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Monday, 17 June, 2002, 17:11 GMT 18:11 UK

Ireland walk tall in defeat

By Lyle Jackson
Our man with the Republic of Ireland

If one man epitomises his team at this World Cup, it is Niall Quinn.

Quinn has been much more than an effective substitute on the field for the Republic of Ireland in the finals.

" The players have to look at what they've done and be proud "
Niall Quinn

The country's top goalscorer of all-time has also been a supreme diplomat, peacemaker and senior counsel off the pitch as well.

The Sunderland striker has always been respected as a decent guy.

And when he handed over his testimonial riches to charity last month, his reputation reached new heights.

But Quinn still had more to unselfishly give to his country.

Having been talked out of international retirement by manager Mick McCarthy, the veteran striker proved an invaluable lieutenant to the manager.

The Irish campaign was a series of ups and downs, and Quinn was inevitably at the centre of events.

In the midst of the Roy Keane furore, Quinn attempted to broker a deal in an attempt to see the Manchester United midfielder return to the fold.

He came close, but the negotiations fell through.

And his behind-the-scenes diplomacy temporarily annoyed McCarthy.

But, on reflection, it appears the manager realised Quinn's intentions were good, were for the country's cause.

" The days of Ireland being happy just qualifying for a competition are over - we will be a presence now "
Niall Quinn

Ireland gave the World Cup some memorable moments on the pitch.

Like Robbie Keane's last-gasp equaliser against Germany, a goal which rescued Ireland from early oblivion.

Victory over Saudi Arabia was predicted but, even so, it meant Ireland finished the group with their best points tally in the finals.

Then came that exciting last 16 game against Spain in Suwon on Sunday. Pure edge-of-the-seat sporting drama.

McCarthy, although bitterly disappointed amidst all the might-have-beens, spoke well afterwards.

He praised his players and refusing to criticise those who had missed from the spot in a nerve-wracking penalty shoot-out.

But the mighty Quinn, whose unsettling presence had once again thrown Ireland their life-belt, more than anyone put things in perspective.

Yes it was a desperate disappointment to have gone out on penalties.

But the bigger picture was in Quinn's focus, even in the instant aftermath as microphones were thrust in front of him.

" I'm going to enjoy watching this team. They've got a great six to eight years ahead of them "
Niall Quinn

Although taking his bow from the international arena - along with Steve Staunton - the magnanimous Quinn took time out to predict a bright future for forthcoming Ireland teams.

Damien Duff and Robbie Keane had already made their mark, but there were big things to come from the likes of Stephen Reid, Colin Healy, Clinton Morrison, et al.

So fair play to Quinny, a big man on the pitch and off it as well.

Memorable moments on the pitch, yes. But two off-the-field experiences will stick with me.

The street parties as millions of Koreans celebrated their team's qualification to the last 16 were truly memorable.

But I will never forget Niall Quinn's news conference days before the tournament kicked-off.

As he told reporters about his round-the-clock attempts to find a way out of the Roy Keane impasse, there were tears in his eyes.

This was a guy who cared, really cared.

Subsequently, Niall Quinn got the chance to get on to the playing pitch, to replace his words with effective action.

He played a significant role in Ireland's latest World Cup exploits and no-one deserved it more.

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