Ever-improving Robbie Brady making up for lost time
Published 26/12/2015 | 02:30
When Martin O'Neill first set eyes on Robbie Brady, the Dubliner was still trying to make his way through the ranks at Manchester United.
The occasion was a low-key reserve clash and O'Neill, then manager at Sunderland, was there to check on the progress of a little-known player named James McClean.
"I can't say I was taking a great deal of note of the opposition," admitted the Irish boss last week. Brady stuck in his memory, though, and they would soon cross paths in a working capacity, albeit with a brief introduction.
O'Neill was appointed by the FAI at the end of 2013, just as Brady was at the start of a frustrating spell on the sidelines at Hull which halted his progress with both club and country.
"When I first met Robbie, he came to our opening squad and then waved goodbye almost immediately because he was injured," recalls the Derry man.
That set the tone for the majority of the next year. Brady would miss the first seven games of a new era, a long series of friendlies that drained the battery from the honeymoon period, in addition to an FA Cup final as a complicated groin issue refused to go away and was exacerbated by attempts to soldier through the pain barrier.
Still, when it came to the start of the competitive business in Georgia, the talented product of St Kevin's Boys was rated highly enough to be sprung from the sidelines in the search for the winner that Aiden McGeady provided.
In the stroll past Gibraltar, he replaced Stephen Ward for a cameo at left-back that slipped under the radar at the time.
On a deflating evening in Glasgow, O'Neill turned to Brady ahead of older substitutes in the fruitless pursuit of a leveller.
A few days later, he was selected at full-back in a friendly against USA and swung a delicious free in the top corner to bring joy to the world of the Aviva crowd suffering a Scottish hangover. That paved the way for 2015, a year that will be remembered for many reasons by Irish football fans.
Transition has been a theme and, for Brady, it represented the real coming of age. He would start every remaining Euro 2016 qualifier and earn a big-money switch to Norwich when it became clear that Hull's relegation could not halt the direction of his career graph.
There was surprise when O'Neill threw him in at left-full for the visit of Poland and concern when he was targeted as Ireland struggled to stop the cavalry. But he bounced back from difficulty to finish on the front foot, a comment that could apply to the entire 12 months.
The buzz from the play-off win over Bosnia has carried over into his Norwich displays, with Canaries manager Alex Neil describing his £7m buy as one of their stand-out performers this term.
Last weekend, he returned to Old Trafford to put any sentimental feelings aside and figure in a sweet win against Louis van Gaal's faltering charges, thus giving Norwich fans a wonderful Christmas time.
He was selected on the left flank after slotting in at left-full in the early stages of the campaign; both his managers have trust in his ability to switch from A to B.
"Robbie had a lot of injuries, significant injuries, which curtailed his progress for some time," says O'Neill. "He started to play on when he was seriously injured and it took him a bit of time to get over these things.
"Then he had to establish himself at club level again and I don't think you were ever going to stop his progress. When he got over the injuries, everything was going to be alright.
"He's become a very, very important part of our team and he can play in a number of positions. Like everything else, you have to grow into them. Even the very best players have to do a little bit of adjusting now and again and I didn't see it as a problem.
"I think, in the early part of his development, seeing the whole pitch in front of him is better than having to do a lot of manoeuvring in the middle of the pitch. Especially as he'd played in that sort of position, a wing-back, at Hull.
"Now, we asked him to go and play as a full-back getting forward and there's always a concern about one's defensive abilities if that's the case, but I never saw adjusting to those roles being a problem for us; it was just about how quickly he could adjust that was going to be the issue."
The growing pains were worth it. Ultimately, for Irish eyes, the good significantly outweighed the bad. In the June return with Scotland, O'Neill was overjoyed by the quality of his set-pieces, a considerable string to his bow.
"I was thinking that his deliveries were so good that I could have scored a goal," he smiled.
He didn't quite bring that consistency to every match.
"Other times, he's been quite disappointing with some of his deliveries considering the high expectations I have for him and he knows that himself."
In the decider with Bosnia, three days after his weaving run in the fog of Zenica to snatch a vital away goal, a series of attempted crosses were met by groans from the Ballsbridge patrons. His approach was positive, but his trusted left foot was letting him down from dead balls.
O'Neill refused to relieve him of those duties, however, and the patience was rewarded when the Baldoyle lad told Jon Walters where to go and expertly swung in the free that led to the insurance goal. He ran to embrace Roy Keane as the celebrations continued in the far corner.
"I think that his performances with us have given him the confidence to continue on at club level," says O'Neill. "He's really established himself at Norwich now.
"I think there's an evolution about our side and where I take bit of delight in is that I can actually see players progressing under us, the likes of young Brady and Jeff Hendrick (his childhood pal) becoming better players.
"I actually feel, and I'm not boasting, that I have something to offer them and I think Roy Keane has something to offer them, and between both of us if we can't improve some of these players then we probably shouldn't be doing the job."
With a shortage of emerging youngsters at the top level, Brady's performances have come under extra scrutiny from this side of the pond. He is starting to develop a profile in England too, with his quality display against Arsenal examined and complimented by the Match of the Day panel.
Earlier in the campaign, Gary Neville explained on Sky how the raw youngster lacked the necessary focus to cut it at Old Trafford. Brady admitted that the Valencia boss had a valid point.
"I didn't understand the professional side of football until a couple of years in," he confessed, in an interview with the Irish Independent. "I was in awe and a bit naive.
"Maybe I just dwelt on being at Manchester United too much rather than knuckling down and doing things 100pc all the time. As I got older, I started to realise what it really took and I've been pushing forward since then. I still feel I have a lot to offer."
His Irish team-mates have pinpointed him as an individual with the aptitude to graduate towards the upper end of the Premier League. There is a belief that Norwich, who face a tricky date with Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane this afternoon, might prove to be a stop en route to his final destination.
"He'll probably step up again," says Walters, who is impressed by the calm head on 23-year-old shoulders. "That's no disrespect to Norwich but if they're ever struggling, he's good enough to move up the ladder. He's got a lot going for him."
The levels he reached in this breakthrough year suggest that he can be a major player for the next decade.