When the Irishman arrived at Highbury he quickly went about shedding Arsenal’s “boring” tag, as Mike Baker explained in WSC 22, December 1988
On a bleak October afternoon in 1973, a slim waif-like figure entered the fray for Arsenal against the mighty Birmingham City, and began a career which led many at Highbury to believe that he was not just divine, but God’s elder and more talented brother.
To understand the impact that Liam Brady made at Arsenal you have to bear in mind that we are raised on solid, effective football and are unused to possessing the most gifted, creative midfielder in Britain. At first it was almost embarrassing. Playing him in the same side as Terry Mancini was the equivalent of Niall Quinn partnering Pelé for Brazil in 1970.
Astonished with his quick success, Arsenal decided to pack the team with Irishmen in the hope that they would all prove as valuable. By 1978 they had managed to squeeze in six, all of whom were so good that the legend was perpetuated that all Irishmen were naturally brilliant footballers, a myth only dispelled after two seasons of the aforementioned Niall Quinn.
Gradually a decent team evolved around Liam and we surged majestically towards three successive FA Cup finals. But the peak of this era came at a cold White Hart Lane on December 23, 1978. Spurs, Argentinian stars and all, were torn apart as Brady went rampant, scoring one of the five goals himself.
This sort of feat tends to endear a player to the fans at Highbury (Charlie Nicholas’s popularity was largely due to his ability to score against Tottenham). The match was shown later that evening, and was in fact so entertaining that it shut up those Boring Arsenal comments for at least five minutes.
Brady had his critics, occasionally being described as arrogant (in playing style) and lacking in commitment. In fact, he looked more knackered than laid back, and this trait certainly won Arsenal the 1979 FA Cup final. With the score at 2-2 and extra time looming, Brady, horrified at the prospect of another half an hour of exertion, threw what little energy he had left into a forward run, setting Graham Rix free on the wing who promptly crossed for Alan Sunderland’s winner. I often wonder if he would just as willingly have set up a goal for United had it been easier, he looked that keen to avoid extra time.
Above all, though, Liam will be remembered for style, those sloping shoulders sliding gracefully past an opponent, the quick look up and then a long penetrating ball; these were his hallmarks.
All good things come to an end, and our fairy story concluded in 1980. We lost the Cup-Winners Cup to Valencia on penalties, and Brady, mortified at missing his, never returned to Highbury. While Arsenal sank into obscurity, Brady got the sudden urge to play 57 matches for each Italian League club. He was going well, having managed this for Juventus and Sampdoria, when he lost concentration and played one too many for Inter, reaching 58 games before moving on to Ascoli.
Eventually the day came when the Messiah looked set to return. The supporters were expectant and Rix, who had hardly played a decent game since Liam left, had the air of a condemned man who has just been pardoned. The idea of Brady playing for another English club seemed as plausible as Bernard Matthews becoming president of the RSPB. Then George Graham intervened and our man had to go to the knackers yard (otherwise known as Upton Park).
Liam’s hero status was confirmed when we heard of his exploits from the Irish Press. “Liam Brady made his way into Jordan in 1983 on one of his most dangerous missions. He was saving a Dublin girl from the white slave trade… ” Some people have tried to argue that this was probably another Liam Brady, but only our Liam could have pulled off a stunt like that, probably sending the slavers the wrong way with a deft stoop of the shoulders.
Liam has been a hero with the Irish national team as well. He seemed to revel in the art of just missing out on major tournaments, and was so upset at qualifying for this year’s European Championship that he got himself sent off to avoid the embarrassment of having to play opposition as poor as England. Still it is sad that (like George Best) the greatest Irish footballer of his generation finished his career without gracing a major tournament.
My lasting memories of Brady come from less glamorous matches against Birmingham clubs. In one particularly inept game against Birmingham City, where Arsenal’s incompetence almost matched that of the opposition, he gave a quick look up, ready to send a probing ball, only to find for the umpteenth time that nobody was there to pass to. He stopped for a moment and surveyed the scene with a look that seemed to say “What am I doing playing with these twats?”.
That look reappeared in a match against West Brom a few days after the 5-0 Spurs match, when, Brady apart, we were overrun by a stylish Albion. On both occasions however Liam Brady just shrugged his shoulders and got on with the mundane task of being the best player in the world. Mike Baker