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Linking play and living the dream: James Quinn finds his footballing sequel

He was deemed the ideal foil for his strike partners on a few occasions, though when an unexpected chance for James Quinn to start his coaching voyage arose, the one-time target man was alive and ready like a true penalty-area poacher.

Led by ex-England goalkeeper Tim Flowers, the management team at Solihull Moors have overseen the club’s jump from unlikely National League survivors to one of the recognised promotion challengers in the division. Moors first-team coach and 50-cap former Northern Ireland international James Quinn, however, may very well have not been there at all.

Still just 32 when he played his last game, for Northampton Town against Oldham Athletic in January 2007, the ex-West Bromwich Albion man had cited no longer being in contention for Northern Ireland as a central reason behind his decision to call it a day. Far from a swift transition into coaching, though, it was about a year after he hung up the boots, and it hadn’t even been his initial intention.

“I lived to play for Northern Ireland, it was an honour that I took very seriously,” the former Sheffield Wednesday and Blackpool forward explained. “I just felt the game was changing a lot, there’d been a lot of changes in and around the dressing room, and I felt like it was the right time.”

“I wanted to take a little bit of a break from the game; I didn’t get much, especially when you play international football in the summers as well, with qualifiers and that. I’d been doing some work with my dad, which I have all my life.

“He’s a tiler, so since the age of six and seven, I remember being on building sites. He said to me a couple of times ‘why don’t you go back into it and do your coaching badges?’

“It didn’t really appeal to me, and then one day, someone called me and said there was a spare place on the Irish FA coaching course. I had to be there the next day, the next morning to start it, and I thought ‘why not?’

“I just jumped on a plane that night and I’ve been in the game ever since and been lucky enough to have work most of the time. I absolutely love it.

“It doesn’t feel like a job, to be honest, and it’s the closest buzz that you can get to playing football.”

The Coventry native had learned the ropes somewhat as he coached various age groups in youth football in New Jersey. Having been Gary Brabin’s chief scout at Luton Town for a spell, he linked up again with his former Blackpool teammate as first-team coach at Tranmere Rovers in 2015.

It is that role he holds now at Solihull Moors, working also alongside former Kidderminster Harriers manager Gary Whild on the senior management team. Moors are plotting another title challenge after finishing 2nd last season, three points off champions Leyton Orient, and ultimately losing 1-0 to AFC Fylde in the play-off semi-final.

The Midlands outfit were also FA Trophy quarter-finalists and were in the hat for a third-round FA Cup tie against Arsenal, before narrowly losing their second-round replay at League One Blackpool in extra-time. Most notably, though, has been the change from a team seemingly dead and buried two seasons ago in the National League – 12 points from safety at Christmas 2017 – before sealing their status with a game to spare under then-manager Mark Yates, with Tim Flowers assisting.

Yates departed last June to take the reins at League Two Macclesfield Town. James, meanwhile, was appointed to the Solihull backroom staff that same summer, and eight games into this season, they are in the play-off places after a mixed but mainly positive start.

The close-season capture of last season's joint-leading scorer in the division, Paul McCallum from Eastleigh, was certainly a signal of intent. From swimming against the tide just to stay in the National League, what does James put the rapid change in recent fortunes down to?

“I think when Mark and Tim first came in, they changed a few things. They went to three days a week training rather than two nights.

“I think their recruitment of players they brought in was fantastic; a few of them who are still here. The likes of Kyle Storer, who’s our captain, he’s a leader, he’s won this league with Cheltenham, and is a very good player as well.

“He just lifted the place and I went and watched a couple of games with them and he just stood out, the way he was talking on the pitch, ordering people around, I think that’s something they missed. I think the club was in a bit of a state before that and the guy who owned the club at the time, Mike Turl, I think he gave them a little bit extra investment for them to bring these players in, with an outside chance of them staying up, and they guided them brilliantly to safety by playing real men’s Conference football.

“We’ve sort of continued that since Mark’s left, nothing has really changed. A lot of the players who started last season are still here.

"We lost a couple in Adi Yussuf and Jermaine Hylton; very good players but we’ve brought in two or three that we feel fill that void more than enough. We’re just going about everything exactly the same as we did last year.

"Off the pitch, though, our new chairman (Darryl Eales) has totally reconstructed the club. It's unrecognisable from a year ago and he backs us financially with players and fantastic training facilities."

The management trio agreed new deals in July which will run until 2022. James says the dynamic works well between them, with Flowers, who he describes as ‘forensic in his preparation of games,’ having the final say, but with input from him and Gary Whild on all areas.

Solihull Moors' management team (from left to right) Gary Whild, Tim Flowers and James Quinn. Photo: Solihull Moors

Given the role he was most associated with as a player, it would be natural to think James’ focus is more on the attacking side of training, though not the case, he explains.

“I deal with all of it. I was quite fortunate really because I think I played every single position on the pitch, apart from left-back.

“I even played in goal for over a half for Blackpool. I’m not saying I know anything about goalkeeping, especially if you’ve seen the performance!

“But playing up against defenders, I know what I liked and I know what I didn’t like them to do. I played holding midfield for almost a season at West Brom, I know what sort of crosses I would have liked as a forward, I know what sort of runs if I was out wide I would want my forward to be making, so I think I’ve got a little mixed bag of everything.

“A lot of sessions that we do, I involve a bit of defending, a bit of crossing and finishing, a bit of midfield switching play, diagonal balls, whatever it might be.”

That very subject of playing all over the pitch links neatly to a man who played 11 different positions for Sheffield Wednesday – Lee Bullen. The current Owls caretaker boss was a significant figure in James’ playing career, as the captain as he won promotion to the Championship with Wednesday on an unforgettable Sunday in Cardiff against Hartlepool United in May 2005.

Before all the drama of the final, which ended 4-2 after extra-time, the goal to get them into the play-offs had come in the dying moments at Hull City. With the home side eagerly awaiting the final whistle to confirm their promotion as runners-up, Wednesday’s number 22 had other ideas, stealing in to ram home a winner – though Bullen still claims he got the last touch before it crossed the line!

“He’s starting to annoy me, to be honest! He’s a defender, what does he need the goals for?!

“We still have a joke about it all these years on, but it’s funny, I was actually going to go up to the (Sheffield Wednesday v Luton) game last night. One of my best friends is Gary Brabin, who’s assistant to Graeme Jones at Luton, and I booked tickets on the Sunday but our schedule changed this week, so I wasn’t able to get up and down, but I was gonna pop in and see Bully for a drink after the game.”

Although ability (and some handily-timed fortune) was vital in that 2005 team’s success, collective character was absolutely paramount. All kinds of friendships remain from Paul Sturrock’s team 14 years on, and though it was only a half-season spell in James’ career, the feelings he instantly associates with the club are unique.

“Oh, one of the best days of my life, in the end. Playing in front of a pretty much packed Millennium Stadium, at one point thinking it wasn’t gonna happen and we were on the brink of defeat, and then the emotion to turn it around, then when the final whistle went, it was the first and only time I got promoted in my career, so it’s very, very special to me.

“There’s that day and there’s the night where Northern Ireland beat England as well, which was only a few months after that. In the space of a few months I had the two greatest days/nights of my career, and Sheffield Wednesday obviously played a massive part in that.”

Together with the back-heel flick that laid on Jon Paul McGovern’s goal in the first leg of the Brentford semi-final at Hillsborough, an enduring image of his Wednesday days is after the final whistle in Cardiff, with arm around a similarly euphoric Lee Bullen as the skipper clasped the play-off trophy in wide-eyed wonderment. Interviewed by BBC Radio Sheffield on the pitch, James laughed that manager Sturrock had ‘come around’ to his way of thinking eventually.

He fills in the details on that, as he recalls the relationship with the Dundee United legend.

“When I first went there, Paul had remembered me from when I was 24/25, and I used to be very quick, I used to run the channels, I used to be a pain in the arse for defenders, and that’s what he remembered me as. I’d been in Holland (at Willem II) for two-and-a-half years prior to going to Wednesday and my role was very different; I was a target man, I held play up, I linked play and I was 30 years of age.

“So my legs hadn’t gone, but that’s how I played the game, so when I first went in, Paul Sturrock said ‘I want you running the channels.’ I said ‘that’s fine, but I think I can bring something different in this way by holding the ball up, linking up play, people running in behind me. I can do that as well.’

“He said ‘well, we’ll just go with my way at the minute’! It went alright, but then he started to realise, and I remember specifically before one game, I think it was Stockport at home, and he asked me on the Friday before who did I want to play up front with?

“He’d obviously thought ‘okay, that’s how he wants to play, who does he want to play up front with?’ That was a huge compliment for me.

“I said Graham Barrett (top scorer Steve MacLean was out injured), who was on loan (from Coventry City) at the time, and it didn’t work, we drew 0-0, but it’s little things like that you always remember. It made me want to play for Paul even more, because I knew that he respected me.

“Hopefully he did anyway.”

As the club tried to consolidate in the Championship in 2005/06, with little in the way of budget at the time, injuries at one point during the season meant Wednesday started a league game against Plymouth with defender Graeme Lee and on-loan Aston Villa teenager Gabriel Agbonlahor as a strike pairing. Given James’ experience, it would have perhaps seemed logical to keep him on when his contract expired following promotion.

In fact, the noises from the club were that an extended deal was to be offered, so why did he start the new season in Peterborough United blue instead of Wednesday?

“The gaffer pulled me into the office the day after the game and he said ‘we’re gonna offer you a new deal.’ I hadn’t heard anything for probably about six weeks, and that was it, I literally never heard anything.

“I didn’t wanna call up and say ‘where’s my deal?’ but I think I deserved a little bit better, a call to say ‘something else has changed, we can’t give you the deal now.’ I had absolutely no malice feelings towards the club or anything like that, that’s just how it panned out, and everything happens for a reason.

“The high the club had given me, though, and the experience of that play-off final, it made me fall in love with the club, and that’s the only feelings I had.”

His return to England had come after a near-three-year stint at Dutch Eredivisie side Willem II, in which they finished as high as 7th. Injury misfortune aside – "I broke my ankle, I did my ankle ligaments, I broke a rib," – it was a time he greatly enjoyed. He highlights how he will implement elements of the Dutch training into his work today at Solihull.

The boyhood Birmingham City fan had, however, missed the buzz of English football during his time away. Debuting in professional football as a teenager at Blues, he enjoyed his career’s longest and most prolific spell at Blackpool before becoming one of Denis Smith’s first West Brom signings in 1998.

Back at Bloomfield Road, it was Sam Allardyce who had given him his shot, with James still a teenager. He commends the former England boss on how he man-managed a ‘daft’ youngster at the time.

Despite his experience of working alongside several notable gaffers, the man who previously led Central Jersey Spartans in the USL Premier Development League in 2013 admits he actually has no desire to be a manager.

“I have no aspirations to be a number one, at all. I like being part of the dressing-room environment really with the lads.

“I struggle to let people down in a way, and I see managers having to make big decisions and drop people from the team and sell people or whatever, and it’s just not for me. I’m just not that sort of person.

“I really can’t see that changing in the long-term future. I just really enjoy the coaching side of it and that’s how I see myself.”

While his club career deserves respect, it would be remiss in the extreme not to revisit the night of his life as an international footballer. A booking against Austria had ruled James out of Northern Ireland’s 4-0 defeat to England at Old Trafford in the FIFA World Cup qualifier in March 2005, but just shy of six months later was the return fixture at Windsor Park.

Given the nod by manager Lawrie Sanchez, James played the first 79 minutes of a remarkable 1-0 victory over Sven-Göran Eriksson’s star-studded side. The likes of David Beckham, Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and the rest filled the visiting line-up, but David Healy’s rasping angled drive meant the night belonged only to the Green and White Army.

From the inner sanctum of the celebrations after the match, what does James recall most vividly?

“It was actually quite calm in the changing room. I remember looking around and we had a few Premier League players in there; Steven Davis, Damien Johnson, Aaron Hughes. I was exhausted, mentally and physically I was done, and I remember looking around and looking at them thinking ‘how do you do that every week? How do you play against the likes of them players?’

“It was strange. Back in them days, the Irish lads, we used to like to celebrate any win…loss or draw!

“It wouldn’t really stop us going out and having a few beers after a game, but I think that was the only game where I never had a beer after. We got back to the hotel and they’ve re-run the game on BBC One in Northern Ireland, against what the programme was, and I sat and watched that.

“I went up to bed, couldn’t sleep, had a shower at 5 o’clock and got the plane home first thing in the morning. We believed in ourselves and we thought ‘we can compete here, we’ll have a go at them,’ but deep down, did we think we were gonna win?

“Probably not. When you look at the quality they had, it was incredible, so I think we were in a bit of shock really.

“That and the play-off final were just two unbelievable days that money can’t buy.”

His half-century of caps also included the equally astonishing 3-2 home win over Spain in Euro 2008 qualifying – that man Healy at it again with all three. Having competed against the best of them once upon a time, will James ever join in as an extra player in Solihull Moors’ training sessions?

“God no. I had a shot today, stupidly – my first one in about 13 years!

“The ball came rolling to me and I thought ‘I think I’ve got this.’ I think it’s still on its way down the A423 now, just outside Redditch!

“The lads hammered me for that, and my back’s stiffened up since it, my thigh feels like it’s been stabbed, so I just now like to stand off at the side. It’s a bit too fast-tempo; I think it’d still be a bit too fast-tempo if I was 28, to be honest with you!

“I’m better off on the side, I think.”

There may be no blurring of lines between his role as coach and player, but when it comes to music at least, age is no barrier for taking part! If he acquired partial control of the changing-room playlist, what would be the song he’d ensure some airtime for?

It took him some time to make his choice, but come the very end of the interview, it was there at the tip of the tongue.

“Rolling Stones – ‘Sympathy for the Devil’!”

Interview/article by @chris_brookes

Additionally, Solihull Moors manager Tim Flowers featured in Non-League Daily's interview series The Bosses' Lounge last year, which you can read here

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