the side on a regular basis, the likes of Niall Quinn were retiring and the team took a downward spiral. Why do you think that we struggled after those first two seasons?

PT: I suppose nothing lasts forever and that’s how it felt. Even at clubs like Manchester United there’s a little slump and you have to go and build it up again.

It’s hard to put your finger on one particular thing and say that was the reason. It just felt like the end of an era. Certain players were coming to the end of their careers and once we were eventually relegated the players of value moved on.

RR: How much of that do you think was over-reliance on Niall Quinn and the failure to replace him?

PT: Quinny was so good for us, he could never be replaced.

You’ll probably never find another like Quinny. You do so much work on the training ground, but with Kev and him it really was just instinct. Quinny would lay the ball off and Kev just knew where it was going to land. So to say it was failure to replace Quinny, I’m not sure I agree with - he was irreplaceable.

RR: Howard Wilkinson came in and replaced Reidy after a disappointing start to a season, where we eventually got relegated. Were the team surprised at his appointment?

PT: He was alright. I know he comes across dour, but he was very dry - he had a really good sense of humour!

I think he was meant to come in, steady the ship and then hand the reigns over to Steve Cotterill. It was a difficult period though; as much as we were riding on the crest of a wave when winning games a few seasons before, it was the opposite then. I think certain players were maybe looking to get away and it was just a real struggle. Like I said earlier, it felt like the end of an era.

There have been bigger managers than him that have failed at the club. There’s not many managers that could have came in and fixed that team in the space of time he was given. He tried his best to get it right. He was different to Reidy. Reidy would leave a lot to his staff on the training pitch, then he’d come alive on the Friday/Saturday. They had the balance perfect (Reid and Saxton). Whereas Wilkinson, he was more into the sports psychology side of things which was different for some players at that time, but it was just a case of where the club were at, I think.

RR: When Mick McCarthy came in he seemed to have a huge amount of faith in you as a player. What was he like to play for?

PT: He was good - very similar to Peter Reid in his man-management style. He was hands on in training and was there for every session. The big thing with Mick was hard work. Mick wouldn’t stand for anything less than 100%. He wouldn’t stand for passengers.

He made me captain, which was all you ever dream of as a young lad growing up.

He was good. A really nice fella.

RR: What was that like (being captain)?

PT: I thought I played my best football when I was given the captaincy. It gave me a boost and it was such a shame it got cut short after I got injured against Reading.

I got told before the Millwall game - Jase (McAteer) had an injury and Mick told me on the Friday. I was told he had spoken to Bally about me being captain and he vouched for me. When Kevin Ball recommends you then it makes it even better. It was just such a shame I got such a bad injury as I was at the peak of my form at the club.

Lampard battles with Thirlwell
Paul battles with Chelsea legend Frank Lampard during a clash at Stamford Bridge.
Photo By Ben Radford/Getty Images

RR: How disappointing was the FA Cup semi final defeat to Millwall?

PT: I knew it was going to be Manchester in the final and it’s not often you get that opportunity, so it was really disappointing not to get to the final at least.

A semi-final is such a huge event. It’s worse losing a semi-final than a final. It’s rare that you get to a semi with two second tier teams and we really felt we could win it. We battered them second half, Johnny (Oster) hit the post, but we just couldn’t seem to get the equaliser. It was just one of those days - truly disappointing and full of ‘what ifs’.

I was at the final as a fan in 1992, so I knew what the occasion could have been and to miss out was awful. We really felt we could win that game as a team, but it wasn’t meant to be.

RR: You suffered with injuries towards the end of your time at the club and McCarthy decided against offering you a contract. How hard was that to take?

PT: I had fractured my skull in a reserve game against Everton. That period was difficult because medically I couldn’t even drive or anything. I felt fine but I wasn’t allowed to do anything. I had no involvement towards the back-end of the season or play offs.

We had spoken about a new contract, but once it hit the end of the season I felt it was time to move - I didn’t really want to leave Sunderland, but I didn’t want to just say for sentimental reasons. I didn’t want my career to suffer just to stay at Sunderland. I wanted to play every week, so we actually agreed and shook hands on it. I felt it was time for a change.

Sunderland v Everton - Premier League
Paul is of the opinion that the club need “battle hardened players, but with a bit of quality” - in Aiden McGeady, we certainly have that.
Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images

RR: Finally, Sunderland are in a place just now not to dissimilar to when you were at the club after our relegation in 2004. What do you think the club needs, and how do you expect us to do?

PT: It is a similar situation - I think he (Grayson) has a similar mindset to Mick McCarthy. A British manager who knows the league and what it takes.

We need to get players in that are battled-hardened, but with a bit of quality. Players who know the league and won’t complain about it, they’ll just get on with it and see it as a challenge - not ones that will just come here for the money on offer.

McCarthy was in a better position as he got the back end of that particular season to assess players. But I think Grayson will bring in the right characters needed for this division and for a club like Sunderland. I think he’ll steady the ship. I think we’ve got the right guy.