By Les Crang
After Brady had gone Arsenal tried out a string of midfielders, some of them were competent, some not, all of them doomed by the fact they weren’t the person they were trying to replace. – Fever Pitch, Nick Hornby
I was once asked by someone either on twitter or 7amkickoff, who was better, Liam Brady or Dennis Bergkamp? Well? It is impossible to say. As Nick Hornby says above, the loss of Brady in the early 1980’s was almost unfathomable to understand. If there is one thing to say about them that they had in common. Well, winning an FA cup in their penultimate season (1979 for Brady and Bergkamp in 2005) and then the club going 8 and 9 years respectively without winning anything. God, how we missed them in the team.
If Bergkamp and Brady shared something similar, it was both were classic number 10 players (although Brady wore the number 7 for Arsenal at Juventus and Ireland he played number 10). In a blog post John Boyle described the no.10 thus:-
In football, 10 in squad number terms, is the number given to the player who embodies creativity, flamboyance, imagination and inspiration through their play.
The number has become synonymous with the position between midfield and attack, whether it be as a forward dropping deep, or a midfielder pushing on.
Both players were unique yet shared similar qualities: Dennis was probably the more skillful of the two but both could pick a pass through the eye of a needle and relied on footballing intelligence to beat teams rather than speed or power. Both were also the kind players we were willing to pay to see because of their poise and elegance, a void they left behind when they left the club.
For a large majority of fans Liam was just our Director of the Arsenal Youth Academy, who left in the summer of 2014, but for many an older fan, Liam Brady, especially during the mid and late 1970’s was a god.
Liam Brady was from Dublin. A lad that knew his own opinion, even from a young age. An example of this can be seen was when he was at school and he was and picked to play and captain the Ireland schoolboys team. Brady informed the school of this, thinking he would be congratulated, only to be told he would be expelled if he played for Ireland as there was a Gaelic Football game on the same day. Brady had to play for the school. Brady captained Ireland and never returned to school except for his exams. That was as a 15 year old. Brady was always willing to do what he thought was best for him.
Brady was discovered playing by an Arsenal scout. The Welsh scout no less, Malwyn Roberts, along with Irish scout Bill Parby. Parby had told Roberts in 1970, when he saw 13 year old Brady playing for his local team St.Kevins *:-
“This boy Brady, he’s got a lovely touch, and a left foot that practically talks”, he reported back to the club. Arsenal despatched another scout, Malwyn Roberts from North Wales, to take a look, and he recommended that Brady, “a real little Irish gem.”
Brady had joined as an apprentice in 1970 and by october 1973 Brady had made his debut in the first team in a 1-0 win over Birmingham City, coming on as a substitute for the not so great Jeff Blockley. The Islington Gazette wrote of his debut:-
Brady’s arrival came like a breath of fresh air. Just by his presence he seemed to inject a little extra interest.
Brady was disappointing in his second game, against a good Spurs team, Arsenal losing 2-0:-
But manager Bertie Mee was impressed, telling the press:-
I’m very confident that young Liam Brady will emerge as one of the best midfielders in England over the next few years.
Brady made a further 12 appearances in the season of 1973-4, scoring in the final game of the season against QPR in a 1-1 draw in which substitute Brady ‘equalized from 25 yards after 58 minutes’ said The Times (license required). Ironically, the game is best remembered for the leg break that captain Alan Ball suffered. The Times reported of the incident:-
Ball was in collision with Venables, the Rangers captain. The club doctor said at half-time that Ball had a fractured left fibula and that his leg would be in plaster for eight weeks. Ball, whose leg was put in plaster at Highbury, said: ” It’s a choker. There is no way I can be ready for England’s tour. There is no possibility of me being able to play in a month [for England]. I heard a crack and I knew It had to be bad. Really Terry Venables had nothing to do with it. I tried to nick the ball off him, he took it away, and I just sat on my leg. The break is just above the ankle.’”
Brady, at first was a great admirer of Alan Ball, saying of him:-
‘Bally’ is a phenomenal character. He is a winner by nature and always takes defeat personally. Off the field he is a big-hearted, a great enthusiast about young players and a man who can talk about the game for hours without showing the slightest sign of flagging. on the field he is a born leader and he leads by example…
To say that you learn a lot about football by playing alongside Alan Ball is an understatement. His very presence is an inspiration, especially when you are up against it during a game and looking for leadership.
Brady in later years respected Ball the player more than Ball the man. But more of that later.
Arsenal finished 10th in Brady’s first season and Brady was offered the opportunity to go on an international tour with Eire. Unfortunately, Bertie Mee said no to that and Liam Brady again showed he had his own mind, when he went and spoke openly to the manager Bertie Mee, informing him he was not happy at being informed on this. Mee apologised. A thing of rarity in many instances for Bertie Mee.
Over the next few years, Brady would come a mainstay in the team and what a team it wasn’t. For those brought up on the glory years of Arsène Wenger, Bertie Mee’s final years in charge (1973-76) were god damn awful. League finishes of 10th, 16th and 17th respectively only mask a malaise at the club that was only saved by the youngsters of Brady, David O’Leary & Frank Stapleton, along with seasoned pros such as goalkeeper Jimmy Rimmer and very under rated striker in Brian Kidd amongst others. Even in the cup competitions we were poor, losing to the likes of Tranmere Rovers (at home).
For Brady though Arsenal under Mee had more plotting and intrigue than a bad episode of Eastenders. Mee had said he’d resign at the end of 1975/1976 season. Alan Ball wanted the Arsenal coach, Bobby Campbell to take over. Ball had asked the players to vote on it and send an ultimatum to the board on this. Brady, along with some of the younger players voted against this, saying:-
He [Ball] was trying to maintain the status quo, because a new manager from outside would make drastic changes and cull them [Ball and Terry Mancini]
Ball was later to say of Brady that he had stabbed him in the back. Brady was always his own man.
With the departure of Bertie Mee as manager, he would be replaced by ex-Arsenal captain and previously Spurs manager Terry Neill. Neill saw that the future was no longer Alan Ball, but Liam Brady and was relieved to sell a disruptive player like Ball to Southampton to improve Brady’s development.
With the arrival of Terry Neill, Arsenal were seen as an Irish club, as from Northern Ireland you had Pat Jennings, Pat Rice, Sammy Nelson and plus Terry. From the Republic of Ireland you had John Devine, Liam Brady and Frank Stapleton left much of the press thinking the club was a London Irish club with them either discussing politics or arguing. O’Leary though pointed out in his biography that:-
Frank, Liam and I never really socialised together at all. Frank was teetotal and kept himself to himself, Liam’s best mate at the club was Graham Rix, and I was good pals with Pat Jennings. The ‘London Irish’ thing mattered more I think to outsiders than it did any of us.
Under Terry Neill, Arsenal changed into an improved team. By the end of season Arsenal came a respectable 8th position. By the following season Arsenal had bought in some quality players with experience like Pat Jennings, Alan Hudson and Malcolm MacDonald pushing the team up to 5th in the league. If you wanted to see Brady in full flow watch the video below against Manchester United in April and his goal on 3 minutes 20 seconds:-
The Times wrote of the game:-
There was further Irrefutable proof on Saturday that Terry Neill’s Arsenal side have finally matured. It may be too late for this season, as far as the league championship is concerned, but victory in the FA Cup Final on May 6th barring any miracles in the semi-final round next Saturday [against Orient], should be the first of many riches heaped upon this superbly creative young team over the next few seasons. Although Rice, the captain, gives them discipline and order, the genius is Brady. He was, as he always is, the most influential player on the field on Saturday. In a match bulging with incident which Arsenal won in a canter by 3-1 against Manchester United. Caressing and manipulating the ball with the left foot, Brady displays the same instinctive sureness and control that nature usually reserves only for single limbed people. Coupled with a vision only the great possess, Brady Is the best midfield player in Britain today. It is Arsenal’s strength In this area which makes them so formidable. Hudson, once seen as the player to lead England out of the dark and only a few months ago thought to be a wasted talent, looked, dare one say, a reformed character. He ran-sometimes too far-with unlimited enthusiasm and plotted to devastating effect with Brady. Rix,another beautifully rounded footballer, and Price, with more ability than just an ordinary workhorse, complete the design centre of Arsenal’s game.
Malcolm Macdonald, a great man in his own mind, was flowing in his tributes to Liam, saying of him:-
Liam was a dream to play alongside, because he could deliver a perfect through-ball to you – which is your dream if you’re a striker. Right foot, left foot, and with that brilliant skill he had of making the ball backspin on impact. Like all true greats, he had fantastic balance. He wasn’t blisteringly quick, but he was amazingly smooth to watch. You could give the ball to Liam, and the rest of us could dawdle forward to the opposition penalty area, have a chat, and we knew that the ball would find us. Then there was that shot of his. The deceptive swerve he was able to put on it was something else. I remember one of his goals at home to Leeds at the start of the 1978–79 season, when he made the ball arc into the net. It was beautiful. Like a lot of Irishmen, he was extremely articulate, who operated with his brains as well as his feet. The thing about Liam was that like any top player, he wanted the biggest prizes. And when success doesn’t come, problems arise.
The team had started to look like a thing of beauty. Having beaten Leyton Orient in the Semi-final, Arsenal faced under rated Ipswich Town side. Prior to the game Bobby Robson had said he had the most injuries prior to the final as a ploy. Terry Neill indicated in his biography that he had fallen for it. Unfortunately, both Arsenal’s star players of Liam and Malcolm were carrying injuries and played ineffectual games.
Brady’s decision was compounded with the injury, when he took the place of his friend Graham Rix in the squad. In his biography said that would never occur again, that he would play with an injury in a major game. He was true to his word and in the following years semi-final against Wolves he withdrew from the game with David Price taking his place.
The season of 1978/9 would be the pinnacle of Brady’s Arsenal career. The defining moment in games in the league probably being the 5-0 win against Spurs and Brady’s goal:-
Brady also got his first experience of European football, playing in the UEFA cup, in which he also earned his first red card against Hajduk Split. The season was predominantly a success with Arsenal making another FA cup final against Manchester United. Prior to the game Brady had become the first ‘foreign’ [he was from the Republic of Ireland] player to win the PFA player of the year.
The 1979 final would often be called the 3 minute final, as Arsenal had cruised to a 2-0 half time lead with Brady in outstanding form. But with 6 minutes to go, Arsenal withdrew the other outstanding player David Price for Steve Walford. Within 3 minutes United had scored two goals and Arsenal were staring at extra time.
Willie Young said of them equalising and impact on the team:-
There wasn’t an Arsenal player who believed we could still win it in ordinary time – and that includes Liam Brady. He told me that he started the run which ended with Rix getting the ball over for Sundy’s winner, all he was doing was trying to keep the ball in their half. Thank goodness re reacted the way. I’m convinced if we hadn’t scored then, United would have gone on to win the cup.
Brady had won his first medal at Arsenal and been brilliant all season. Unfortunately a few days later, whilst talking to Ken Burgess of the Islington Gazette he said:-
I fancy playing in Europe like Kevin Keegan. Everyone needs a change. If I stay another one or two years, I’d still like to give it a go.
By the following season, with Brady looking to move, the Arsenal fans started to get on Brady’s back. Jon Spurling wrote of the season of 1979/80 and reaction to Brady:-
It began in the seats, actually. Whereas once there had been this adrenaline rush when Liam got the ball, there was a distinct lack of buzz. And if there was a lull in the game, or he started to drift out of it, shouts would go up of “Come on Brady, earn your money”, and, “You haven’t left us yet”. One guy sat near me merely said, “Brady, why don’t you just fuck off now?”
Although the following season Arsenal defeated both Juventus and Liverpool in the European Cup Winners Cup and FA cup respectively, Arsenal were running out of steam, playing almost 70 games that season. In the Semi-final against Juventus, the suspended Marco Tardelli noted:-
Liam Brady and Graham Rix orchestrated everything for Arsenal that night. They knew precisely when to hold on to the ball and when to release it. They seemed almost to have a telepathic understanding of where each other would be. Stapleton had two half-chances after Rix and Brady put him in. My heart was in my mouth, but I thought we were going to survive.
Unfortunately, they were wrong, with Paul Vaessen scoring a dramatic winner:-
Unfortunately, Arsenal would lose the final to Valencia on penalties with Brady and Rix missing and Brady having to console Rix for the miss at the end of the game:-
In the FA cup Arsenal would come up short against West Ham and lose 1-0:-
By June, Brady would leave for Juventus, who had been impressed with his semi-final game against them. He was 24 years old and went for a snip at £650,000 (this was when players like Steve Daley were going to Manchester City for over a £1,000,000) Brady would win two Italian titles in two years at Juventus. On departing Arsenal, Brady was fairly critical of Terry Neill not pushing out the boat on players to improve the squad and win things. He later said of his departure:-
We had a superb backbone of young talent who would be the core for many years at Highbury. But to win the league we need more depth in the squad. Here was a real chance to push on. The club signed John Hollins but after our cup runs there was enough money in the bank to have signed someone like Bryan Robson and absolutely gone for it. We never did. What I wanted was Terry to sit down with me and discuss his vision of the future, but he never did. I felt like I was being taken for granted.
With the departure of Brady, the early 1980’s were really quite dreadful. We too often became fans laughing at a poor team with only perhaps good full back in Kenny Sansom and centre half in David O’Leary, the rest were just often plain dreadful. I therefore go back to the opening. Losing Brady was losing the irreplaceable, just like Bergkamp. In the pantheon of Arsenal great, personally I would say Bergkamp, Alex James and Brady. They just moved in another dimension. You just can not put a value on it. It was such a pity he left. Worse still, when he did return with West Ham in the late 80’s he scored against us. Just our luck in the 1980’s.