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Bright sparks in green have lasting effect on football

Former Sampdoria and Ireland midfielder Liam Brady. Photo: Sportsfile
Former Sampdoria and Ireland midfielder Liam Brady. Photo: Sportsfile

Michael Walker

Liam Brady was playing for Internazionale in Serie A when he said this to Hugh McIlvanney in the Observer in 1984. Brady had won two Italian titles with Juventus and was discussing the stylistic contrast between Italy and England, where Brady had been such an elegant force at Arsenal for a decade, and was the Professional Footballers' Association's Player of the Year in 1979. "The public don't necessarily want a lot of hectic, brainless action," Brady added. "They like to see quality, thinking players."

Around 20 years earlier Danny Blanchflower, another eloquent Irish midfielder, had said: "I think, therefore I'm dangerous." Blanchflower had captained Northern Ireland to the World Cup quarter-finals in 1958, the same year he was voted Footballer of the Year. He won again in 1961.

Irish football regulators did not always enjoy Blanchflower; they branded him "an out-and-out Communist" for standing up for players' rights. As he said, they considered him dangerous because he thought and read - on retirement in 1964 Blanchflower quoted F Scott Fitzgerald. It was an untypical response from a footballer, perhaps, but it was typical Blanchflower. As his Jimmy Greaves said: "Lyrical, poetic and poignant . . . to me Danny was the Oscar Wilde of Windsor Park."

Over the coming week, as Northern Ireland prepare to face Switzerland and the Republic of Ireland ready themselves for Denmark in World Cup qualifying play-offs, there will be comment on virtues such as spirit and raucous energy. Less will be said about another strand of Irish football: intelligence. It comes in different forms - academic, streetwise, intuitive. Martin O'Neill, embodies these; he was starting a law degree at Queen's University, Belfast, when he scored for Distillery against Barcelona in the European Cup Winners' Cup in 1971.

Similarly the Northern Ireland manager, Michael O'Neill, was doing his A-Levels when he was bought by Newcastle United from the Irish League club Coleraine in 1987. O'Neill continued to attend school in Newcastle after he signed but, as he says of being in the first team at 18 alongside Paul Gascoigne: "It becomes difficult going to school as a Newcastle United player."

So O'Neill did not complete his maths A-Level. Then, seven years later, playing for Northern Ireland, O'Neill made the most of time in Belfast before an international: "I went to Queen's and sat the Open University maths exam. The game was on a Wednesday, I sat the exam on a Tuesday."

Michael O'Neill went into accountancy when he finished playing. He and his namesake Martin are sharp, cerebral and part of a long tradition in Irish football.

In the first season of the Irish League, 1890-'91, a club from Co Armagh, Milford, joined seven from Belfast. Milford's goalkeeper was a 25-year-old called William McCrum. He conceded 62 goals that first season but well before then what bothered him more was unsporting behaviour. McCrum had crimes and punishment on his mind, so this young keeper came up with a solution: the penalty-kick. Initially rejected in 1890 and scorned as "the Irishman's motion", in June the next year McCrum's idea became Law 14 of Association Football, as it remains. The man who invented the penalty was a thoughtful goalkeeper from Armagh.

McCrum was the first of two Irishmen to change the geometry, tactics and rhythm of the global game. The second was Bill McCracken. From the Falls Road in Belfast, McCracken left his local club Distillery for Newcastle United in 1904 and won three league titles and an FA Cup in his first six years on Tyneside. More than this, though, McCracken earned unequalled hostility across England from fans who resented a tactic he perfected: offside. So effective was McCracken he provoked pitch invasions. More significant, in 1925, the offside rule was changed, largely because of him. Previously three players were required to be behind an attacker receiving the ball. After McCracken it was two.

Another original was Peter Doherty, from Magherafelt. When last year Lionel Messi and Luis Suárez scored a joint penalty for Barcelona, some commentators referenced Robert Pires and Thierry Henry in 2005, others mentioned Johan Cruyff and Jesper Olsen in 1982. But as Stanley Matthews said many years ago, he saw Doherty perform the penalty trick in 1945.

When Blanchflower led that Irish team at the 1958 World Cup, Doherty was manager. They qualified ahead of Italy and Portugal, Blanchflower and Jimmy McIlroy producing the "Doherty penalty" against the Portuguese. The referee was so baffled he disallowed it.

Via McCrum, McCracken and McIlroy, Jackie Carey and Johnny Giles, through George Best to Brady and restless Roy Keane and the O'Neills, Irish football has produced more than scufflers. It has a history of original thinkers who understand Blanchflower's nuance: "Winning isn't everything, but wanting to win is."

Observer

Green Shoots: Irish Football Histories by Michael Walker (DeCoubertin)

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