Sunderland legend Niall Quinn on Wycombe final, Alex Neil and his message to fans

There's a question often asked in the Quinn household, the sentiment of which will be immediately understood by any Sunderland supporter.

By Phil Smith
Friday, 20th May 2022, 9:02 am

"Dad, could you not have made me follow one of your other teams? Why not City or Arsenal?"

It's a question only ever asked in jest or in despair, because the love runs deep and it's a reminder of why Niall Quinn retains such a strong bond with the city where he is still revered.

It's why he can sense the different mood ahead of Saturday's play-off final, why fans are travelling in confidence if not quite in expectation.

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Sunderland legend Niall Quinn with the Play Off Trophy

And it's why he also knows not to get carried away, constantly reminding himself throughout the interview not to go near anything that could even be the slightest jinx.

"The journey that the club has been on in recent years, it just opens the door to anything you can achieve afterwards, if you can find a way to win then the sky's the limit," Quinn tells The Echo.

"Mind, I don't want to go too far here at all, my friends will be sending me Whatsapps saying that's we've been here before, this is what's got us into trouble in the past!

"I won't go to Trafalagar [square], because every time I've done that we've lost the next day! So maybe that will help.

Sunderland boss Alex Neil

"But my son and I will be there on the day.

"He will often say to me, 'could you have not made me follow City or Arsenal? Why Sunderland?' He knows he made the decision himself really, it's where he was born.

"To be honest, he probably wants it even more than me.

"It's going to be a good day out and I do have a good feeling about it."

Former Sunderland Chairman Niall Quinn

Quinn still kicks every ball and Saturday will be no different, sharing in what is sure to be a nerve-shredding afternoon with over 46,000 Sunderland supporters.

Here, though, is the key reason that gives Quinn that hope. In Alex Neil he sees a manager who has managed to block out the outside noise and keep cool throughout the pressure of the run in, which he feels could be crucial on Saturday.

If the late win over Sheffield Wednesday raised hopes on Wearside, then the interview that immediately followed proved just as reassuring for Quinn.

"You don't want to be sat next to me or in front of me," Quinn jokes.

"I'll be jumping, headbutting, kicking every ball, you name it.

"I'm glad that we've got a manager who is cool, who won't have his team anywhere near as nervous in the stands.

"All Sunderland fans are the same, there's going to be emotion and drama. It's going to be a big task for our guys but I like what Alex Neil has done, I like the mood they're in, it's not cocky but there's no fear either.

"It's a solid, professional tone.

"I really, really enjoyed the manager's interview after Sheffield Wednesday, because people can lose themselves a little bit in the aftermath of winning a semi final and we've seen that in some other games recently as well.

"In that moment you can be forgiven for being dramatic, for being overcome, and his interview I think just showed us a glimpse of his dressing room.

"I think this is a more solid, professional dressing room than has been in place for quite a while and that augurs well.

"The players don't seem to be playing with a burden, they're playing with a passion and for each other.

"That's why Sunderland fans can dare to hope again, even despite the record the club has in these games.

"There's something different about what Alex Neil has done.

"Of course we know that it can fall flat, that praise can be reversed quickly if you don’t deliver [when it matters], but there’s nothing to make me think this group won’t go and do the club justice.”

Roy Keane's impact during Quinn's tenure as Chairman made him a popular choice when a return to the club was mooted following Lee Johnson's departure, but Quinn feels the form that has followed suggests Neil could be the right man for the long term.

Sunderland's run to Wembley has been marked by regular late goals, which Quinn feels is a reflection of the calm and clarity Neil has given the players.

It's why he is daring to hope that this time might just be different for the support of which he is now very much one of.

"You have the first couple of weeks of his tenure and then all of a sudden these late goals are starting to appear," Quinn says.

"There's a bit of joy in the air but it's still tricky because all the teams around them are winning, and nothing was certain right up until the last very game in terms of getting into the play-offs in the first place.

"What was fascinating was the drama that was being created by these late goals was being offset by Alex's post-match interviews, which gave the impression that it was bound to happen, that it wasn't a fluke.

'That's the way the players are preparing, and we'll do more of this.'

"Sunderland are going into the game in form, the fans are going down knowing they have a team in better shape than any Sunderland team for probably seven or eight years.

"The level is different and I appreciate it, but I just feel that... I have huge respect for Wycombe and their manager Gareth Ainsworth is a rockstar in his own right, he's a huge presence and influence and he'll have his say on Saturday, but I just feel and hope that everything Sunderland have been through, for the fans to have stayed loyal and got stronger during that journey, it could be day for them."