Elegant, intelligent, incisive and a match-winner; terms that can be applied to the greats of the game, and terms that unequivocally apply to Dublin’s Liam Brady. A midfielder with touch and poise ahead of his era Brady turned the swamp-like pitches of the 1970s and ’80s into a velvet red carpet with the ball at his feet. A senior career that spanned 17 years, six clubs and two countries saw him become a legend at Arsenal and a cult hero in Serie A.
Graceful in that way only left footed players seem to be, but with a decent right to boot, the midfielder joined Arsenal at the age of 15 and went on to play over 300 times for the Gunners. After enjoying a youth career with St. Kevin’s Boys, Brady took time to settle into his new surroundings, and on the back a chastening North London derby appearance was used sparingly until flourishing under the tutelage of Terry Neill.
The brightest light in an Arsenal side with a strong Southern and Northern Irish contingent, Brady played a pivotal role in their rise to genuine title contenders on home and European soil. He joined Republic of Ireland teammates David O’Leary and Frank Stapleton as well as Pat Jennings, Pat Rice and Sammy Nelson from Northern Ireland in the first team.
Despite having success Brady’s career was one of near misses as much as glory. He was part of the Arsenal team that lost out to Valencia on penalties in the 1980 Cup Winners’ Cup final. He was also on the losing side in two FA Cup finals but would avenge these failures with a virtuoso performance in the 1979 final.
Brady’s display under the twin towers of Wembley in Arsenal’s 3-2 win against Manchester United was undoubtedly his finest hour at the club. The match will forever be remembered for United’s spirited comeback and Alan Sunderland’s late winning goal. However, it was Brady’s display that clinched the cup for Neill’s side.
The United players couldn’t get near Brady in the first-half and his jinking run helped create the opener. Constantly looking to carry the ball forward, Brady found the opening for Frank Stapleton to head a second before half-time. Brushing off one challenge before jinking on to his weaker side the Irishman measured a pinpoint cross and the cup was seemingly won. Cup finals are rarely that straightforward though.
United struck twice in the last five minutes and the final looked destined to head for extra time. Just after the restart Brady took the game to United again. He collected the ball in the centre circle and beat his man before measuring a precise pass to the left flank. The cross that followed found Sunderland, who produced his famous finish at the back post.
The old cliché of the big players performing at the big moments has never been truer than in that match. Brady had guided his team in to a commanding lead and just as things looked to have slipped away picked up the ball to drive them on once more. Bravery on the ball epitomised Brady at Wembley and is a trait that formed a central part of the way he played the game.
Despite a flourishing résumé and an important influence at some of Europe’s biggest clubs, Brady never made it to a major international tournament. Regardless of this fact his displays for the Republic of Ireland were frequently exquisite. Nine goals in 72 appearances may represent a fairly sparse return but when you consider the opponents against which he struck they become very impressive.
France, Brazil, England and Holland were all on the receiving end. Brady himself described his winner against Brazil as his favourite goal, but a slaloming solo strike against France carried far greater significance, both symbolically and in terms of the match.
Still an Arsenal player at the time, Brady lined up against a France side marshalled by the superlative-inducing genius of Michel Platini. The two men’s paths would be forever intertwined as Platini succeeded Brady as the final foreign player for La Vecchia Signori. For now, though, it was Lansdowne Road and the 1978 World Cup qualification match against Les Bleus. With the scores tied at 0-0, Brady collected a loose ball on the edge of the box and with a single shimmy left three French defenders in his wake, drove into the box and fired the Republic into a surprise lead.
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Brady was an inspirational figure in Turin
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They held out for a famous victory; Brady had once again been the catalyst. He missed out on Italia 90 after retiring from international duty during the qualification campaign. Despite making himself available for selection before the tournament, manager Jack Charlton decided to allow the players that played in qualifying to go to the tournament. It was a perfectly fair decision but it remains a travesty that Brady never had the opportunity to show his prowess on the biggest stage in football.
Back to Juventus and Platini. Having impressed against the Turin club in the quarter-final of the Cup Winners’ Cup, Brady was signed for around £500,000 in 1980. He formed an integral part of Juventus’s title winning sides of 1981 and 1982 that would go onto become one of the greatest in the history of the game.
An outsider upon his arrival, you’d be forgiven for expecting Brady to struggle to adapt to life in Italy. Quite the opposite was true in fact, as the Dubliner’s laid-back personality endeared him to his team-mates and manager alike. No small feat when you consider he played alongside Roberto Bettega, Marco Tardelli and Paolo Rossi, and was managed by legendary figure Giovanni Trapattoni.
Bettega fondly recalls Brady shaking all the hands of his team-mates before a friendly. A simple act, but one that Bettega and the other Italians in the squad had not seen before; it further helped integrate Brady at the Stadio Comunale Vitorio Pozzo. Trapattoni was acutely aware of Brady’s importance too.
He said of the Irishman: “There is no doubt about it he played a really decisive role. We may have had seven or eight players in the Italian squad but it was Brady who brought experience and personality to the side. He was vital, not only was he the teams main goal scorer for two seasons but he was the chief playmaker too.”
Brady would ultimately miss out on much of the club’s glories, both in Italy and Europe, which would arrive over the following four years. The Bianconeri completed their collection of European honours and were regarded as one of the best club sides in world football.
With rules in place that prevented Italian clubs from having more than three foreign players in their squad, Brady was the fall guy in 1982 when Platini joined. Despite this fact he went out in typical – and here is that term again – match winning style. The run-in for the 1982 scudetto had pitted Juventus against Fiorentina all the way until the final day. With Juventus needing to win against Catanzaro and the scores tied they won a penalty. Step forward Brady. The ball went one way and the keeper the other; 1-0, and Juventus were champions.
Brady had been told of his departure with three games remaining in the league and had again found his finest form when it was most needed. To the rather misplaced surprise of many Italians at the time, Brady had done right by the club who felt he was no longer needed. It was typical of the man and typical of Brady as a player.
Platini went onto win the Ballon d’Or on three occasions and score the winning penalty as Juventus collected their first ever European Cup in 1985. While the Frenchman is idolised in Turin it is worth noting the special place the man he replaced holds in the Juventus fan’s hearts.
Content with life in Italy Brady had stints at Sampdoria, Inter Milan and Ascoli after leaving Juventus and finished his career back in London with West Ham United. After experiencing relegation with the Hammers, the first major failure of his playing career, he played his final professional game against Wolverhampton Wanderers on May 5, 1990.
How did Brady close the book on his glittering career? With a goal in a 4-0 win, of course. It just wouldn’t be Liam Brady if he failed to rise to the occasion.
By Harry Gray. Follow @Hgray55