Both Quinn's parents are from Thurles, County Tipperary. His father as well as his mother's brothers played hurling for Tipperary. He was born in Dublin. He now lives in Kildare. He is married to the Irish model, Gillian Quinn, and they have two children Aisling and Michael. Gillian Quinn is a qualified Pilates instructor. In 2011 she appeared on Celebrity Bainisteoir.
Niall Quinn played Gaelic football for the Robert Emmets club in Perrystown, Dublin 12. He also played underage football and hurling for Dublin. In July 1983, Quinn captained a Dublin Colleges GAA party on a one-month tour of Australia.
Aged 16, he played in the 1983 All-Ireland Minor Hurling Championship Final, and was offered a contract to play professional Australian rules football before settling on a career in soccer. He played Gaelic football for Co. Kildare club Eadestown after his retirement, winning a junior C county title in 2008.
"I learned my trade at Arsenal, became a footballer at Manchester City, but Sunderland got under my skin. I love Sunderland."
He played as a youth for Irish club Manortown United, which was based at Greentrees Park, adjacent to Robert Emmets GAC (it not being unusual in Dublin to play two separate codes of football). After an unsuccessful trial at Fulham he signed professional forms with English club Arsenal in 1983. He was signed as a centre-forward, but also had a brief spell as a centre-half for the Arsenal third team. After scoring 18 goals in 18 reserve matches in the first half of the 1985–86 season, Quinn was included in the first-team squad for a match against Liverpool. Quinn scored in the match as Arsenal recorded a 2–0 win. He made a further 11 league appearances for Arsenal that season, but failed to score as they finished seventh in the league. The end of the season brought Quinn his first call-up to the Republic of Ireland national team.
Quinn found himself playing under a new manager for the following season, as George Graham was appointed in place of Don Howe. Quinn had a regular place in the side that season, appearing in 35 league games and scoring eight goals. He also collected a Football League Cup winner's medal as Arsenal triumphed 2–1 over Liverpool. However, after Arsenal signed another target man, Alan Smith, in the 1987 close season, Quinn struggled to get into the team. Over the next three seasons he managed a total of just 20 league appearances and five goals – his three appearances in 1988–89 not being enough for a title medal. Quinn's lack of opportunities led him to submit a written transfer request at the start of the 1989–90 season. In total he scored 20 goals in 94 appearances for Arsenal, of which 81 were starts.
Manchester City manager Howard Kendall signed Quinn for £800,000 in March 1990, shortly before the transfer deadline. He marked his debut with a goal, in a 1–1 draw against Chelsea at Maine Road. He scored 22 times in his first full season, and he went on to spend six years at the club, scoring 78 goals in 245 appearances; his time at City was hampered by a cruciate ligament injury in 1993–94. Although he returned to the side the following season, he managed just eight goals from 35 games.
He managed a total of 193 league appearances in over six years at Maine Road, and scored a total of 64 goals for them.
His most notable game for City was 20 April 1991 when he scored early on and saved a penalty as City beat Derby County 2–1, relegating Derby in the process. City goalkeeper Tony Coton had been sent off before half time for fouling Saunders to concede the penalty. At this time teams rarely named goalkeepers as substitutes, so Quinn replaced Coton in goal. Other notable games included the Manchester derby on 7 November 1993, in which he scored twice in the first half to put City 2–0 up against United by half time, although a remarkable United comeback saw City lose 3–2.
In the 1993 close season, Everton made a bid to sign Quinn and a further bid was made early in the 1993–94 season, but both bids were rejected and Quinn remained at Maine Road for a further three seasons. A cruciate ligament injury sustained in a match against Sheffield Wednesday in November 1993 caused Quinn to miss the majority of the 1993–94 season, and prevented him from playing in the 1994 FIFA World Cup. He returned at the start of the 1994–95 season, but the partnership forged by Uwe Rosler and Paul Walsh in his absence meant he was not always a starter. In attempt to reduce the wage bill, Manchester City tried to sell Quinn in the 1995 close-season, but a proposed move to Lisbon club Sporting fell through after failure to agree contractual terms.
Quinn finished his career with a highly successful spell at Sunderland, joining the north-east club in August 1996 for a club record £1.3 million, although he missed six months of his first season due to a knee injury – similar to the one which ruined his World Cup chances three years earlier. Before his injury, he had got off to a fine start to his Sunderland career, finding the net twice on his debut in a 4–1 win at Nottingham Forest. In his absence from September to March, Sunderland struggled and although he was back in action by the end of the season, they were relegated.
His partnership with striker Kevin Phillips, signed in the 1997 close season, was one of the most prolific in the Football League in the late 1990s and helped the club to promotion to the Premiership. Quinn also has the distinction of being the first player to score at Sunderland's Stadium of Light, against Manchester City in 1997. He became a local legend at Sunderland, winning both the Sunderland and North East Sportswriters' Player of the Year awards in 1999 after scoring 21 goals in Sunderland's record-breaking Division One title-winning season. His final appearance for Sunderland came on 19 October 2002 against West Ham.
In a league career lasting 17 years, he had played a total of 475 times in the Premier League and Football League, scoring 141 goals.
Quinn played in the qualifiers for the 1986 UEFA European Under-18 Football Championship and made his Irish international debut at Republic of Ireland national under-17 football team level against Northern Ireland in the first ever fixture between the two nations at Seaview in a 6–1 friendly win in January 1985. Quinn scored a hat trick as did Eamonn Dolan. However Arsenal refused permission for Quinn to travel to the 1985 FIFA World Youth Championships.
Quinn made his senior debut as a substitute against the host nation in the Iceland Triangular Tournament in 1986, and went on to earn 92 caps . He retired as his country's all-time top scorer with 21 goals; this record was surpassed by Robbie Keane in October 2004. Quinn played for his country at two World Cups, in 1990 and 2002; he missed the 1994 FIFA World Cup because of injury. Quinn was also a member of the Irish squad that participated in the 1988 European Football Championship playing just once, as a substitute in Ireland's 1–0 win over England in Stuttgart.
Quinn scored the equaliser against the Netherlands in the 1990 World Cup which allowed Ireland to progress to the second round of that tournament. In the qualifiers for the 2002 World Cup he scored against Cyprus on his 35th birthday to break the then national goalscoring record. In the 2002 tournament, his header set up Robbie Keane's late equaliser against Germany, which was the only goal Germany conceded before the final. In the second-round, with Ireland behind 1–0 to Spain, it was a foul on Quinn that led to Ireland's last-minute penalty, converted by Robbie Keane, which tied the game and brought extra-time, but Ireland lost 3–2 in the resulting penalty-shootout.
Quinn had a testimonial match between Sunderland and the Republic of Ireland in 2002. He donated the entire proceeds to charity, an act for which he received a number of awards, including an honorary MBE. Instead of receiving an appearance fee for the game, all the players received a letter from a sick child. Quinn played for both teams during the match, which raised over £1 million. The Republic of Ireland won the match 3 – 0.
Quinn retired in 2003 at the age of 37, taking a brief coaching role at Sunderland. Quinn has also made appearances as a television pundit and commentator for televised matches involving his former teams with Sky Sports.
Quinn released an acclaimed autobiography Niall Quinn – The Autobiography (2002), which was ghostwritten by Tom Humphries. It won the Best Autobiography category in the inaugural British Sports Book Awards. It was also nominated for a William Hill Sports Book of the Year award The book is not structured chronologically, but rather in the context of Quinn's career swansong, the 2002 World Cup in South Korea and Japan.
Heading the Drumaville Consortium of wealthy Irish businessmen, in June 2006 Quinn successfully brokered a deal to buy a controlling stake in Sunderland AFC. In July 2006 Quinn became the chairman and manager of Sunderland. The deal was finalised on 27 July 2006, with sufficient shares being sold to the consortium in order for them to take complete control.
His managerial career did not get off to a good start as the team lost its first four league games in a row. On 22 August Sunderland played Bury away in the League Cup where they lost 2–0. After the match Quinn said that a new manager would be appointed by Sunderland's next game. Contrary to opinion, Niall Quinn didn't sack himself. He was in search of a world class name and stepped to one side (to continue in his role as Sunderland chairman) paving the way for Roy Keane to take charge. This was highly unexpected considering the huge rift between the two arising from Keane's infamous ejection from the 2002 World Cup. Keane was appointed manager of the club on 28 August 2006. The appointment matured into a great success, with Sunderland clinching an immediate Premier League comeback as Football League Championship champions. Quinn has also made substantial amounts of money available for buying new players, as he has a declared ambition to establish Sunderland as a top club.
In 2008, he received the James Joyce Award of the Literary & Historical Society in University College Dublin.
In 2010, Quinn was named a patron of the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation.
In October 2011 Ellis Short, the current club owner, replaced Quinn as chairman of Sunderland. Quinn was appointed as Director of International Development on behalf of the club and remained in this role until stepping down in February 2012 and after six years involved with the running of the club saying "Everything is in place for Sunderland to really make a statement, which was always my aim".
Since leaving Sunderland Quinn is now chairman of a satellite broadband company in Ireland called Q Sat.
In 2012, Quinn started commentating for Sky Sports and normally commentates alongside Martin Tyler.
Quinn has his own song titled "Niall Quinn's Disco Pants". The song was originally created by Manchester City supporters during a night out on a pre-season tour in Penola, Italy. It was 1992. There had been a bust-up with City team-mate Steve McMahon and Quinn had removed his torn and bloodied shirt and was dancing with Rick Holden wearing just a pair of cut-off jeans. He was "hardly aware" that there were a group of hardcore City fans watching and they treated him to "the first performance of the song that will follow me till the end of my career."
The song was adopted by Sunderland fans and released as a single by the club's dedicated fanzine A Love Supreme. It reached no. 56 in the UK Singles Chart in April 1999.
Quinn has received praise for his relationship with Sunderland fans. This was highlighted in March 2007 when, during his tenure as chairman, Quinn paid over £8000 to allow around 100 Sunderland fans to travel home by taxi when stranded at Bristol airport after being ejected from their scheduled flight home. The incident happened on Saturday night when Quinn, Sunderland staff and a group of supporters boarded an easyJet flight from Bristol to Newcastle, following Sunderland's 1–0 win at Championship promotion rivals Cardiff. After spotting Quinn, many of the fans broke into song, serenading Quinn with 'Niall Quinn's Disco Pants'. Easyjet staff, angered by the boisterous behaviour, ejected the fans from the plane and Quinn, outraged at the fans' treatment, also left the plane. Quinn, seeing there were no other flights available, decided to commandeer a fleet of taxis and minivans in order to return the fans home.
Club football (all competitions, including substitute appearances)Arsenal: 1983–1990, 94 games, 20 goals
Manchester City: 1990–1996 245 games, 78 goals
Sunderland: 1996–2002, 220 games, 69 goals
BEC Tero Sasana: 2006, 1 game, 0 goal
Ireland: 92 appearances, 21 goals
Scores and results list Ireland's goal tally first
Football League Cup (1): 1986–87
Football League Division 1 (1): 1998–99
North East Football Writers' Player of 1999
Beacon Fellowship Prize for his contribution to medical and children's charities, 2003