The Football League play-offs return this week, but what do you know of their history since they started delighting us in 1987?
John Nicholson and Alan Tyers look at pundits and commentators and pin down what makes them good, what makes them bad, and what makes them ugly. This week, come on without, come on within: you'll not see nothing like the mighty Niall Quinn.
Half of this column was a very tall, rangy young man run, if not too fat, then certainly trotted in the general direction of fat in middle age. As such, that half of the column feels a deep kinship with big Niall, with his tall man's not-really-fitting suit and the suggestion that he could probably pour upwards of thirty pints of Guinness down them hollow legs should the mood arise. Imagine him and his erstwhile manager Peter Reid out on the town with a thirst on them? Good Lord, it'd be like trying to extinguish a raging inferno with a thimble of water. Sat next to your Dwights and your Jamies with their outlandish suits, Quinny - generally dressed like a drayman at a christening - looks like a proper man, not some 40-year-old clothes-horse manchild who has tried too hard and spent too much on his hair, not a faux adult who would really rather have liked a career in modelling or at least an advert for Marks and sodding Spencer. All of which we like.
Bigness, Irishness, Sunderland-ness. Quinny is very much on speed dial for the nation's TV producers when they need any of the above bases covering and also does good business around Man City matches as well. There's more competition, it seems, for the Arsenal gigs. Horses too, of course. Loves the Gee and the Gee. And disco pants.
Strengths and Weaknesses
We rather enjoy his lugubrious voice and gentle phrasing. There's an Eeyorish tone to his speech that is not reflected in his worldview. Quinny generally seems to want people to do well, and enjoys it when they do. Compare and contrast an Irishman of similar vintage, Roy Keane, who is a sort of polar opposite of Quinn (unintentional Dylanesque Eskimo reference, apologies). We feel they would make an excellent good cop-bad cop pairing working for the NYPD in the 1920s. We'd like to see Roy twirl a billy club.
However, it is with another footballer that Quinny will be forever linked in the popular imagination: little Kevin Phillips. The recent Capital One Cup final delivered the dream - a big pundit-little pundit pairing. Looking like a comedic duo in a straight-to-video Hollywood buddy movie, neither of them is anything like as enjoyable to watch in the studio as they were on the pitch, but it was solid fare nonetheless. Quinny, perhaps as a result of big man geniality, rarely sticks the boot in and can generally be relied on for a firm and fair, if unremarkable, assessment of the action. That's his main weakness really - being too avuncular and forgiving. Great assets for a man to have but perhaps less so a pundit.
Much better in the studio than on co-comms duty where he's always just making par with say-what-you-see tendencies. We once saw him on the Footballers' Football Show on Sky with Dave Jones and he was really articulate, thoughtful and intelligent when given the topic, context and time to serve us his chops.
Tactical genius or tactics truck?
Quinny, who did not have especially Good Feet For A Big Man, largely enjoyed the game played in the air. Does not preach the gospel of HIT LES but nonetheless, we imagine that Pep Guardiola pestering him for advice is not a constant worry for Niall. Naturally, decent hold-up play and a big man's knock down for a (preferably tiny) striker to connect with still flares the old race horse's nostrils.
Leg squeezer geezer?
We have no evidence whatsoever for this, but we reckon that if you squeezed Quinny on the thigh, you would end up with a fistful of formidable Irish langer. Like a conger eel's older brother, we're saying. So yeah, we would probably give that a miss, like, unless we've been drinking brandy all day, in which case all bets are off.
Segueing neatly from dicks into cultural stereotypes, we further imagine Quinny to have that brilliant celtic duality thing going on, where a hilarious joke could turn at the drop of a pint into a massive crunchy punch up, possibly involving a horse. So, all things considered, don't touch Niall on the leg, nor let him too near yours.
A fun guy, but with an old world sense of decency about him, we'd rate Quinny to be 11/10 value on a night out, but strictly polite and decent in a 'ladies present' sort of situ. Basically just a proper chap. Would never be the instigator of japery and would, almost certainly, be the one to stay behind to mop up the damage caused by the more brutish, thoughtless boys shenanigans and in doing so, earning the admiration of the older grown-ups. Would definitely offer to make tea to soothe anyone upset by team-mates inclination to strip naked and insert vegetables into the weedier members of the squad in full view of the general public. The words, '...we had been drinking all day,' must surely be a suffix to many of his best stories.
He is not exactly rewriting the rules of how the English language, or even football's approximation of it, is used, but he does a job. In the mixer. Giving 110 percent. Cliche-wise, not a major culprit. The accent definitely helps mollify any distress at verbal garbage or waffle.
Why does he get gigs?
We're convinced some pundits get gigs because they exude a calm, warm, life-affirming bonhomie and Quinny is one of those guys. You just can't sit and get angry at him. Even if he's talking rubbish it stills seems quite nice rubbish and sure, isn't that just like yer man anyway, so it is. On top of that he appears to live in the real world and not in some tinted windows, style-magazine, Jay-Z obsessed fantasy land. Looking and talking like someone the viewer might actually know is, in football media, a big asset; the ability to do good human, is much appreciated. Think about it, when you know Quinny is introduced and he smiles out of the TV at you, you do smile a little in return and, albeit imperceptibly say, 'now then big man - you alright?' As so often in life, it's this quiet stuff that really matters.
John Nicholson and Alan Tyers
See extracts from Alan's new book 'Tutenkhamen's Tracksuit: The History of Sport in 100ish Objects' here.
Check out John's new series of crime novels about life, death, sex and UEFA Cup football, here.