Reflecting on the storied careers of Irish soccer greats, Green Giants is a feature that will be written by SWAI members, tapping into their knowledge, experience and interaction with some of the best players to pull on a Republic of Ireland jersey.
The first profile is on former midfielder Liam Brady.
By Sean Ryan
In life, as in sport, timing is everything, and the timing of my move into sports journalism in July 1970 couldn’t have worked out better. Moving from a role as editor of a provincial newspaper to a position as a sports sub-editor with the Irish Independent, I had to take a pay cut, but within a year my wages were practically doubled overnight.
Then there was the matter of my writing, a discipline I had enjoyed in my previous newspapers, but which wasn’t included in my brief as a sub-editor. I put my thinking cap on and came up with the idea of a column called ‘The Irish in England’. The idea was accepted by sports editor Mitchel Cogley.
Now all I needed was a long list of contacts who would keep me tuned into the weekly achievements of Irish players in English football. Coming as I did from a Gaelic football background, I had no list of contacts, so native cunning took over. I realised that the Irish youths were the seniors of the future, and started to give them my attention. It was like striking gold.
For a start, there was the ever-helpful manager Charlie Walker and then there was the explosion of great talent which came to the fore in the early 70’s – Dave Langan, Frank Stapleton, David O’Leary, Don O’Riordan, Tony Grealish, John Anderson, Pierce O’Leary, and a kid named Liam Brady. If it was always like that, the column would write itself.
With access to the players via the manager, I found it was no problem getting phone numbers. These were young lads with a future and they wanted the Irish public to know how well they were doing, so the column worked for them as much it did for them.
Within his firmament, the brightest star was, of course, Brady, a gifted playmaker with a magical left foot. His pedigree was something special as well, as his grand-uncle Frank and his older brother Ray had both been capped for Ireland, while another brother, Pat, was a regular at Millwall and QPR alongside Ray between 1959 and 1964.
Brady was the baby of this footballing family, born 20 years after Pat, but there was never any doubt that he was special. From his schoolboy days with St Kevin’s Boys, the scouts were hot on his trail, and eventually Bill Darby and Gordon Clarke persuaded him to throw in his lot with Arsenal – helped by the fact that his brothers lived in London and could keep an eye on him.
From the first time he wore the Ireland jersey as a schoolboy until his last game in 1990, there has probably never been anyone so committed to the cause. In fact, it was often felt that he tried so hard that he was drained before the final 10 or 15 minutes of games. One observer recalled to me how, in the dressing room after a game, you could wring the sweat from his jersey.
He became a true giant of Irish football, captain of his country, and in 1980, the country’s most famous export when he left Arsenal for Italy’s most popular club, Juventus. All this was in the future when I started to phone him in his digs in North London for my weekly column.
Our talk initially was about Arsenal’s progress in the FA Youth Cup, and how the other Irish lads at Highbury – Stapleton, O’Leary and future rugby international Johnny Murphy – were doing. They all seemed to be young men in a hurry and before long our conversations were about first-team performances, playing in the FA Cup final, and international experiences.
By then I had moved to the Sunday Independent and had scope to write feature articles. When Brady, after helping Arsenal to the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup final in 1980, was transferred to Juventus, I was assigned to travel to Italy and write about his introduction to La Dolce Vita.
Brady was the perfect host and that was the start of my love affair with Italy. For the rest of that season, I was the ghost writer as he related his exploits en route to helping Juve win the Scudetto, including scoring a penalty which clinched the trophy in their final game in Catanzarro. He was a big hit in Turin and played a key role in Juve retaining their title, but he was then transferred to Sampdoria to make way for French star Michel Platini.
Further moves to Inter Milan and Ascoli followed before he returned to English football with West Ham United. All this time he was a key figure in the Ireland team, first under John Giles and then Eoin Hand, before finishing his international career under Jack Charlton.
With Ireland, there were more days of disappointment than joy, as goals were mysteriously disallowed against Bulgaria, France and Belgium, and it seemed that qualification for European Championships or World Cup finals would never be achieved. Fortunately, Charlton changed all that as Ireland qualified for Euro ’88 but Brady never really fit into the manager’s style of play that went over midfield rather than through it.
However, his final game in that Euro ’88 qualifying campaign was personal triumph for Brady, even if it had a bittersweet ending, as he saw red for a retaliating to a cynical Bulgarian foul. The famous picture of Charlton with a consoling arm across the departing player lives in the memory. It is almost as if Charlton had finally come to accept the Dubliner for the great player he was.
A four-match ban, later reduced to two, effectively put Brady out of the Euro ’88 finals, a stage he surely deserved to grace, but a cruciate injury suffered while playing for West Ham ended any remaining hope he may have harboured. If ever life seemed unfair, so it was for Brady, denying him the finale he merited.
By the time Italia ’90 came around, Andy Townsend had taken his place in Charlton’s affections and Brady’s hopes of a return to the scene of his former triumphs were dashed. His international career had spanned nearly 16 years and up to his red card against Bulgaria in 1987, he only missed 21 games, of which only three were competitive fixtures.
Brady left a rich legacy of memorable displays in the green jersey, ever since that Wednesday afternoon, October 30, 1974, when player/manager Giles gave him his debut and promptly illustrated his confidence in his young protege by passing the ball straight to him from the kick-off. It was as though Giles was saying: ‘Away you go’.
In the pantheon of great Irish players, Brady sits comfortably alongside his mentor Giles and the irrepressible Roy Keane. Truly, we were blessed to see him in action.