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The rise, fall, and differing redemption of Ireland's two great hopes

Conor Clifford and Robbie Brady joined Chelsea and Manchester United, respectively, when they were the Premier League superpowers and competed in the 2008 Champions League final. So, what happened next?

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THERE IS ALMOST always a party.

Sometimes a low key gathering in a house, often a joyous bash in the local pub where a mix of family, friends and curious onlookers gather.

There will be well-wishers and whispers.

He’s signing for who?

He could have gone where?

He’s getting how much?

Vincent Butler has lost count of how many he’s been invited to throughout 50 years of involvement in underage Irish football.

He’s almost 80 now and has been at the coalface with Dublin club Belvedere since they were founded in 1971, not to mention close to two decades running Under-15 and Under-16 Republic of Ireland sides.

The storied nursery based in the north inner city celebrates its Golden Jubilee over the course of this 2021/22 campaign.

Butler might not be able to recall exactly which pubs he was in and for which players, but he knows for certain that Belvo produced 229 internationals from U15 to senior level.

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vincent-butler Former Ireland U15 and U16 manager Vincent Butler. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

“It can be a false thing at times how good they are at 15 or 16,” he tells The42. “They can be really exceptional at that age but will they be at the same level in five, 10 years’ time from 20 to 25, which is the age when most will be playing regular football.

“Will they still be the best then? What they will need for that to happen is for there to be no obstacles in their way, and of course that will never be the case. There will always be challenges.

“Kids have not made it when they have signed for a Manchester United or a Chelsea at 15 or 16 and have signed their first professional contract. It’s only when they get that second one, maybe a third, and they are into their 20s playing regular football somewhere that they have made it.

“So, there are parties for the kids when they are going away but there are never parties when it doesn’t work out and they come home.”

And yet, even for those who do break through that barrier, the different battles to survive never stop.

This week marks 20 years since the Republic of Ireland qualified for their last World Cup.

Two decades on, the latest qualification campaign comes to an end tomorrow and while Stephen Kenny’s side are out of the running to appear at Qatar 2022, there is a sense of optimism with the emergence of a new generation of talent.

conor-clifford-and-gavin-gunning Conor Clifford (right) alongside Crumlin United teammate Gavin Gunning before their moves to Chelsea and Blackburn in 2006. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

The rise of Gavin Bazunu, Andrew Omobamidele, Josh Cullen, Jamie McGrath, Callum Robinson and Adam Idah has enthused many.

Experienced heads like captain Seamus Coleman, Shane Duffy, James McClean and Jeff Hendrick are on hand alongside the likes of Matt Doherty, John Egan and Conor Hourihane, who have come to the fore relatively late.

The make-up of Kenny’s group highlights the many variables at play when it comes to establishing and, as Butler highlights, maintaining a career at the top level.

Never is this clearer than with the fortunes of two men who, had their paths followed the kind of uninterrupted upward trajectory their stellar youth careers promised, could be the backbone of any current Ireland team.

Football, as Butler well knows, doesn’t work like that.

Conor Clifford turned 30 last month while Robbie Brady reaches that milestone in January.

Both have enjoyed – and endured – contrasting fortunes in professional football, yet there is a similar sense of regret about where they find themselves now.

robert-brady Robbie Brady throws his jersey to supporters at the U17 European Championships in 2008. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

Clifford currently anchors the Bray Wanderers midfield and will face UCD in the First Division play-off final next Monday ahead of a possible decider with the side that finishes ninth in the Premier.

Brady, who has earned 57 senior Ireland caps and previously established himself as a dependable Premier League operator, joined Championship leaders Bournemouth as a free agent last month as be bids to revitalise a career that stagnated following his successful recovery from injury and release by Burnley during the summer.

These struggles were not part of the dream when Clifford and Brady left Dublin for Chelsea and Manchester United respectively, arriving at a time when both clubs were the superpowers of the Premier League.

At the end of their first years in England, Chelsea and United faced each other in the 2008 Champions League final in Moscow, the latter triumphing on penalties.

Domestically, they were first and second that campaign, too, and their power struggle continued at the summit in 2008/09 and 2010/11.

Away from the spotlight shining on the club’s brightest stars, Ireland’s two great hopes were realising the hardest battles are fought without fanfare.

***

Side by side on pages 76 and 77 of the 21 May, 2007 edition of the Evening Herald’s Striker pull-out, their schoolboy careers were coming to an end in Dublin.

“Brady the inspiration for SKBs” was the headline on the match report detailing how his creative spark helped St Kevin’s Boys a 2-1 win over Salthill Devon in the SFAI Under-14 Goodson Cup.

A couple of days later, Brady was flown out to Athens by Liverpool for their Champions League clash with AC Milan.

the-ireland-under-17-squad Brady (first left, front row) and captain Conor Clifford (fourth left, front row) at the U17 European Championships for Ireland. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

The Anfield club were on the charm offensive but the gesture didn’t land, the youngster instead agreeing to move to Old Trafford. Within a year, Brady’s progress was so rapid he featured for United’s Reserves.

For Clifford, part of the Crumlin United U15s which lost out to Belvedere in the All-Ireland Evans Cup that same weekend, he was already an Ireland U16 international who had agreed to a lucrative, long-term move to Chelsea.

The Roman Abramovich revolution was well underway as resources pored in to their academy system. Frank Arnesen was the Dutchman overseeing things and Clifford was brought for meetings with Frank Lampard, Michael Essien and, later, Michael Ballack, to go through what was expected.

Ball boy duties at matches also allowed for a look up close at the demands. “I see what they do well and what they don’t do so well. I write down what they do well and try do that,” he later explained, with Butler recalling a time when their stock was at its highest.

“Big things were expected from a young age because they were very, very good players, and on that basis they were sought after by many different clubs.

They both had their choice of top clubs to go to. Robbie was fast and strong and could create. Conor was strong on the ball but smallish, he was light. In England they seem to go for the big, strong, hard runner and Conor was very determined, very competitive.

“He had tremendous awareness too, he was kind of a Johnny Giles type. He won the ball well, he competed and took up good positions on the pitch. He was a very intelligent footballer.”

So much so he was captain of the Chelsea side which lifted the 2010 FA Youth Cup for the first time since 1961, scoring a sublime winning goal at Stamford Bridge to edge out Aston Villa 3-2 on aggregate.

Paul Clement, the former Ireland Under-21 assistant coach, was Reserve team manager at Chelsea and provided cautious optimism. 

“Men’s football is quicker, he’ll grow up quick. It’s difficult to say, but everyone has a chance as they’re in the system. You never know where they might end up as there are a lot of hurdles along the way. But they’re in the right place to learn.

“Conor is a decent passer, he has a good range, one of his best things is that he runs hard and his work ethic is very good. He has a good attitude to learn and improve. They can have all the talent they want but if they don’t have the attitude to want to get better they’ll go nowhere.”

darragh-ryan-and-conor-clifford Clifford in action for Chelsea against St Patrick's Athletic in a 2009 friendly. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

Nowhere took Clifford on loan to places like Plymouth Argyle, Notts County, Yeovil Town, Portsmouth and Crawley Town.

Things failed to ignite.

On one occasion a new manager didn’t even know which was his strongest foot. “In Cobham (Chelsea’s training ground), every car that goes past is a Ferrari or a Range Rover. There’d even be lads who hadn’t played a league game coming in with a Range Rovers or BMW. Leaving Chelsea, it hits you like a tonne of bricks when you’re not getting that money,” he reflected in an interview the Irish Independent in 2018.

“Did I get sucked into it? I had a nice car. In terms of going out and spending thousands on clothes and going to the best restaurants and all of that. Yeah, I did get sucked into that, definitely.

“I was kind the blue-eyed boy. Everything was going great. I got caught in a bubble earning great money and I just thought it was going to last forever. So I took my foot off the pedal.”

***

The week that’s in it, with Ireland having earned a respectable 0-0 draw with Portugal, of course there is a Ronaldo story.

Brady was queuing up for some lunch in the canteen at United’s training ground when the Portuguese star cut in front of him to get served.

The teenager did nothing.

soccer-barclays-premier-league-sunderland-v-hull-city-stadium-of-light

Sir Alex Ferguson witnessed the incident and gave Brady a dressing down for not standing up to his colleague.

James Chester laughs at the reminder. Now a centre back with Stoke City, the Wales international is one of Brady’s closest friends, having emerged through the academy together and also spent time with Hull City alongside Paul McShane and Stephen Quinn.

“I’m not sure if it was a serious telling off from Sir Alex or just said in jest with serious message behind it,” Chester explains.

“I’m smiling thinking of it because I can just picture it happening. I remember going to training one morning in my little Corsa and stopping at some lights. Ronaldo was behind in his Bentley and as soon as they went green he sped around and overtook me up the road.

“I was in the canteen having some toast later on and got a tap on the shoulder from him with a cheeky smirk on his face laughing at what he did at the lights.

euro-2016-wales-vs-portugal-lyon From overtaking him in his Bentley to facing each other in the Euro 2016 semi-final, Ronaldo challenges Chester for a header as Portugal edged out Wales. Source: Guibbaud Christophe

“But Robbie is honestly one of the sharpest people I’ve ever come across in terms of wit and one-liners.”

It was that humour which drew Brady and centre back Scott Wootton together. Now with Morecambe in League One, the pair’s bond has only strengthened as they have grown up. Both are married and have their own families with two young children around the same ages.

“He’s so sharp in the head, he’s got that Scouse banter, although I’m from the Wirral so not technically a Scouser, they call us Woolybacks,” Wootton laughs.

I used to constantly go back to Dublin with Robbie and spend weekends there. I love where he grew up, all his mates and family were so close, people coming in and out of the houses. You don’t really get that here.

“But he lived here with me and my parents, they loved him. It was compulsory to live in digs for the first couple of years but not after that. He stayed on the pull-out sofa bed. It wasn’t quite Step Brothers with the bunk beds,” Wootton jokes.

Although he did take on the elder sibling role.

“Robbie didn’t drive and when we weren’t on loans I would drive us in to training. One of his best tricks was being able to fall asleep in the car before I’d even got off my road. He could conk out anywhere, Robbie. He’d sleep on a washing line.

“His mouth would be open snoring, he’d wake up as we were pulling in and then on the way home it would be exactly the same.”

soccer-uefa-champions-league-group-h-manchester-united-v-cfr-cluj-napoca-old-trafford Scott Wootton (left) alongside Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck after a Champions League defeat to CFR Cluj. Source: PA

Chester can certainly relate, taking on the mantle when they spent four years together at Hull between 2011-15.

“Me and Paul McShane helped Robbie through life. We did the cooking for him, we were his taxi drivers, anything he needed really, but I’m pleased to say he has matured a lot since those days” the defender adds.

“Robbie is one of those people you want to be around, he is easy to get along with. I remember coming over to Dublin for his 21st, he would always be back at every opportunity and I joked to him the streets must be paved with gold over there in Dublin.”

A stint on loan with Hull in 2011 proved successful, a new contract at United followed and Brady made his senior Ireland bow in September 2012 – scoring in a friendly against Oman at Craven Cottage – as Giovanni Trapattoni began looking to the future following a disastrous European Championships.

His first team debut with United followed two weeks later when he came on as a late substitute in a 2-1 win over Newcastle United at Old Trafford.

Wootton played the full 90 minutes at centre back that night and while he earned a handful more opportunities, Brady had to make do with that sole contribution before another loan at Hull, which eventually turned into a permanent move.

So many players have tonnes of ability and don’t make it for so many reasons; injury, confidence, being in the wrong place at the wrong time, so to make a career for yourself so many different things are out of your control,” Wootton, who later signed for Leeds United and Nottingham Forest, amongst others, adds.

“At United we had Paul McGuinness, who now work with England, Warren Joyce and Ole [Gunnar Solskjaer] was our Reserves manager for a short time. When you leave you realise the set up we had and the education you get as people.

“You develop a special bond. There would be meetings with Sir Alex [Ferguson] too and one of the main things to come out of them was how you carry yourself, your attitude, the mentality you must have and the standards that you have to set yourself to force your way through and make a career in the game.

“I don’t think that determination leaves you just because you leave the club, you take it with you.”

***

It’s May 2008 and the Republic of Ireland U17s are in Turkey for the European Championships.

Brady and Clifford are together and their manager, the late Sean McCaffrey, sounds a warning along with a realisation that international football is by now a shop window.

“They would certainly be looking at this as a stepping stone to bigger things. The key thing for young lads now, they want to attract attention. But they have to attract the clubs where, number one, they will get a good football education and number two, they’re going to get the opportunities to play.

“Now if that’s going to places like Manchester United or Arsenal, they’ll get a good football education but are they going to get the opportunity to play? Unlikely.”

sean-mccaffrey Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

Clifford was McCaffrey’s captain and a key figure as Ireland beat Germany and Portugal en route to the finals, where they lost 2-1 to France in the opening game after two late strikes.

“France were physically stronger and fitter than us, in many areas of the pitch they were technically better than us, too. When you talk about player development, they need to learn how to play the right way but they also must learn how to win matches,” the Monaghan man rued.

Then came a bump in the road in the summer of 2011. By now, Brady was captain of the Under-19s and led them to the elite phase of qualification for the European Championships that May.

He was also ear-marked for an appearance in United’s final game of the Premier League season at home to Blackpool, as Ferguson had one eye on the Champions League final with Barcelona at Wembley.

New Ireland boss Paul Doolin named Brady in his squad but didn’t receive an answer.

“United prospect Brady snubs Ireland U-19s Euro bid,” was one headline.

“Robert was called into the last squad and I could answer your question if I spoke to him. I tried to get in touch with him, but haven’t been able to speak to him. I don’t even know why. I tried so many times before we went,” Doolin, who had left out Shane Duffy, then in the Everton first team squad, lamented.

One of our best features is that we are a good team, and what we don’t want is someone going off on his own looking for glory because the team comes first. If you go out and try to do something for your own benefit it can work against you, but if you work for the team people see you are a good player.”

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John Egan replaced Brady as captain, Jeff Hendrick’s stock also began to rise, and Ireland reached the semi-finals without their talisman.

“No disrespect to players not in the squad but the squad Paul picked was right for the tournament,” Egan insisted.

“It showed as we got to the last four. We don’t care about anybody who wasn’t in the squad. You don’t play, and you don’t mean anything to the team. I wasn’t, and I don’t think anybody else was focusing on other players who weren’t there. Playing for your country is the biggest honour you can get.

“You have to be proud of where you’re from. That’s getting taken out of it a bit these days. There’s money and what not in football and players might think they’re too good for this and that.”

Perhaps it was understandable for Brady to sharpen his focus at club level, with Ferguson beginning to form the nucleus of another youthful squad, one the Dubliner was in the mix with.

soccer-capital-one-cup-third-round-manchester-united-v-newcastle-united-old-trafford Brady in action against Newcastle for what was his sole senior appearance for Manchester United. Source: PA

In the Community Shield that August, United’s starting XI was as follows; David De Gea (20), the Da Silva twins at full back (21) Phil Jones (19) and Chris Smalling (21) at centre back. Tom Cleverley (20) and Anderson (23) were in midfield with Danny Welbeck (20), Javier Hernandez (23), Nani (24), and elder statesman Rooney (25).

The situation with the U19s was not an issue which prevented Noel King from bringing Brady into his U21 set-up alongside Clifford, who by now was with Notts County on loan.

Brady’s 21s debut was action packed, scoring twice in a 2-1 win over Austria in Sligo with the winner coming from the penalty spot in injury time.

“I think I showed out there how much I enjoy playing for Ireland. Conor Clifford and I asked to take the penalties and with Conor substituted I wasn’t letting anyone else hit it,” he said afterwards.

Clifford’s reputation was such that Trapattoni included him in the senior squad for that week’s friendly with Croatia, but by September it was Brady catching the eye in the Championship with Hull, while Clifford toiled on a second loan with Yeovil.

The talk now was of Brady being a late bolter for the Euro 2012 squad as he outshone James McCarthy in a 2-1 win over Hungary for the 21s, scoring and laying on another.

“Classy Brady aims to force way into Trap’s plans,” was the headline on the back page of the Irish Independent, with the youngster up front about his ambitions.

“The aim for me on a personal level is to get promotion to the senior squad. While watching the senior match against Slovakia on television last Friday, I asked myself if I could have done something to change the game if I was involved. I think I would have.”

He would have to wait, but his time would eventually come. For Clifford, despite sporadic call-ups as late as October 2012 when he sat on the bench alongside Brady as Germany crushed Ireland 5-1 in a World Cup qualifier in Dublin, a tougher road lay ahead.

***

By 2013, Brady and Clifford were no longer United and Chelsea players, but their fortunes would contrast greatly as they sought to build careers.

The latter joined Leicester City but didn’t make an appearance before joining Southend United, where another loan spell at Barnet led to Clifford eventually dropping out of the Football League to join Boreham Wood.

These moves, and the descent down the pyramid that so many professionals can relate to, are just the brief, public markers of a life that was facing a bigger battle behind closed doors.

soccer-barclays-premier-league-hull-city-v-everton-kc-stadium Brady with his infant daughter during his Hull days. Source: EMPICS Sport

Depression was taking hold and with the advice of friends and family he realised he needed to seek help.

He returned to Ireland, signing for Dundalk, and as he explained to the Irish Independent three years ago, seeing a psychologist proved crucial. “Once I started talking, I couldn’t shut up, I felt such a weight off my shoulders, it’s not natural for me to talk like that because I keep a lot of stuff inside. But it was a release, I keep a lot of stuff inside.

“I hated life. The more loans or moves that don’t work out, the more you get knocked back, the more you get forgotten about and more you get down on yourself. I am comfortable to say that it (depression) is what it was.

“I would recommend to anybody going through depression or feeling horrible, that the best thing you can do is speak about it because you feel 100 times better afterwards. I felt unbelievable when I did.”

conor-clifford Clifford while at Derry City last year. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

The turmoil his life was in towards the end of his time in England would catch up with him as he began to rebuild in Ireland.

A six-month, worldwide ban was the punishment from FIFA when he was found to have placed bets on matches – ones he was not involved in – while at Boreham.

But his resolve was not broken, Clifford kept the flame alive at St Patrick’s Athletic, Limerick and Derry City before joining Bray, and he also now works as a postman. That is his primary source of income with football providing an added benefit that is hard to quantify.

The love remains, despite everything, while dreams of an Ireland cap which for so long seemed within touching distance are now out of reach.

“He’s still involved in the game, he’s still going, that says a lot and should not be taken for granted,” Butler points out.

euro-2016-group-e-italy-vs-ireland Brady's goal against Italy at Euro 2016 as defender Leonardo Bonucci looks on. Source: DPA/PA Images

And he’s right, of course, while for Brady there is a different sense of perspective about where he finds himself.

The header against Italy in Lille at Euro 2016 will never be forgotten in the lore of Irish football. It led to him becoming Burnley’s record signing soon afterwards – £10.5 million plus – and he was an established Premier League star having also had a spell with Norwich City.

Chester was in France with Wales at the same time, part of the side which reached the semi-finals against old pal Ronaldo’s Portugal, but a meeting with Ireland would have been even more poignant.

“I was keeping an eye on how they were doing, and I still do that now. We started on this journey together when we were so young and it’s something to be proud of that we’re still going.

“We’ve stayed in the game and survived, we know each other’s journey and that’s why we’ve stayed so close for so long. We’re there for each other when it’s needed.”

It will be just after St Valentine’s Day when Stoke face Bournemouth next. “A nice candle lit dinner for us afterwards, he owes me one after all the cooking I’ve done for him,” Chester laughs.

It’s now four years since Brady last had a surgery after a clash with his former Hull teammate Harry Maguire led to him rupturing the patella tendon in his knee.

His recovery lasted a year and a half and, as tends to be the case so often, a plethora of other niggles crept up to halt his progress.

He cracked ribs on two different occasions and, as he admitted to the Irish Examiner earlier this year, even considered visiting a bone specialist.

conor-clifford Clifford will be hoping to secure promotion to the Premier Division with Bray Wanderers this month. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Eventually, he did return to full fitness for most of last season although an Achilles issue further dented his chances of a new deal, by which point Burnley’s starting XI was almost impenetrable as Sean Dyche settled on a core group to ensure survival.

It’s an instinct Clifford and Brady will understand, and as the latter attempts to plot the third act of a career that still offers plenty for club and country, he will do so having already persevered through even tougher battles.

“Being a United fan growing up, making it there was always the ultimate dream,” Chester adds. “But as you get older you become aware that it’s not an easy thing to do. Just to become a footballer at a club and to have a career, to have the experiences we’ve had, to come through the good and bad, that’s what brings you closer.”

That’s something Brady and Clifford can both relate to.

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