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Years of Lead: the story of Eamon Dunphy and Liam Brady’s fractious decade

Kevin Brannigan excavates the writing of one of Ireland’s favourite pundits on another.

Ireland’s Liam Brady celebrates scoring his side's second goal against Belgium in 1986.
Ireland’s Liam Brady celebrates scoring his side's second goal against Belgium in 1986.
Image: Billy Stickland/INPHO

liam-brady-celebrates-scoring-his-sides-second-goal Ireland’s Liam Brady celebrates scoring his side's second goal against Belgium in 1986. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“WE’VE BEEN GETTING a bit too much analysis of the Irish team from Eamon Dunphy…” begins Liam Brady in his Sunday Independent column of 12 April, 1981.

It’s almost three weeks on from Ireland’s infamous World Cup ‘82 Qualifying defeat to Belgium, aided in part by the refereeing of Raul Nazaré, and Liam Brady has a bone to pick with Dunphy’s personalised criticism.

In the wake of the defeat Dunphy had suggested that Brady was ‘’emotionally drained’’ by the weight of the Irish captaincy and that Brady, who was at this juncture a few months into his first season at Juventus, should be moved out wide. 

Liam, of course, rejects this. 

“In answer to the main point of his criticism, I will just say: He doesn’t know whether I’m emotionally drained by the captaincy – because he has never even bothered to ask me! 

“The Irish team didn’t have to endure this kind of analysis in years gone by and maybe that was just as well for the players then, including Eamon.”

“As for the suggestion that I should be moved to a wider attacking role: I have always played in midfield, in the centre of midfield. At Arsenal, at Juventus and for Ireland. So perhaps he knows something that has escaped all my coaches.’’

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And so begins one of Ireland’s forgotten Culture Wars. One which would be fought out in the ghosted columns and conjested opinion pages of the thriving newspaper and magazine world of the 1980s. 

 

*** 

For those of us raised on viewing the Irish national team and Operatic European club football nights through the prism of the ‘Big Four’ of John Giles, Eamon Dunphy, Liam Brady and the late Bill O’Herlihy, to delve into the back catalogue and read articles in which Dunphy and Brady are both ‘at’ing’ each other is a surprise when nights spent listening to Eamon lament ‘‘real players like John and Liam’’ are still somewhat fresh in the memory.

By 1980, both Eamon Dunphy and Liam Brady were published authors. Eamon had, in 1976, released the mic-drop classic ‘It’s Only A Game’ a book which changed the perception of what a football book should be. One which steered clear of ghost written cliche and unveiled the fedual world of English League football. With its release Dunphy’s ‘Only A Game’ had changed the game.

On the other hand, Liam Brady’s offering; ‘So far, so good – A decade in Football’, published in 1980 after his final season as an Arsenal player, is a rather more tame affair. The quintessential football book.

The 24-year-old Brady, in short chapters, guides us through his childhood and early years at Arsenal right up to his and their 1979 FA Cup win. The book’s role seems to be to impart knowledge on the next generation of footballer with musings on how to deal with the ‘Press’ alongside Liam’s thoughts on the role of coaching.

The respective columns of both Dunphy and Brady follow the same tone of their books.

By 1983 Liam Brady was gone from both Juventus and the Sunday Independent. His job in Turin taken by Michel Platini while, if not directly taken by Dunphy, Eamon was now on the Sunday Independent staff with a sports opinion column coming into the living rooms of over 227,000 Irish homes every weekend. 

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Even in 1983 Dunphy was front page news. His move to the Sunday Independent announced on page one with his new employer describing him as ‘’The most pungent commentator on sport in Ireland.’ Pungent.

Dunphy’s debut Sunday Independent column doesn’t disappoint as he takes aim at the faceless aparchiticks within the FAI.

As Eoin Hand’s Ireland assemble in Dublin before departing for Spain for a crucial win or bust Euro ‘84 Qualifier, Eamon outlines the farcical world inhabited by the FAI blazers, ending his debut column by hoping the Spanish have their own version of Merrion Square blazers. They didn’t. Ireland lost to Spain.

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Perhaps unsurprisingly it only takes Eamon three weeks before he dedicates a column exclusively to John Giles. The star columnist jetting across the Atlantic to meet up with Giles, who, having left Shamrock Rovers in February of 1983 is now in Canada managing Vancouver Whitecaps in the North American Soccer League.

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Eamon states that this is where John belongs. 

“After five barren years in the League of Ireland Giles is back where he belongs. Among the pros.’’ 

Eamon acknowledges that John failed at Shamrock Rovers before quickly pivoting back on that assertion by making the case that it was the failure of Irish football to be professional which in turn meant a pro such as John Giles could never relate to semi-pros.

“Success in the League of Ireland was not beyond him. It was essentially a question of being prepared to put a couple of big lads up front and a lot of air in the tyre. But that would have been too much of a compromise, would have offended a purist whose quest as a manager is a team that will play with the logic that separated Giles the player from the merley good.’’

Dunphy paints Giles in a heroic light. A man unwilling to compromise on greatness, even if it means he misses out on the riches that compromise would bring.

Throughout Dunphy’s columns he will return to this image of Giles the incorruptible. He is clearly a great admirer of his fellow Dubliner. For Eamon, John Giles is Cú Chulainn tied to the stone, the raven on his shoulder are those who demand mediocrity.

Liam Brady also shares Dunphy’s adoration of Giles – this is emphasised in a wonderful scene from the 1979 RTÉ Documentary ‘Chippy’ where director Peter Kennerley follows Giles and Brady as they play a round of golf. At the time Brady is on the cusp of leaving Arsenal and Giles gives his backing to a move, adopting the language of the factory shop-steward. The working-class player has but a few years to cash in on his talents. Giles’ advice is for Brady to abandon Victorian ideals of loyalty to the owner and cash in.

eamon-dumphy-and-john-giles Dunphy and Giles pictured in 1991. Source: ©INPHO

The 1980s must have been awkward for Giles as he remained a touchstone for both men. 

Having made small incursions against Brady during the opening years of the decade, Dunphy went for it and made a full frontal assault on Chippy in the wake of Ireland’s defeat at the hands of the Netherlands in October 1983. 

This was a defining column for Dunphy, one in which he acknowledges that though once a drinking and sing-song buddy of Eoin Hand’s, the time had now come to cast any sentimentality aside.

But he wouldn’t let Eoin Hand sink with this ship alone – players would go with him and Eamon had his pen zeroed in on the Irish captain, Liam Brady.

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“Broadly speaking our players are innocent but two in particular share some of the blame for Hand’s failure. Liam Brady is often touted as a great player. He is nothing of the kind. His performance on Wednesday was a disgrace, a monument to conceit, adorned with vanity and self indulgence rendered all the more objectionable by the swagger of his gait.’’

In his next paragraph Eamon separates himself from the rest of the press-pack. This process of ‘othering’ himself was a tactic routinely employed by Dunphy. 

“’He (Brady) was deemed by many observers to have had a splendid game.

“Liam Brady is an immature, rather sulky individual whose pretensions to greatness evaporated when he emerged from (Don) Howe’s spartan regime.

“In the crude vernacular of the game Liam needs sorting out. In the opinion of the man on the terrace and the majority of critics Brady is an outstanding player. Eoin Hand agrees.  In this critic’s opinion Brady is a rich young man no longer capable of meeting the challenge of top class football.”

The article continues with Dunphy accusing Brady of being jaded after 10 minutes against the Dutch and of having gone into hiding during the game.

Dunphy ends by stating that Eoin Hand deserves the respect of ‘’Irish football people’’, that it was the games deplorable state in this country which really defeated Hand and how he was less to blame than Brady ‘’who is richer’’.

Dunphy’s fixation on Liam Brady’s wealth was returned to again in October 1983. This time Dunphy uses all of his column inches to try solve the Liam Brady conundrum which he has created for himself. 

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Dunphy’s thesis holds that Brady, in choosing to go to Juventus over leaving Arsenal for another English club, has become a victim of the dilemma which was then befalling the world’s great players. Do they choose money or greatness? Brady, in Dunphy’s opinion, has become a victim of materialism.

In his column under the headline ‘Brady… wealthy, but in need of a role’, Dunphy states; 

“It is a peculiar fact of human existence that we are very often reluctant to believe the evidence of our own eyes while at the same time being eager to swallow news from afar.

“Thus, when the King of Juventus turned up to play for Ireland scantily clad nobody was very anxious to draw attention to the fact.

“When this correspondent tentatively mentioned the problem, he was descended upon from all sides. Pressbox colleagues, Eoin Hand and Brady himself all delivered the hard word.’’

Eoin Hand would survive the failure of not qualifying for Euro ‘84 and once again man the bearna bhaoil as Ireland and Liam Brady looked to qualify for  a spot at the World Cup of 1986. Ireland would, of course, fail at this task only for that failure to usher in the Jack Charlton glory years.

Jack Charlton’s arrival at Lansdowne Road coincided with the winding down of Liam Brady’s time in Italy. Returning to England as he entered the final stretch of his playing days.

Jack Charlton’s supposed ill-treatment of Brady would bring a major change in tone in how Dunphy portrayed Liam, but before that change took place Dunphy signed off on Liam’s years in Serie A – where he had lined out for Juventus, Sampdoria, Inter Milan and Ascoli, with one final stinging column.

Published in the Sunday Independent on the week of Liam Brady’s acrimonious departure from Ascoli and coming under the headline ‘Brady was never a good pro!’, Eamon returns to his central thesis. That Liam Brady left England behind for money.    

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The column opens by teasing out the absurdity of its argument. That Liam Brady – who apparently has made ‘one million pounds’ from the game, is a failure. 

Dunphy rages at the ‘‘newspaper men’’ who bang the Liam Brady drum while lamenting the advice the 24-year -old Brady received from older men upon leaving Arsenal. So enraged by Liam Brady’s life choices Dunphy comes close to implicating his hero John Giles. It was Giles, we’re told, who introduced the Brady to Leeds-based solicitor Ronnie Teeman. A crucial element in Brady’s trajectory away from England.  

“Liam Brady is neither Hero nor Villain. He is rather a curious mixture of  victim and beneficiary of the football era we are passing through.”

Eamon knows how facts can ruin an argument and so is quick to dampen down Brady’s involvement in the two Championship-winning sides he played in at Juventus.

“Brady’s contribution to the two Italian championship victories Juventus enjoyed while he played for them were modest. He was cast, or rather miscast, in the role of playmaker, a responsibility he has never been physically or emotionally able to cope with.’’

It’s worth pointing out that Brady was Juventus top scorer in their march to the 1980/’81 Serie A title, scoring eight goals and clinched the match winner the following season; converting a pressure penalty kick away from home, to seal the title on the final day. 

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As Dunphy nears the crescendo of his column he begins a written form of keening as he further laments Brady’s career choices.

“In different circumstances he could have had a career that would be remembered with pride.”

The final three paragraphs see Dunphy become the victim as he takes umbrage at a veiled insult aimed in his direction by Brady.

“Liam Brady is living proof that you need more than ability to become a great athlete you need personal qualities that he simply doesn’t possess.

“Reflecting last week on his life and times, Ireland’s richest, most capped  footballer had this to say about the prospect of returning home ‘Who ever goes back to Ireland? Only those who failed.’ This is perhaps the final irony in the sad story of Liam Brady.

“Here the player who has enjoyed the most favourable press comment of all time, raging sullenly against his single critic (Eamon Dunphy) as if such single criticism would matter if he’d been what, despite the money and the caps, he never was – a good pro.’’

These stinging lines were written in March 1987 and by March of 1989 Dunphy was using Jack Charlton’s apparent lack of respect for Liam Brady as a rallying cry around which the anti-Charlton faction of the Irish supporter base could organise.

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As the Republic under Jack qualified for the European Championships of 1988 and the World Cup of 1990 Dunphy raged while Liam retired from international football under a sullen cloud.

By now Dunphy had moved from commentating solely on sport with his interests moving from hot-takes on the conflict in the North to stints as a Saturday night TV  chat show host.

But it was the football field and his comments off it which drew the light.

Sat beside John Giles in the RTÉ studios watching Ireland and Egypt play out an infamously bad World Cup encounter Eamon delivered the coup de grace of about-turns. 

 At half-time he dropped his pen then after the final whistle he told Bill; 

“We had an option of Brady on the pitch this afternoon.  Liam Brady would have been able to run that match. He would be able to play against Egypt at 65. Brady is a great footballer.’’

Finally after a decade of mud-slinging Liam Brady and Eamon Dunphy were reconciled. John Giles and his boys were finally at peace. 

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