Thursday, December 14, 2006

On Football - No. 3 : Liam Brady



Liam Brady may well be the greatest Irish footballer ever. There is a small pool of contenders for that title, perhaps four once we exclude George Best on the grounds that he was from Northern Ireland, and not the Republic.
There is Liam Brady, and there are Roy Keane, Paul McGrath and Johnny Giles. Brady was probably the most skilled of the four, perhaps the only true magician to ever play in the Ireland team. Gifted with a sublime left foot, Brady was a creative midfielder, a Number 10 who actually played wearing Number 7, and the talisman for Ireland, Arsenal and Juventus in the late 70s and early 80s.

He went to the same school as me (as did the current Irish Prime Minister) but when I attended, the rumour always was that Brady, easily the pupil's favourite past-pupil, had been expelled. It was a Christian Brothers School, very seriously G.A.A (meaning it enthusiastically promoted Gaelic games and tried to dissuade pupils from playing "English" games like soccer), and back in the 60s and 70s, that may even have resulted in disciplinary measures being taken against anyone who preferred to play football over Gaelic Football or hurling. But Dublin is a city in love with football, and in the 60s and 70s it produced a stream of players who thrived once they had moved to England. Brady came from a strong football family - his brothers played for QPR and Millwall, and his uncle had played - and was spotted by an Arsenal scout playing for St. Kevins Boys, a Dublin schoolboy institution. He signed for Arsenal in 1970, aged 15, and made his first-team debut at 17.

His game was built on his passing. He had a lovely first touch, and he was one of those midfielders who never seemed rushed, who always seemed to find himself in space, and who rarely gave the ball away. His long passing was as good as his short, and altough he obviously favoured his left foot, he did not really have a weak foot - he could pass and shoot with his right too. His skill demanded that every move passed through him and so he dominated games. Irish players generally possess a combatativeness and hunger in the challenge that helps them settle quickly in the British game, and Brady was no different. Though he had a slight build, he was sharp in the tackle, nipping the ball off opponents and covering a lot of ground for a ball-playing midfielder. He was the best player in an otherwise mediocre Arsenal side between 1974 and 1980, and was voted PFA player of the year in 1979, the same year in which Arsenal won the FA Cup, beating Man Utd 3-2 in a famously thrilling final. Brady, or "Chippy" to his teammates, started the move that led to the winning goal, of course.

He is also fondly remembered by Arsenal fans for this goal, scored against Spurs in a 5-0 win, typical of his class and mastery, but also illustrating his nice tackling :



But he grew tired of what he perceived as Arsenal's lack of ambition. In 1980, Arsenal played Juventus in the semi-finals of the Cup Winners Cup, and Brady enjoyed what he later called his greatest ever game in Turin, where the Italians were defeated 1-0. In the first leg at Highbury, Marco Tardelli had been sent off for repeatedly fouling Brady. Arsenal lost on penalties to Valencia in the final, but Juve had been impressed enough to buy him for £600,000 and make him one of their first foreign signings after the Italian game was opened up to imports. Brady had almost joined Man Utd for £1.5 million, in what would have been a British record transfer, but he felt he needed a new challenge beyond the English game.

At the time it was unusual for British or Irish players to go abroad, but it is indicative of Brady's class that a club of Juventus' stature was interested in him and of his intelligence that he was so eager to go. The only recent English player to succeed on the continent had been Kevin Keegan, who had led Hamburg to a Bundesliga title and European Cup Final. But the German game resembled the English game in its pace and physicality, whereas the Italian game was slower and more tactical. Brady may have suspected that given the technical quality of his style, he would fit in perfectly.

He quickly became Juventus' key player and pivotal to them winning the Serie A title for two consecutive seasons, scoring 13 goals in his 57 games. Near the end of the 1982 season, there were rumours that Michel Platini was to be the clubs big Summer signing, and given that he played in the same position as Brady - and even had a similar style - and that his presence would mean there were more than the Italian limit of 2 foreigners at the club, Brady feared for his future. He was informed that he would be sold in the close-season, but even with this knowledge, Brady took the crucial penalty in the final game of that season away to Cantanzaro and Juventus won 1-0, pipping Fiorentina to the title by a single point.
Brady moved on, first to newly-promoted Sampdoria (82-84), then to Inter Milan (84-86) and Ascoli (86-87). He finally returned to London to play for West Ham until injury forced him to retire in 1990. In Italy, he is remembered as one of the best foreign imports ever to play in the country, and one of the few players from the British Isles to succeed in the Italian game.

He was unlucky to play for Ireland during a long poor spell for the teams international fortunes. Despite the quality of players Ireland exported to the English game, the Irish team was forever narrowly missing out on qualification to the Major tournaments, generally at the hands of a bigger Football Nation. Twice in the 1970s, once with Brady in the side, Ireland were closely eliminated by the USSR. For the 1982 World Cup Qualifiers, Irelands group included Platini's France, a Holland in the process of rebuilding, a young and dangerous Belgian team and Cyprus. But this was possibly the greatest ever Irish team in terms of sheer talent, with players from most of England's major clubs represented, including the likes of David O'Leary, Frank Stapleton, Ronnie Whelan, Kevin Moran, Paul McGrath, Mark Lawrenson and Tony Galvin, all of whom played for either Man Utd, Arsenal, Liverpool or Spurs. Ireland lost two matches in that group, one of those a 1-0 defeat in Brussels when a goal was controversially disallowed, the other in Paris. The final match was against France at Lansdowne Road and Ireland won an amazing game 3-2, only to miss out on qualification to the French on goal difference. That French side would reach the semi-finals in Spain and two years later became European Champions.

When success finally did come to the Irish team, Brady was reaching the end of his career. He played in the qualifiers for the 1988 European championships, but his relationship with new manager Jack Charlton was strained. Charlton liked his Ireland side to play a pressure game, pumping long balls directly towards tall strikers and constantly harrassing the opposition when they had the ball. It was ugly, but it worked against continental teams who were used to being given time and space to play their football. But it wasted Brady's talent for moving the ball fluidly and imaginitively and for bringing his teammates into the play. Nonetheless, Brady was too great a talent for Charlton to ignore, and he played in the qualifiers until his way with a sharp tackle got him sent off in the final game against Bulgaria, earning him a suspension for the first two games of the tournament. As it happened, Brady was injured playing for West Ham shortly afterwards, and his injury would have ruled him out anyway. He played his last game for Ireland in a friendly against West Germany in 1989, before qualification for the 1990 World Cup had been secured. There was always the sense that Charlton was glad to see the back of him, and indeed he substituted him early in that match, for which Brady bitterly resented him. Its a horrible irony - and not unlike that of George Best with Northern Ireland - that Ireland's greatest ever talent never got to play for his country in the greatest tournament.

But he was the country's most successful footballer before Roy Keane, and the first to succeed on the Continent, where so many others from the British game would fail. He also scored this winning goal, his ninth in his 72 internationals, against Brazil in Dublin in 1987. I was at that match, and even then there was a sense that he was the best we had ever had, and maybe would ever have, and the crowd celebrated this goal accordingly :


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5 Comments:

Blogger daveysomethingfunny said...

For me this is the best in the series so far...a footballer I've heard touted about but know NOTHING about.

Well at least now I know a little bit. I can't belive he's not on pro evo.

12:24 am  
Blogger David N said...

You, my friend, are probably a bit too young to remember him. Arsenal fans of a certain generation just about genuflect at the mention of his name.
He was - very unsuccessfully - manager at Celtic and some no-mark South coast club in the 90s. Now he's head of Youth Development at Arsenal and a pundit on Irish TV. Oh how our midfield could do witha player like him now...

what inactive Irish players ARE on Pro Evo, Keane aside?

12:47 am  
Blogger daveysomethingfunny said...

Niall Quinn and Jason McAteer both made it, maybe by association with a no-mark club from the north east coast.

Oh yeah. Denis Irwin also.

It makes no sense I know.

12:51 am  
Blogger jamesinbrasil said...

well dave, you had to get in before me didn't you? we Brighton fans have a slighly different perspective on Brady. i remember when he took over at brighton in 93, it was exciting, here was a true football legend managing our team. brighton may be the greatest team in the history of association football, and we have had some great players (Billy Wright, Peter Ward, Mark Lawrenson, and yes Bobby Zamora) but we don't have any legends (but then not many teams do i suppose). unfortunately it didn't go well for him. he joined at the worst time, when our heinous former chairman started to run our club into the ground. in fact he left because he disagreed with what was happening to the club.

he even once led an unsuccessful consortium to buy the club, and has remained involved to this day, so there must be something he liked about us!

12:21 am  
Blogger jamesinbrasil said...

and please don't talk about pro evo, it makes me jealous

12:23 am  

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