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'We were seven Irishmen taking on the world - Brady was our Platini’

This is half-forgotten story of how seven Irish footballers and their Irish manager went on a three-month adventure that ended up with Arsenal becoming one of the best teams in Europe.

'Liam Brady was as good as anyone in the world'.
'Liam Brady was as good as anyone in the world'.
Image: Allsport/INPHO

THE BEST PLACE to start is the bus journey. John Devine was 21-years-old when he took his seat on that coach, staring out the window at all these angry faces, black and white shirts on their backs; hate in their eyes.

When he’s alone, he often thinks back to that night and the noxious tang of gas that hung in the Turin air. Forty years on he understands this life now, aware of how football has the power to turn broad Italian avenues into streets of hate.

But back then he didn’t have the wisdom that comes from six decades of living. He was still finding his way in April 1980 when Terry Neill pulled him aside. Right place, right time, right-back.

Against a soundtrack of police sirens and smashing glass, the Arsenal team bus sneaked its way through the Turin traffic, on its way along with 66,386 people to the Stadio Comunale, a venue where no British team had won in 25 years. But that’s precisely the point. That particular Arsenal team was English in address only. Its accent was distinctly Irish.

Liam Brady sat next to Devine a few rows back on the driver’s side. “Liam was the best player I ever played with,” Devine says. “That burst of acceleration he had, it took him away from people, always leaving you with the impression he had space on the ball. I don’t care what anyone says – Liam was as good as (Michel) Platini, as talented as any player in the world.”

David O’Leary was in the row in front, sitting alongside Belfast’s Pat Rice. “Pat was the ultimate pro, disciplined, thoughtful. David, listen ‘til I tell you, David O’Leary was a 1980 version of Virgil van Dijk – a Rolls Royce of a defender.” Pat Jennings was older, quieter, a Newry man. “Hell of a keeper, even better bloke,” Devine says. Jennings sat next to Frank Stapleton, the man Arsenal fans voted player of the year in that ‘79/80 season. “No one gives Frank the credit he deserves for the career he had,” says Devine.

Nor does anyone give enough credit for the season these Irishmen and their Irish manager had. It ended without a trophy yet you can’t call them losers, not when you consider what they achieved. Here are a few highlights. In a four-game FA Cup semi-final epic, they beat Liverpool – European Cup winners in 1977, 1978 and 1981.

arsenal-v-liverpool-johnson Arsenal eventually prevailed in a four-game Cup saga against Liverpool. Source: PA

“I still remember it,” Devine says. “Sitting in this big communal bath at Highbury, little battery-powered radio on the shelf, Cup draw being made live on Radio 2, this polite BBC voice, calling out the names. ‘And Liverpool will play (pause) Arsenal’. Soon as I heard that name, I turned to Graham Rix. ‘We’ll take them this time’.”

They did. In that season Arsenal ended up playing 70 games with a skeletal squad, 19 players used, some sparingly, three rarely. And yet still Nottingham Forest, back-to-back European Cup winners in ’79 and ‘80, finished behind them in the league. This was also the year Arsenal were too good for Ipswich Town, the following season’s UEFA Cup winners. Then there was IFK Goteborg, Ipswich’s successors in 1982. Arsenal thumped them 5-1.

And there was this night, 23 April, 1980 when a Juventus team containing four players who would go on to win the 1982 World Cup were beaten by a side populated by six Irishmen. “That year, those months, March, April, May 1980, we became one of the very best teams in Europe,” says Devine. “It was an English club but it was pretty much an Irish team. North, south – I’m not a political man. We were all from the same island. We never once mentioned backgrounds. Sammy Nelson, Pat Rice – they were just like me, sons of hard-working parents, fellas who wanted to better themselves. We took on the world, the seven of us. And we nearly got there.”

**

This is a story of two halves – with a little bit of extra-time thrown in. That 1979/1980 campaign was a dark year in Irish politics, Arsenal’s draw with Manchester United in the third game of the season coming two days before the Warrenpoint massacre and Mountbatten assassination, when 22 people died on a sunny Monday afternoon. The death toll persisted throughout the year, an explosion on a train in Dunmurry killing two innocent people. Two days later, Arsenal beat Derby 2-0.

“We just never spoke about anything like that,” Devine says. “Look, I don’t know what (religion) Sammy (Nelson), Pat (Rice) or Pat (Jennings) are. It doesn’t matter to me. They’re people, great, special people.

soccer-fa-cup-semi-final-third-replay-arsenal-v-liverpool Belfast's Pat Rice celebrates Arsenal's winning goal in the third replay. Source: EMPICS Sport

“Football dressing-rooms, they’re complex places in a way. Sammy, Pat (Rice) and I were rivals, three people fighting for two spots in the team. So you have this understanding. You are ruthlessly competing against one another but at the same time, you are desperately reliant on each other, too. They’re next to you when the glass bottles are being fired at you (at Juventus), the ones you’re bunkering in with in that stadium’s dressing room for an extra half-hour – because we’re told it’s not safe enough yet to leave.

“I’m not just saying this for the sake of it – because I really mean it – but if I was asked to help Sammy Nelson, Pat Rice or any of those Arsenal boys now, I’d walk over broken glass to do it for them. They’re special men. Politics? It never came into the conversation. We were footballers. We couldn’t change things.”

But they did. The normalisation of these north/south friendships had a deep and lasting effect even if cross-border friendships weren’t confined to Arsenal. When Manchester United won their first European Cup, Tony Dunne, Shay Brennan and George Best drank the same champagne. United’s 1985 FA Cup win is as warmly remembered for Norman Whiteside’s winner as it is for Stapleton’s emergency stint as a centre-half alongside Paul McGrath after Kevin Moran was sent off.

Liverpool’s league and European Cup winning teams from 1976 to 1990 were also heavily influenced by Irish voices. But there were never as many as seven Irishmen in a match-day squad for any of their major finals. That’s why Arsenal’s 1980 FA Cup final was so remarkable. Belfast’s Terry Neill was the first man to walk down the Wembley tunnel, the only Irish manager to ever win the FA Cup.

After him, Belfast’s Rice and Nelson came next, then Newry’s Jennings, followed by Dublin’s Devine, Brady, O’Leary and Stapleton. One team, six Irishmen starting, another a sub.

west-ham-v-arsenal-fa-cup-1980 Devine (left) helps O'Leary tackle Trevor Brooking. Source: PA

“You’ve no idea how special a time that was,” says Peter Carbery, an Arsenal season-ticket holder from Kerry and Kildare stock who grew up in London in this era.

“Nothing had been done to build on the (1970/71) double winners, then all of a sudden all these young lads emerged, Brady/Stapleton/O’Leary first – Devine later. They were Dubs and weren’t just holding their own, they were thriving. Until then, great Irish players had been elsewhere – United mainly.

“Now, they were at your club. Sammy Nelson, Pat Rice, Pat Jennings, we weren’t differentiating between north and south, indulging in the nitty-gritty of politics, when we looked at them. We were Irish, we were Arsenal fans, and this team kept beating the best in Europe, Juventus, Liverpool, anyone who stood in front of them.”

This week, 40 years ago, was when it started. In a seven-day period, they beat Stoke away in the league, hammered Goteborg 5-1 in the Cup Winners Cup quarter-final first leg and then knocked Watford out of the FA Cup to set up their four-game saga with Liverpool. If March was busy, April and May were worse. They played 21 times in 66 days, losing just once, prior to their two Cup finals. “There wasn’t squad rotation,” Devine says. “You’d only 15 or 16 to call on, plus a couple of kids.”

But the kids were alright. Paul Davis made his debut during this run. He’d become a club legend. Then, in Turin, an 18-year-old local boy, Paul Vaessen, was sent for with 15 minutes to go. “A 0-0 draw would have put us out on the away-goals rule,” Vaessen said in an interview with the News of the World in 1994. “That was the score when coach Don Howe sent me on. I remember him saying, “Go on Paul, knock one in for us.” And I replied, “Yeah, OK”.’

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Source: sp1873/YouTube

Vaessen did what he was told. Juventus were knocked out and Arsenal were in the Cup Winners Cup final, a competition that held a lot more prestige then than the Europa League does now. It was something worth celebrating and the Arsenal players – according to Vaessen – did their bit. “The champagne was out in the bar that night,” he said in that interview. “We sang and laughed. The adrenaline buzz was fantastic. A few of the lads were driving around the hotel grounds on a tractor at four in the morning.”

They were driving everywhere in those weeks. To Turin that Wednesday, Highbury three days later, Hillsborough 48 hours after that, then to Coventry twice in three days, with another crucial league game pencilled in two days later. Twelve days, six games.

Tough times? Devine didn’t think so. After Kenny Dalglish scored a last minute equaliser in game three of their Liverpool saga, he thought about his parents before extra-time kicked off, the sacrifices his mother made when Devine’s grandmother died from TB at a young age. Eileen Devine was building a fine career as a professional singer in England when her mother passed, giving all that up to return home and fill the maternal void.

Suddenly that thought came into Devine’s head as he waited for extra-time to begin. The more seasoned Arsenal players were deflated, Devine the one who stood up to become a leader.

On the journey to Highfield Road for the third replay, three days later, more memories came flooding back, delivering coal with his father, Pop Devine, on a horse and cart around Church Street, the road John Giles also grew up in.

He remembered sitting in Pop’s front room with his two brothers and sister, watching the 1972 and 1973 FA Cup finals. Now he was one game away from playing in one. Fatigue disappeared. That third replay, when Liverpool were finally beaten, was the best day of his career.

Suddenly it was May and this Anglo/Irish march towards greatness was reaching its destination. But they never got there. They’d lose to West Ham in the FA Cup final, lose to Valencia four days later in the Cup Winners Cup final, lose the race for third and a place in Europe a week after that.

The dream had disappeared and so, that summer, had Brady. Rice got moved on in November, Stapleton was lured to Old Trafford the following May, Devine lasting just three more years at Highbury, before he too left.

“Liam loved Arsenal and would have stayed for a hell of a lot less than Juventus were offering him,” Devine says. “The club just cashed in. Had we held onto him, we could have built on that season, could have been a great team for a long, long time.”

john-devine These days Devine works as a coach in California. Source: James Crombie

Instead, a decade that began with them beating Juventus, dipped alarmingly to take in defeats to York City and Walsall. Neill got sacked, Jennings got old; Nelson got sold. By 1986, eight had become one, O’Leary the sole survivor from that sunbright, compelling spring, when a team led and packed with Irishmen, took on the world. “We didn’t quite get there,” Devine says, from his Californian home. “But I can live with myself comfortably. Seven Irish players in a 12-man Arsenal squad on FA Cup final day! That was an achievement.”

It’ll never be seen again.

About the author:

Garry Doyle

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