When Peter Reid won the Endsleigh League Division One championship in his first full season at the club, he knew full well the size of the challenge that faced Sunderland in the Premier League.
As amazing as the title-winning campaign was, every Sunderland fan knew that it was built on hard work and organisation, rather than blowing the opposition away week after week.
The championshop win came completely out of the blue after the ex-England international had swept in with seven games remaining during the previous season, and went on to save us from relegation.
The club were scrambling to keep up with the progress of others who had managed to be part of the first four seasons of the newly-formed Premier League, and we were in severe danger of being left behind.
This resulted in the club having no real option but to move Sunderland into a new home that was fit for purpose, and this meant Peter Reid’s budget would inevitably take a hit.
In a summer that saw Alan Shearer impress on the international stage during Euro 96 – he would subsequently sign for Newcastle United from Blackburn Rovers for a then world record fee of £15 million – Sunderland had not yet paid out over £1 million.
This would soon change however, Reid knowing he needed someone to score goals in the Premier League.
Sunderland’s top scorer on their way to the title was Craig Russell, who had scored thirteen League goals, although four of those were in a single game at Roker Park against Mick McCarthy’s Millwall. Our next top scorer was Phil Gray with eight, and through a contract dispute was destined to leave the club.
To remedy the situation, the ex-Manchester City manager turned to someone he knew all about from his days in charge at Maine Road, and as Niall Quinn was pondering a move to Malaysia after The Citizens were relegated from the Premier League, Reid made his move.
In August 1996, only 48 hours prior to kick-off on the opening day of Sunderland’s first-ever season in the Premier League, Quinn signed for Sunderland for a then club record £1.3m.
To the football world, it looked like a journeyman’s move, an end of career shift down the ladder and off into the oblivion of retirement. My luck held though. The best years were still to come.
This deal incidentally broke the record set the previous month, when Alex Rae signed from Millwall to become the club’s first signing to break the million pound mark. A major signing at the other end of the pitch saw Tony Coton join from Manchester United when it was clear that the sought-after capture of Shay Given, who’d impressed greatly on loan the season before, was not going to happen.
It started out fairly brightly in the sunshine at Roker Park on the 17th August 1996 when Niall Quinn made his debut against Martin O’Neill’s Leicester City. Although the game ended goalless, the new record signing made his bow as substitute, replacing David Kelly with around thirty-five minutes left on the clock to a rousing reception.
With his first touch, he scored what for a moment the home crowd thought was the first Premier League goal at Roker Park, until it was harshly ruled out for a shove on Steve Walsh.
Fans were optimistic, and this only grew four days later when Sunderland travelled to the City Ground and won 4-1 – Quinn scoring a brace against Frank Clark’s Nottingham Forest.
The Republic of Ireland international was still settling in to life at Roker Park, only for it to be abruptly put on hold abruptly in September, when he was stretchered off with a serious knee injury during a victory at home to Coventry City.
He would not be seen again in a Sunderland shirt until April, coming off the bench at St James Park during a one all draw.
In 1993, very few people made it back from cruciate injuries. The second time it was just depression. I’d played seven games for Sunderland. I’d been a flop. I knew exactly what lay ahead.
As Sunderland were cruelly relegated during our last season at Roker Park, Niall Quinn painfully limped through the last six games, making only two starts in which it was clear to see the recovery wasn’t complete.
The following season it was the dawn of a new era as Quinn scored against his former club in Sunderland’s opening competitive fixture at the Stadium of Light, defeating Manchester City 3-1 on a Friday night.
Despite the goal, Quinn struggled to hit form, and in the following home game against Norwich it was clear all was not right. The ex-Arsenal striker went clear on goal – only to pass it into the arms of keeper Andy Marshall.
Our fourth game of the season is against Norwich and I’m not up to it. I am desperate not to play but Peter wants me to. I tell him that I’ll try but I can’t run. My leg is gone. During the match, I’m put through one-on-one with their keeper and find I have no power in my leg. I just trickle the ball to him. I can feel the hostility in the stadium. I’m booed off the field.
Sunderland suffered their first defeat in their new home that day against Mike Walker’s Norwich City by a single goal and the reaction from the stands left no ambiguity. Quinn lasted until around the eighty minute mark in the next fixture, a 3-1 victory over Oxford United who were managed by ex-Sunderland manager Denis Smith – although, again, the striker struggled.
In the proceeding weeks, news filtered out of the club that Quinn was returning to the surgeon’s table, and would have another spell on the sidelines.
In his absence, Peter Reid’s side were not pulling up any trees, and significant defeats to the likes of Reading at the beginning of October, meant that Sunderland were sitting 12th in the Nationwide Football League Division One. News from the training ground was positive though – the latest intervention had been a success, and Quinn was flying on the training ground
So, it was on this day 23 years ago, Quinn made his comeback against Dave Bassett’s Nottingham Forest.
The game itself wasn’t a classic, especially in a season that eventually generated some unforgettable moments, but with the game poised at 1-1 with six minutes remaining, Niall Quinn entered the fray when he replaced Michael Bridges to partner Kevin Phillips. Despite everything, he came on to almost a standing ovation, which was based on nothing but faith.
When it came to my first game back, against Forest at home, the mood towards me had changed. People had read in the papers that I was fighting my way back and they gave me a decent reception, even though I hadn’t played since I was booed off the last time. Here they were, cheering me on as if it never happened, or as if one of us had been drunk at the time.
It was almost as if when Quinn made his entrance, that fan and player both knew it was a moment. In those six minutes, Quinn caused havoc in the Forest defence, and the home crowd cheered his every move. The final whistle went without further addition to the score, but we somehow knew this was the beginning of something.
Peter Reid’s side went into the next fixture away to Portsmouth on a run of one win in the last five games, but more significantly, saw Quinn return to the starting line-up to partner Kevin Phillips.
After Sunderland went behind in the seventh minute to a John Aloisi opener, the result however, never looked in doubt. Niall Quinn scored a world-class header four minutes later and then proceeded to provide a masterclass in forward play as Sunderland ran out 4-1 winners – debutant Nicky Summerbee scoring the fourth.
For the remaining six months of the season, Sunderland lost only three League games and Niall Quinn scored 16 League goals.
Those six minutes against Nottingham Forest on this day 23 years ago, was the restart of a very special relationship between player and club that nobody could have envisaged during the preceding injury-ravaged twelve months.