Since arriving in the summer of 1996, Niall Quinn had ridden a bumpy path to becoming a Sunderland legend. That status looked decidedly unlikely for a while, particularly just a year later when, after a knee injury he suffered at home to Coventry shortly after arriving at Roker, threatened to force early retirement.
We all know the story of Quinn’s on-field redemption, but fast forward to the late autumn of 2002, and the big man was definitely hanging up his boots for good.
It came as a surprise, but in truth it was no great shock. Quinn, 36, had been appointed to the coaching staff under his long-time manager Peter Reid, and the club had spent a figure that, 21 years later, we can only dream of spending, on his replacement – Tore Andre Flo.
Reidy had been sacked after an indifferent start to the season (nothing compared to what was to follow, mind you) and Howard Wilkinson was appointed.
Quinn came off the bench in Wilkinson’s first game, a home defeat to West Ham, on 19 October, but wasn’t in the squad for the two games that followed – draws away at Bolton and Charlton.
Come early November, however, on the morning of Wilkinson’s fourth game in charge – at home to Glenn Hoddle’s Spurs – Quinn had decided enough was enough.
Whether he saw what was coming, whether he had physically reached that point, we don’t know for sure. It’s safe to say, however, if Peter Reid had still been in charge, Quinn wouldn’t have left the club.
Wilkinson had offered him the opportunity to stay on as a coach, however Quinn said:
I turned it down - not out of disrespect but because I don’t think I really want to be a football coach.
Peter Reid was the only person I would have been a coach for before and as he got the sack 12 weeks later I don’t think I did a very good job!
I am just going to spend a couple of months thinking about my future.
While news of Quinn’s Wearside departure was mourned at the Stadium of Light – he came onto the field at halftime to say goodbye – attentions turned to the game at hand.
After the opening game against West Ham, Sunderland had turned in a couple of good away performances in truth – two draws at Bolton and Charlton were respectable enough, although positivity had been dented by the loss of talented midfielder Claudio Reyna to a long-term injury.
Confidence was building though, and it showed as the lads, including a Premier League debuting Michael Proctor, turned in a strong display.
Quinn’s half time appearance came with the scores at 0-0 – both sides missing chances, including a comical incident in which Chris Perry, under pressure from Phillips, hit the ball towards his own goal, and Kasey Keller had to scramble back to keep it from going in.
Perry redeemed himself shortly before the break, clearing Phillips’ shot off the line after the striker had rounded Keller.
The home side started strongly in the second half, but Spurs were always a threat on the break – however the deadlock was broker on the hour – Phillips heading in Michael Gray’s cross.
A couple of minutes later, the lead was doubled. Phillips played in his new striker partner Flo, who held off Perry before firing past Keller.
2-0, and Sunderland were out of the relegation zone.
After the game, Wilkinson said:
I said in the morning I wanted three things - a clean sheet, a Kevin Phillips goal and a first victory - and I’ve got all of them.
Let’s hope we’ve started. But we know we’ve got a long way to go - and we’ve got a hard one next week away at Liverpool.
I said when I took over that there are no miracle cures, but the patient is responding to treatment.
I was pleased with the character and how we hung in in the first half. The self-belief which confidence breeds wasn’t quite there in the first half.
Many people would not credit Tore for his goal. He’s got terrific skill but showed strength and determination.
All up from here, then!