Ireland’s Viking warrior heads to Valhalla

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In the days before everybody had a camera in their phone, a journalist named Bob Hennessy kept his own photographic archive of Irish international football. Among the many gems in his private collection was a shot of a party at the Icelandic manager’s house in Reykjavik following a European Championship qualifier in 1983. It captured Eoin Hand and his opposite number Johannes Atlason sitting on a couch in the later stages of the evening, captivated by the sights and sounds of Irish captain Tony Grealish skilfully playing the spoons on his knee. 

A single photograph that contained multitudes, it was a portrait of a different time and a very different game. Imagine a journalist today casually taking snaps of Giovanni Trapattoni and Robbie Keane having a few post-match beers with Joachim Low? No, of course you can’t. That could never happen now. It would never happen now. Better yet, imagine a journalist putting the photograph away in a scrapbook as a treasured keepsake of a magical night spent celebrating a 3-0 Irish victory, rather than uploading it onto Twitter in seconds.

When news broke last Tuesday that Grealish had lost his battle with cancer, an entire generation of Irish fans took a collective intake of breath. He was part of the first Irish team many forty-somethings were old enough to get to know and his passing at 56 makes us all a little more aware of our own mortality. It also dredges up bittersweet memories of Ireland sides which, in so many glorious failures under the seemingly snake-bitten Hand, endeared itself to supporters in a way that far more successful outfits in recent years, have never quite managed to do. The return of Grealish and his distinctive beard to the sports pages this week resurrected the disallowed goals and the dodgy refereeing of another era.

Born in London to parents from Galway and Limerick, Grealish was, as the spoons-playing would indicate, one of those children of the diaspora who was truly more Irish than the Irish themselves. If his uncompromising style of play was honed on Hackney Marshes where he was spotted by Leyton Orient’s George Petchey, the abundant facial hair made him look like he’d just arrived in from fishing off the Aran Islands. Of course, his ancestral origins didn’t stop supporters of the many English clubs he played for from dubbing him “the bearded Viking warrior”.

Every obituary has rightfully mentioned Grealish’s unique claim to fame. Being the only man to play Gaelic football and soccer at the old Wembley Stadium is the type of footnote that will make him a trivia question forever, especially when he could also boast an outing at Croke Park. His family was steeped in the GAA.  His father Pakie came from from Lisheenkiel, Athenry to London in the 1950s, was instrumental in founding St. Gabriel’s hurling club in 1960, and helped thousands of Irish arrivals in the city get a start over the ensuing decades. Tony’s cousin John scored the winning goal for Gabriel’s in the final of the London hurling championship last year.

As a boy, Grealish and his brother Brian often accompanied their father in a car full of expatriates driving around Paddington, searching for higher ground so they might better eavesdrop the crackling RTE radio signal for championship matches on Sunday afternoons. The kind of background that ensured when the England U-17s called him up, Grealish was quick to pass on what everybody else thought would be an honour.

Petchey, who had put him in a formidable Orient youth team that also featured Laurie Cunningham and Glenn Roeder, was among those advising him to throw his lot in with Ireland  Later, the same man wasn’t thrilled to discover Grealish was still playing GAA on Sundays in New Eltham, long after he’d become a first-team regular at Brisbane Road.

“He (Petchey) said, ‘You’ve got to knock this on the head, especially the hurling, let alone the Gaelic football because you’re in the first team now, you’re playing two days a week,’” recalled Grealish in Paul Rowan’s classic The Team that Jack Built. “’All those mad fxxkers can do what they like but you’re not playing with them!’”

For whichever of his many clubs and for his country, there were always better players than Grealish yet few who were so honest in their toiling for the cause. He wasn’t a superstar but he was more than a journeyman. The other day, a Brighton fan recalled his role in their best ever top flight season and described him accurately as the type you noticed and appreciated more when he wasn’t there. Suddenly, gaps started to appear in the midfield and you realised the amount of hard labour he put in so more gifted colleagues, the likes of Jimmy Case at Brighton, Steve Hunt at West Brom, and Liam Brady with Ireland, could wreak havoc going forward.

Although mostly remembered in green for holding down the midfield in a time, as Opel once put it, before the band joined the wagon, Grealish started his Ireland career at full-back when Johnny Giles gave him his debut as a 19 year old against Norway in a friendly at Dalymount Park in 1976. He went on to captain the side 17 times in his 45 caps over the next nine years.

On the biggest day of his professional career, Grealish led Brighton out at Wembley in the 1983 FA Cup final against Manchester United. Steve Foster, the club captain, was suspended for the game and when the team emerged from the tunnel, Grealish was wearing a white headband, exactly like the one Foster was famous for. Some saw this as him giving two fingers to the FA for the ban, others saw it as him acknowledging the club’s spiritual leader. All agreed it was a gesture typical of the type of man he was.

He had a career trajectory typical to the pros of that era. After a good spell at West Bromwich Albion, there was a short stint at Manchester City but, his powers on the wane, there was the inevitable drift down the divisions, Rotherham, Walsall, Bromsgrove Rovers, and a bizarre loan spell in Portugal with Salgueros, the club of his former Irish team-mate Mickey Walsh. Later, he did some managing and coaching off-Broadway and, like all players of his generation, he worked in the real world, dabbling, amongst other things, in insurance.

A few years back, Grealish was the subject of one of those “where are they now?” features. At that time, he was working in Birmingham in a business that described itself as specialising in aluminium recycling.

“I still call it scrap metal,” said Grealish.

No fuss. No pretence. Calling it like was. Exactly how he played.

 
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