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The Irish teen sensation who joined Liverpool in their '80s pomp

Brian Mooney chats to The42 about his early days at Anfield, becoming a cult hero with Preston and why a big move to Sunderland didn’t work out.

Ireland's Brian Mooney pictured during a B international against England in 1990.
Ireland's Brian Mooney pictured during a B international against England in 1990.
Image: Billy Stickland/INPHO

AS AN ASPIRING young footballer, Brian Mooney must have felt he had the world at his feet.

After a couple of years playing for Elm Mount, the local team in his native Beaumont, in addition to a year with famed Dublin schoolboy outfit Home Farm, he made the move across the water.

At various points in his schoolboy career, Mooney was wanted by Everton, Arsenal and Manchester United. However, his father Gerry– who himself played as a goalkeeper in the League of Ireland with Shamrock Rovers and won a schoolboy cap playing alongside Johnny Giles — insisted that he stayed in Ireland to complete the Leaving Cert.

Having to wait did not deter Mooney, who was confident a deal would go through regardless of the delay.

“I sort of knew I was always going to go over, because I could have gone from the time I was 14 or 15,” he tells The42.

I wasn’t too disappointed [with my father's decision]. I always knew I was going to end up over there and I was enjoying my football in Ireland.” 

Ultimately, Mooney chose Liverpool, moving there in 1983. The Reds were by far the dominant side in English football during that era. In the 1980s alone, they won six league titles, two FA Cups, four League Cups and two European Cups.

The 17-year-old Dubliner joined at the same time as fellow Home Farm youth product Ken DeMange.

Around this period, Mooney also represented Ireland in both the 1983 and 1984 Uefa European U18 Football Championship, with the Boys in Green getting as far as the semi-finals in the latter competition.

He was also part of the Ireland team that reached the 1985 Fifa World Youth Championship, scoring amid a 4-2 loss to Spain and failing to emerge from a difficult group that included Brazil and Saudi Arabia.

Denis Irwin, Niall Quinn, Liam O’Brien, John Sheridan and Martin Russell were among the youngsters he played with, while Liam Tuohy was the manager and Brian Kerr his assistant.

In attempting to break into the Liverpool first team, however, Mooney faced his biggest test. There was a considerable Irish contingent there — Jim Beglin, Ronnie Whelan, Steve Staunton and Jim Magilton were all part of the club in that era.

“I was over there [in England] 10 years, and I don’t think I ever really [adapted]. I always wanted to come home,” he says.

“But I suppose it was a bit overwhelming. You arrived over and you’re in the dressing room with Graeme Souness, Kenny Dalglish and Alan Hansen. They were winning everything at that stage, including the European Cup.

“You’re watching these guys on television and then you’re ending up training with them.”

soccer-canon-league-division-one-liverpool-v-manchester-united Joe Fagan (right) was Liverpool manager when Mooney arrived at the club. Source: S&G and Barratts/EMPICS Sport

Mooney arrived at Liverpool just after Joe Fagan replaced the legendary Bob Paisley as manager. The squad was full of world-class stars and training was not for the faint-hearted.

“They mixed the reserves in with the first team. Back in the day at Liverpool, a lot of the training was played at five-a-side, the pass-and-move-type football. I think they were one of the first English teams to play that type of football, that’s why they were so successful in Europe.

“You wouldn’t want to be shirking responsibility, or you’d want to be up for the fight. There was huge competition for places, as you can imagine.

“I think in the five seasons I was there, we won the reserve league four times. There were internationals playing in the reserves, like Sammy Lee and Paul Walsh. 

“Training sessions would be nearly like full-on matches. You wouldn’t be going through the motions, you’d be putting it in.

“And it was very difficult for a young lad to break into a side with that great success behind them.”

First-team opportunities proved scarce, but Mooney did get a chance in a 1986 League Cup tie against Fulham, by which point Kenny Dalglish had taken over from Fagan as manager.

I think he was just giving me a chance, because they’d won the first leg 10-0. He blooded a few of the young lads in the away leg. We won 3-2 on the night.

“But it was still nice to play in the first team at Liverpool when they were so successful, and say you’ve played with all those lads.”

That anomaly aside, Mooney increasingly began to realise he would have to look elsewhere for first-team football.

He had a successful loan stint at fourth tier Wrexham, but it did not make a significant difference to how he was perceived at Liverpool.

Another loan move followed, this time to third division Preston. Mooney impressed manager John McGrath and ended up signing there on a permanent deal worth £25,000.

“I was coming on 22 at that stage. You get a bit fed up playing in the reserves. I could still live in Liverpool — I had a lot of friends and family there. We sort of commuted down from Preston and I did well there and had probably the most positive memories of my time over in England. 

“I prefer not to look back. Or I try to look back with fond memories and more positives. I’m happy to be living back in Ireland. I’ve had a good career. You need maybe the luck of the draw or someone to get injured in your position. You need an opportunity to get in the team and then to take your chance when it comes. I felt that never really happened for me at Liverpool. At the time, they were winning everything. They were winning the league, they were winning the European Cup. Then, during the summer, they signed more internationals, so it was very hard to break in.”

kenny-dalglish Dalglish became Liverpool's player-manager and gave Mooney a starting spot in a League Cup tie. Source: PA

While Mooney struggled to make an impact at Anfield, the opposite was true of his three and a half years with Preston, where he was known as ‘King of the Plastic’ — a reference to the plastic pitch installed at Deepdale. He was their official player of the year in the 1988–89 season and in a 2005 BBC Sport vote for the club’s all-time cult heroes, only former England international Tom Finney — widely regarded as one of football’s greatest ever players — got a bigger percentage of the vote.

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“I’ve still a close relationship with the club,” he adds. “I was only over there recently, just before the lockdown, and they were going well in the Championship with a good chance of getting in the play-offs.

“I’d say I hit the ground running [when I joined]. I’d been playing with Liverpool reserves and the reserve league was very competitive.

You’re stepping down a couple of leagues and the type of football that the manager was playing suited me down to the ground. They had one of the first plastic pitches over there. That surface suited my game, because I was a dribbler of the ball. Back in the day, the pitches were unpredictable, they weren’t like the pitches now. You could play on a good pitch one week and a dreadful pitch the next. It’s hard to dribble the ball on a poor surface.”

Mooney’s form was so impressive around this time that Jack Charlton was considering including him in Ireland’s 1990 World Cup squad. The Irish coach was not averse to picking lower-tier players — of those that did ultimately make the Italia ’90 squad, team captain Mick McCarthy, Kevin Moran, Bernie Slaven, John Sheridan, Frank Stapleton, David Kelly, Alan McLoughlin and Gerry Peyton all played their football outside the top flight.

“I was capped all the way up — U21, U23 and then up to B international,” Mooney recalls. “One of my favourite games was an Irish B international just before the 1990 World Cup against England. We beat the English side 4-1 at Turner’s Cross and they had a very strong side out — David Seaman in goals, Tony Adams was playing, Lee Dixon. They had pretty much a full First Division team and we beat them well — Niall Quinn scored two on the night — so that was very fun.

“Then I actually got called into the Irish first-team squad just before the 1990 World Cup. Unfortunately, Preston had an important game [amid an ultimately successful battle against relegation] and I didn’t go over. It was against Soviet Union, a friendly. Then the opportunity never really arose again after that, because that was one of the strongest Irish teams ever. It was poor timing.

“It wasn’t unrealistic [to expect a call-up] and I think Jack Charlton mentioned me in his autobiography as one of the potential youngsters who was coming through. So I was held in high regard.”

Source: EastTerracer/YouTube

Amid the accolades for Mooney on that BBC poll, one fan’s comment stood out: “Flawed Irish genius, unbelievable skill, absolutely loved getting the ball and beating players, turning round and beating them again!… much to the consternation of his team mates… not much of a team player but his charisma on the field and his love of the game made him a joy to watch… a hero with the crowd… seemed to disappear off the face of the earth when he left Preston.”

So what exactly did happen to Mooney, after departing Preston? In February 1991, he secured what looked like a good move back to the top flight with Sunderland for £225,000 — considered a substantial fee at the time.

Yet the transfer proved ill-fated. Months after Mooney joined, the club were relegated, while some awful individual luck also marred his time with the Black Cats.

I was playing in the first team and I broke my foot down at Luton,” he recalls. “It was misdiagnosed. It was just a metatarsal issue, I should only have been out for eight or nine weeks and I missed a whole season over it, because they kept forcing me back a little bit early. It kept breaking. It broke four times before they X-rayed it again and acknowledged it was broken. They were trying to push me back three or four weeks after resting it and it kept breaking in the same spot.

“So I just got a bit disillusioned with the whole thing then. I felt I was being treated pretty poorly. I was saying it was broken, they were saying it wasn’t. At the end of the day, it ended up being broken. I missed just over a season, so I got fed up. I was 27 at that stage and I was just thinking: ‘I don’t really want to stay over here.’ 

“It was the orthopaedic surgeon who said that it wasn’t broken. He had acknowledged there was a break initially and then right at the end of the season, Sunderland got relegated into the old Second Division. I came back pre-season and it broke again on hard ground. They X-rayed it at that time and they said it wasn’t broken. But I’d broke it in the same place and then it broke another three or four times after that. I missed the whole season, it was very frustrating, especially when I found out it was broken all along, so I got a bit disillusioned with it. I started making plans to come home then.”

A brief loan move to Burnley failed to change his mind. And despite interest from other English clubs, including second tier Peterborough United, at an age when he ostensibly should have been approaching his peak, Mooney opted to depart British football as his Sunderland contract elapsed.

“I made my mind up — I wanted to come home. I wasn’t going to make it in the top flight. I was always a little bit homesick anyway. So before my contract was up, I negotiated a deal with Shelbourne to come back.”

BM Brian Mooney returned home to play in the League of Ireland aged 27.

Part of the motivation behind the decision was that Mooney was already beginning to make plans beyond his football career. Having started studying a degree in business at Sunderland University, he planned to continue his education while playing semi-pro in Ireland.

Although Mooney failed to win the league title during two years at Shels, he did score in two consecutive rounds of the 1993–94 European Cup Winners’ Cup, both in the 3-2 aggregate win over Ukrainian side Karpaty Lviv and the 5-1 loss to Greek outfit Panathinaikos.

However, a high turnover of managers at Tolka Park contributed to the club’s lack of domestic success, before Mooney made the move to Dublin rivals Bohemians in 1995. They finished both the 95-96 and 96-97 campaigns in second spot, but once again, a title proved elusive. The club went into decline thereafter, and needed a 1999 relegation play-off win over Cobh Ramblers in Mooney’s final game to retain their top-flight status.

Unfortunately, we didn’t win the league, but I had good spells at both [Shels and Bohs]. I was getting nominated as Player of the Year in the League of Ireland. In a couple of seasons, we got to the FAI Cup final, and qualified for Europe nearly every year, so I had a good six years with both those clubs and then I went to UCD and Dr Tony O’Neill was involved — I knew him through the international set-up. I was studying for a master’s out in UCD at the time, so it sort of suited. We had a great season there, it was the only time at that point other than when they won the FAI Cup [in 1984] that they qualified for Europe. 

“I was getting a little bit older then. I signed for Monaghan for half a season in 2001, but that didn’t really work out. You start picking up injuries. You’re not as good as you used to be. I was working, studying and playing football at the same time, so I just decided to retire at that stage. I was 36 at the time.

“I’ve nothing but fond memories of football. I spent 10 years as a professional over in England and 10 years back in League of Ireland. I didn’t have a bad career overall.”

Ultimately, Mooney’s father’s insistence that he complete the Leaving Cert before joining Liverpool proved astute and set him on a path to his life today.

“I work with Tusla in educational welfare,” he explains. “We deal with school attendance, attention and participation. Getting the master’s in education got me into that. I’ve a fairly good career now, so I don’t look back in anger. I’m fairly positive about the way my life turned out. 

“I know a lot of lads come back from England and they do get disillusioned with everything and end up in not great careers afterwards.”

Speaking more generally on his football career, he adds: “There are only a few Irish lads who make it to the very top who are going to be set up for life. I suppose it’s a bit different now if you’re playing at the level I was at Preston, you probably would have made a few bob, because there’s so much money in the game, but back then, there wouldn’t have been.

“I’d put a great value on education. My father always said to me, you can take away everything, but you can’t take away your education. If it doesn’t work out in football, you have something to fall back on.

Homesickness is a tough thing for Irish kids to get over and I never really got over it. The mental side of it, trying to settle in as quickly as possible, would be equally as important as the physical or ability side. 

“It could not happen for you because of injury, and you need a bit of luck if the manager doesn’t fancy you. 

“There are a lot of things that have to fall into place to make it to the very top. But a career in football still is a great opportunity and something I’d look back on fondly.”

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Paul Fennessy

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