Wembley Stadium, May 12, 1979. 87 minutes on the clock and half the 100,000 packed into the creaking old stadium are going wild while the other half are stunned into silence. Tears are being shed, chests are being hammered, grown adults are losing control of themselves, and heaven only knows what the next few minutes are going to bring.
Amongst the craziness, one man alone is able to keep his cool.
Midfield players come in all forms, shapes, and sizes and, depending on their particular talents, bring a wide array of skills and benefits to the table. There is the midfield general, the playmaker, the false number ten, the enforcer, and any other number of varieties, but they all have one thing in common – they are all involved in the heart of the action.
I have always had a sneaky admiration for those who ply their trade in the centre of the park, and going back to my footballing childhood and then youth in the 1970s and ’80s I would particularly hold in thrall such luminaries as Graeme Souness, Glenn Hoddle, Peter Reid, and Ray Wilkins.
A player, who perhaps was able to combine the strengths and talents of all four of these immensely talented players, whilst adding his own particular brand of creativity, was the one and only Liam Brady, most famously of Arsenal.
Liam Brady was born into a footballing family in Dublin in 1956. His great uncle, Frank Brady Snr, was an Irish international, as was his older brother, Ray. Another two older brothers, Frank and Pat, were also professional players in the 1960s and ’70s.
Signing for Arsenal and moving to London at the tender age of 15, Brady made his debut for Arsenal in the 1973-74 season, before establishing a regular starting spot the following season in a poor side that battled against relegation.
In 1976, Terry Neill was appointed manager and Don Howe returned to the club as coach. Arsenal’s fortunes started to turn on the pitch, and Brady became established as a shining light in a promising young team. Although not an imposing physical presence in the middle of the park, Brady showed grace and style all of his own. He was able to find space and time and, under Howe’s expert tutelage, began to dictate games.
The Irish influence at Highbury at the time was strong, with young players such as Republic of Ireland internationals David O’Leary and Frank Stapleton making their mark. With Graham Rix also shining in midfield alongside Brady, Arsenal seemed to have a team for the future. These players were complemented by more experienced colleagues such as Pat Jennings, Pat Rice, and Willie Young, and Arsenal’s days in the doldrums were a thing of the past.
By the 1977-78 season, relegation worries were the last thing on anyone’s mind at Highbury as Arsenal charged to the semi-finals of both domestic cup competitions. Although a narrow 2-1 defeat to Liverpool at Anfield in the first leg of the League Cup semi-final couldn’t be overturned at Highbury, success was to be had at Stamford Bridge as Arsenal overcame London neighbours, Orient, 3-0 in the semi-final of the FA Cup.
In the final, the unfancied Ipswich Town lay waiting for Brady and his teammates. In one of the famous FA Cup Final shocks of the twentieth century, Ipswich prevailed by the only goal of the game and Arsenal ended the season potless.
Fast forward one year and it’s Wembley revisited.
Arsenal have spent most of the previous 85 minutes or so toying with Manchester United in the 1979 cup final, only to have seemingly thrown it away in the last few minutes. 2-0 up and cruising, the Gunners were perhaps mentally lining up for their cup-winning photographs and planning the team celebrations at Stringfellow’s, when out of nowhere they were hit by the double-whammy of Gordon McQueen and Sammy McIlroy goals.
At 2-2 with extra time beckoning, Wembley is a cauldron.
Step forward, Liam Brady. With United’s tail up and Arsenal on the ropes, the ball fell to Brady just inside the United half. With nothing on his mind other than the need to get the ball as far away from the Arsenal goal as possible, and so give his beleaguered team-mates a brief respite, Brady started running with the ball.
As United players backed off, their collective minds perhaps already preparing for extra-time, Brady kept his cool and calmly picked out Graham Rix on the left-wing. A hopeful yet rather aimless punt into the box seemed to simply hand the ball back to United, but ‘keeper Gary Baily, suffering from a case of Wembley Walkabout, completely misjudged the flight of the ball and Alan Sunderland had the simplest of tasks to prod the ball home for the winner.
Having had a hand in all three of Arsenal’s goals, Brady was acknowledged as the Man of the Match in most people’s eyes, and the following season, 1979-80, saw Brady’s stock rise even higher. By now considered one of Europe’s finest talents, Brady began what was to prove to be his last season at Highbury.
As Arsenal challenged for a top-three place in the league, they also made progress once again in the FA Cup as well as the European Cup Winners’ Cup. As winter turned to spring, rumours abounded that Brady would leave Highbury at the conclusion of the season. Although still only 24, Brady had played more than 300 games for Arsenal by this point and was a sought after commodity in footballing terms.
April 1980 saw Brady and Arsenal play a total of six cup semi-finals as Liverpool and Juventus were eventually overcome in the FA and ECW cups. The 2-1 aggregate victory over the Turin giants would have particular resonance a few weeks later.
A 70 game season eventually took its toll, though, and two cup final defeats in the space of five days in May meant Arsenal once again had nothing to show for their season’s efforts. By now, though, Brady was looking ahead in a personal capacity.
Seemingly thinking he was bound for West Germany and perhaps Bayern Munich, Brady had been taking German lessons for some time. He was, therefore, somewhat nonplussed to learn that a move to the Bundesliga was not, in fact, on the cards. Instead, it was Serie A that beckoned.
Impressed by Brady’s performance over their two-legged semi-final clash, Juventus made an offer for the Dublin man and so it was that Brady left Highbury in the summer of 1980 after nine years.
Other players had gone abroad before, of course, – some with more success than others – but Liam Brady was unique in that rather than having a couple of years at most in a foreign climate, he stayed in Italy for almost seven years and played for four clubs in that time. In doing so, he cemented his place as one of the top midfield players in the world.
At the time, Serie A was the place to be for the world’s greatest players, and as well as quadrupling his Arsenal salary at a stroke, Brady developed as a player in ways that he perhaps wouldn’t have done had he stayed in England at that time.
Two years at Juventus were accompanied by Serie A league title wins each season, before Juventus somewhat surprisingly announced they were signing Michel Platini and so Brady would be surplus to requirements. Unwilling to sell Brady to Roma, a club considered to be a rival, Juventus agreed to let Brady go to newly promoted Sampdoria instead. Paired with Trevor Francis, Brady spent another two seasons with Sampdoria before moving onto Inter Milan and then, finally, Ascoli.
In total Brady played almost seven seasons in Italy before returning to London in the spring of 1987. Almost since the day he left Arsenal, there had been rumours of a Highbury return. Every time Brady’s contract ran down in Italy, Arsenal were reported to being of the brink of re-signing their former hero and in 1986 it finally had looked a done deal. By now Don Howe had replaced Terry Neill as manager and as a long-established admirer of Brady, looked all set to complete his signing as Brady’s contract at Inter ran down.
Then, however, Howe was sacked and George Graham was installed in his stead. Graham wanted to build a younger side, and so all interest on Brady was promptly dropped and so instead of returning to England, he signed for Ascoli.
When Brady did return to London a year later it was to play out an Indian Summer at West Ham. In three seasons at Upton Park, Brady was to play another 100 plus games before finally retiring from football in May 1990.
In total Brady played 72 times, scoring nine goals, in a sixteen-year international career with the Republic of Ireland and yet never played in the finals of a major tournament even though his playing career coincided with Ireland’s appearances at the 1988 European Championships and 1990 World Cup.
In 1986 Jack Charlton was appointed manager of the Republic of Ireland and set about creating a team in his own image. Although Brady was a regular in the side in Charlton’s first two seasons, it was an open secret that the two men didn’t see eye-to-eye on several points.
In 1987 with Ireland battling for qualification for the European Championships, they took on Bulgaria. Unfortunately, the match did not go well for Brady who managed to get himself sent off. As he left the pitch, he inexplicably felt moved to make a vulgar gesture in the direction of the referee. This display of petulance resulted in Brady being handed a three-match ban, effectively ruling him out of the finals.
There was still a call in certain quarters for Charlton to name Brady in the squad for the finals anyway, with the reasoning being that should Ireland qualify from the group stages, Brady would be eligible to play in the knock-out rounds. Charlton, however, refused to do so.
Brady still played for Ireland after Euro ’88, but following a humiliating substitution against West Germany in 1989, he declared his retirement from the international scene.
As the Italia ’90 finals approached, Brady once again made himself available for selection but Charlton declared that only players who had appeared in the final qualifying stages would be considered.
After retiring as a player, a year spent as a football agent was followed by brief forays into management. Firstly at Celtic and then at Brighton and Hove Albion, Brady found the going tough in the dug-out. His two years in charge at Parkhead are not particularly fondly remembered by the Celtic faithful as they coincided with the middle years of Rangers’ ‘Nine in a Row’ title wins and not one trophy was secured during this time.
Following a similar dispiriting spell in charge at the Goldstone Ground, Brady finally returned to Highbury, his spiritual home, in 1996. He would then spend the next 18 years heading up Youth Development at Arsenal before retiring in 2014.