Niall Quinn pays tribute to Bill Darby
Forever linked with the days when Liam Brady, Frank Stapleton and David O’Leary graced the marbled halls at Highbury, Bill will always be a Gunner – and a hero to Niall.
As he reflects on his own connection with Bill, the memories come flooding back for the man now at the heart of the Irish football revival with his role as Interim Deputy CEO of the FAI.
Mention Bill Darby and Niall’s mind first goes back to 1983 and an All-Ireland year that threw up so many possibilities for the big young fellow as comfortable in the colours of the Dublin minor hurlers as he was with the footballers of Manortown United, Lourdes Celtic or Drimnagh Castle Secondary School.
That was the year when Niall played in a Leinster Schools Final at Tolka Park, scoring both goals for the Castle from centre-forward as they beat Ballymun Comprehensive 2-0. It was the same year that he starred for the Dublin minors en-route to the All-Ireland Hurling Final and a defeat to Galway at Croke Park. The year he toured Australia, via Canada and Hawaii, with the Dublin Colleges Gaelic football representative side.
And 1983 was the year that Bill Darby came knocking at the door of Billy and Mary Quinn with the offer of a two-week trial at Arsenal for their son, an offer that would change Niall’s life forever.
“It was the Tuesday night after we had lost the All-Ireland Minor Hurling Final to Galway when Bill came to the house,” recalls the former Arsenal, Manchester City and Sunderland striker.
“I’d spent the summer playing GAA and hurling, touring Australia with the Dublin Colleges and training for that Minor Hurling Final. I hadn’t played football since May, when we beat Ballymun in that Schools Final, so it was a surprise to say the least when Bill knocked on the door.
“He explained that Arsenal wanted me over for two weeks the following Monday for a trial. I was worried about my lack of football but he was adamant that I’d be fit enough from the hurling and it wouldn’t be an issue. He assured me Arsenal would be happy to work around that.
“Bill also told me that he was sending me to Arsenal as a centre-forward and that really meant a lot to me. There was only ever one other man who regarded me as a centre-forward and that was John Molloy, our teacher and coach with Drimnagh Castle.
“When I started at Manortown as a nine-year-old, I was playing for their under-12 team as a goalkeeper. When I got to 12 and went back to playing with my own age, they put me as an outfield player but never as a striker. When I moved to Lourdes Celtic, I was always a midfielder or a centre-back, never put upfront.
“John Molloy was the only man who regarded me as an out and out centre-forward until Bill came along. Bill saw something in me as a number nine, just like John.”
After a summer spent in love with the game of hurling which his father Billy had graced so elegantly with Tipperary and Dublin, Niall Quinn left for his two weeks of football in London without a care in the world.
Rejected as a 15-year-old by Malcolm McDonald and Fulham and having failed to make his way into various Irish underage teams, he was happy to adopt a ‘que sera, sera’ approach to this Arsenal trial.
“I’d spent most of the summer playing hurling or taking in that trip of a lifetime to Sydney and Melbourne, which was like going to the other side of the moon in those days, so I didn’t put any pressure on myself when I left for London the following Monday after Bill had called,” he adds.
“When Fulham had said no to me at 15, that hit me hard. I’d tried to get into Ireland squads but nothing had worked out so I wasn’t going to let this get to me.
“As it happened, I was lucky that when I arrived the apprentices had been given the week off. I was training with the reserves and working with the likes of Paul Gorman from Ireland, Brian McDermott who went on to manage Reading, Paul Davis, Colin Hill and the great Pat Jennings.
“I was nervous as hell that first session. I was shanking the ball everywhere and anywhere but Pat had a word, told me to calm down and that sorted me. On the Friday, the manager Terry Neill invited me to train with the first team, with the likes of Charlie Nicholas, David O’Leary, Graham Rix, Kenny Sansom, Paul Mariner and Tony Woodcock.
“I thought they were offering me a nice end to the trial before they sent me home a week early. Instead, they offered me a three-year contract and were sending me on a flight home the next day to tell my parents. It was a different time; there were no mobile phones and I didn’t get to ring until the Saturday morning from Heathrow – looking for a lift from the airport!”
Bill Darby still had some work to do to seal the deal. Mum Mary, a schoolteacher, wanted Niall to finish his Leaving Cert. Alternative offers from Aussie Rules sides in Sydney and Melbourne – with club officials even travelling to Dublin – were also on the table until Ruud Gullit got involved.
Niall recalls: “In those days you had to sort out international clearance as an Irish player so Arsenal left me at home for a few weeks which allowed me to watch Dublin against Galway in the infamous 1983 Football Final from the Railway End.
“Then Holland came to Dalymount for a European Qualifier in early October. Terry Neill and Don Howe came over to look at Ruud and Bill brought us to meet them in the Skylon Hotel before the game.
“Terry was a charmer. He persuaded my mum that I could do A-levels at Arsenal and the deal was done. We all went to Dalymount and Bill introduced my parents to John Devine, whom he had also sent to Arsenal, after the game to talk about the move.
“Everything was agreed and that night Arsenal got an Irishman instead of a Dutchman - they had an option on Ruud Gullit as well but his agent wasn’t as persuasive as Bill Darby and they turned Ruud down, even after his two second-half goals helped Holland to a 3-2 win.”
Bill Darby successfully introduced Niall Quinn to Arsenal then, as was his way, retreated into the background as his recommendation paid off for club then country.
“I never really got to know Bill after that,” recalls Niall who went to play 92 times for Ireland and score 21 goals. “He did send me a letter to look after a young Irish lad who came over on trial after me and I did just that – after that he knew I’d look after anyone he sent our way and we always did.
“I’ll always be grateful to Bill. He saw something in me that very few other people saw and he had faith in me. Without him, who knows what would have happened. My thoughts are with his family now – Bill Darby did so much for me and for so many other Irish players, so much for Arsenal. May he rest in peace.”