Anne O’Brien, footballer (1956–2016)

Irish football great Anne O’Brien dies in Italy aged 60

Au revoir: Anne waves goodbye to Dublin and embarks on her pro soccer career in Reims

Au revoir: Anne leaving Dublin for her pro soccer career in Reims, France

Ireland lost one of its best ever sports stars with the untimely death of Anne O’Brien in August 2016. Medals and memories from a stellar pro career in France and Italy cemented her unique legacy to Irish sporting heritage. The tragedy is that she has been lost with parts of her amazing story still to be told, and without getting the proper acclaim her achievements merited.

Early days


The Dublin factory team where O’Brien played her early football was Vards, named for Julian Vard furriers.1

Vards played their home games on public pitches in the vast Phoenix Park, and took their place in the vibrant Leinster Ladies League which sprang up at the end of the 60s.

Julian Vard furriers on Harcourt Street, Dublin Photo courtesy of Dublin City Council

Julian Vard furriers on Harcourt Street, Dublin Photo courtesy of Dublin City Council

As well as O’Brien, Vards boasted the talents of prolific twins Joan and Jacinta Williams – who spelled double trouble for opposition defences.

The Williams’s honed their soccer skills on the streets of Ballyfermot with the lads – including the brothers Furey, who grew up into diddly-dee music megastars.

Joan went to a Fureys gig in Wales some 30 years later and beamed when they recognised her from those marathon childhood kickabouts. Her hard-won soccer reputation undimmed by the passage of time.

Vards’ sworn rivals were Bosco, of the St John Bosco Youth Club in Drimnagh.

O’Brien’s first serious column inches came in 1971 when she let fly at Bosco with a sensational hat-trick in Vards’ 3–2 Drumcondra Cup win at Tolka Park.

Reims come calling


The story of Reims unearthing O’Brien on their 1973 Irish tour has passed into soccer lore. But a controversial final fixture in Bray almost threw a spanner in the works…

Still smarting from a 2–1 reverse at Kilkenny dog track – reportedly their first defeat in two years – Reims’ fiery Gallic tempers boiled over at the Carlisle Grounds, Bray.

O’Brien scored once and Carol Carr twice as Ireland snapped terrier-like at the heels of their French opponents, who led 4–3.

Carr was an exceptional attacking midfielder, or inside-forward in old money, who many rated just as good as O’Brien. But she was a couple of years older and Reims passed on her.

The Irish papers relished this “past it at 20” angle and linked Carr with lucrative switches to AS Roma and Standard Liège, but it was not clear if she ever took the plunge.2

In Bray, Carr looked poised for a hat-trick when she won Ireland’s second penalty of the match. Instead it sparked an undignified free-for-all.

Non, je ne regrette rien: Pierre Geoffroy, photo from FFF

Non, je ne regrette rien: Pierre Geoffroy, photo from FFF

Raging Reims boss Pierre Geoffroy legged it onto the park, “struck” the ref and led his side off before the penalty was taken.

That led to scuffles between the players and amongst the 1000-strong crowd, who marauded onto the pitch.

Impugned local whistler Harry O’Reilly demanded satisfaction from Geoffroy in the form of an apology. When none was forthcoming he abandoned the match with four minutes to go.

Geoffroy said his beef was with the pitch having no markings and ‘homer’ O’Reilly making two nonsense penalty calls.

It was a storm in a teacup, albeit with elements of black farce; the sort which continued to dog the women’s game for many years to come.

Irish squad player Margaret O’Driscoll reckoned the French were fed up at facing the same seven or eight Dublin-based national teamers in every fixture.

After all, the tour matches were supposed to be against local selections in rainy outposts like Dundalk, Kilkenny, Waterford and Limerick.

Familiarity seemed to breed contempt when the piqued French party gave the post-match cuisine at Kilkenny a swerve.

But Geoffroy wanted to run the rule over all the best Irish players. O’Brien recalled many years later that she had seen out the tour being taken around as a guest of the French club.

Anne seals the deal


The contretemps in Bray was soon forgotten and Reims snapped O’Brien up for their assault on the newly-formed national league in France.

She had just turned 18 and would be trousering £75 per-week with a gig in the club owner’s leather jacket factory.

Never a big drinker, in the heart of Champagne country she would have been forgiven for quaffing a celebratory glass or two.

By 1970s standards, O’Brien had already attained women’s soccer nirvana. But Reims was only the first staging post in a footballing journey which secured her place among Ireland’s all-time greats…


Women’s Football Archive offers our most sincere condolences to Anne’s nearest and dearest, and to the extended O’Brien clan. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a hanam / Riposi in pace.


1. The suggestion that O’Brien played for Julian Bars seems to have originated from an interview she gave in Italian to Nicholas Pascale in 2013. Pascale, a temperamental genius of women’s football history, may have misheard or may have made an assumption that a bar would be involved – based on the famed Irish proclivity for booze!

2. A Carol Carr starred for Doncaster Belles during the South Yorkshire giants’ golden age, but that was a different player who was a few years younger.

Match: Republic of Ireland 0–5 England, 3 May 1981, Dalymount Park

Reagan’s rampant England put five past Ireland

Guerin in her later guise as a hard-bitten crime reporter

Irish soccer starlet Ronnie Guerin in her later guise as a hard-bitten crime reporter

Classic match report: Debuts for Coultard and Gallimore as England drub Girls in Green

In June 2016 England blooded two new Lionesses in the shape of Rachel Daly and Nikita Parris, who both made their debuts in a 7–0 cakewalk against hapless Serbia. Some 35 years earlier England also handed out a double debut, to Gillian Coultard and Angela Gallimore, in this match with Ireland at Dalymount Park. In their first visit to the Emerald Isle, England eased to a 5–0 win. But Ireland’s team sheet included a star name of its own: Veronica “Ronnie” Guerin wore the famous green shirt before she turned into a leading journalist, got tragically gunned down and became the subject of a Holywood blockbuster…

Ireland


In 1981 Ireland’s national team had some talented players but lacked structure, resources and proper association backing – a state of affairs which may sound familiar to fans of the 2016 Girls in Green.

Like his English counterpart Martin Reagan, coach Tony Kelly had taken over a couple of years previously. And he had a similar remit to Reagan: cobbling together a functional national team from a patchwork of regional amateur leagues, while trying to raise coaching standards across the board.

They had scored a notable 1–0 victory over Belgium in October 1980, in a controversial friendly at Dalymount Park. The scorer in that game, Grainne Cross (pronounced “Gron-ya”), left the field covered in blood after colliding with the Belgian goalie, who was stretchered off needing stitches in her chin.

IRELAND
1. Marian Leahy
2. Gabrielle Byrne
3. Mary Joyce
4. Pauline Boland
5. Janice Mooney
6. Philo Robinson
7. Grainne Cross
8. Teresa McCann
9. Debbie McGarry (out 68)
10.Barbara Kelly
11.Breda Hanlon (out 56)
Substitutes:
Catherine Fitzpatrick (in 56)
Ronnie Guerin (in 68)Coach:
Tony Kelly

With Anne O’Brien out of sight and apparently out of mind in Italy, midfielder Cross was perhaps the team’s closest thing to a star player. She spent a season in Italy herself, with Fiammamonza in 1986–87.

The rest of the time she played for local teams in Limerick, including Krups, De Beers and Greenpark United. She was reportedly one of FIVE sisters to play for Ireland, which must be some sort of record. Two other Cross sisters turned out on the Limerick League circuit.

Grainne later played rugby union for Old Crescent RFC.

After the Belgium match Ireland came back to earth with a bump in their next game, being hammered 5–0 at home by Scotland in March 1981. Goalkeeper Marian Leahy played exceptionally well to avert an even more embarrassing rout.

Leahy was another product of the Limerick League, who won a debut cap in Ireland’s first meeting with England; a 6–1 reverse at Exeter in May 1978. An IT professional, she captained Ireland in later games after becoming a buccaneering full-back, including the first women’s international to be held at Wembley in April 1988.

Like many Irish soccer fans of a certain vintage, Leahy keenly followed the Arsenal side graced by Liam Brady and Frank Stapleton. Even the floodlights at Dalymount Park, then Ireland’s national stadium, were hand-me-downs from the Gunners’ old Highbury ground.

There was another, more direct, link to Arsenal too: Frank’s footballing sibling Helena Stapleton was in the 20-strong squad for the match, having made her debut in the Scotland defeat.

Helena played for Dunseedy, a club based in the Raheny area of Dublin. There she formed a potent attacking tandem with her pal, a strong-willed youngster named Ronnie Guerin.

Ireland’s squad also included Denise Lyons, who was English-born but grew up in Waterford. She found success at college level in the United States; playing for Keene State Owls from 1986 to 1989 and then starting a long and glittering spell as head coach in 1992.

Philo Robinson also starred for Keene State Owls, from 1988 to 1991. She was from Dublin and orphaned at a cruelly early age. Like Lyons she was later named in Keene State’s athletic Hall of Fame.

Janice “Jan” Mooney was playing for the Suffragettes club in 1981, but later moved to London and went on to captain the Wembley LFC team which spawned Kelly Smith.

Included in the 20, but not – for some reason – in the team, was experienced skipper Linda Gorman. She was a veteran of Ireland’s first national team matches in 1973 and went on to become the national team’s first female boss in the 1991–92 season.

Tensions


In February 1980 a brace from Irish-descended Kevin Keegan settled a Euro qualifier in England’s favour, but men’s matches between the two nations were politically charged and relatively rare.

With “the troubles” at their height, many Irish citizens were still smarting over 800 years of British oppression, while the IRA’s bombing campaign in Britain had unleashed rampant Hibernophobia.

On the day of this match, the Irish revolutionary (and sometime left-back) Bobby Sands MP slipped into a coma on the 64th day of his hunger strike. His death two days later sparked riots all over Ireland.

Events took a turn for the worse when a second hunger striker, Francis Hughes, died the following week. A furious crowd tried to ransack the British embassy in Dublin.

The men’s home nations tournament was promptly cancelled when Northern Ireland’s opponents refused to travel.

But the two women’s associations forged very friendly relations, shared it seems by the players and staff on both sides.

England


At the time of this match, Martin Reagan’s ambitious revamp – introducing interregional fixtures as a route to the England team – had yet to bear fruit. In 1980 he won one, drew one and lost one of his three games in charge.

ENGLAND
Terry Wiseman .1
(c) Carol Thomas .2
Angie Gallimore .3
Sheila Parker .4
(out HT) Linda Coffin.5
(out HT) Linda Curl .6
Debbie Bampton .7
Liz Deighan .8
(out 54) Tracy Doe.9
Eileen Foreman.10
Janet Turner.11
Substitutes:
(in HT) Maureen Reynolds
(in HT) Gillian Coultard
(in 54) Christine HutchinsonCoach:
Martin Reagan

This was England’s first visit to Ireland and was a rather belated return fixture to the 6–1 win at St James’ Park, Exeter in May 1978.

Uncapped players Gillian Coultard and Angela Gallimore were drafted in ahead of this match, as Reagan began carefully crafting the side which went all the way to the inaugural European Championships final in 1984.

Coultard was 18 but had apparently been held back from senior international football to aid her development. Some four years earlier she had been playing in the old Probables v Possibles trials match (for the Probables).

It was the worst kept secret in women’s football that tough-tackling Doncaster Belle Coultard was already one of the best in the country. But Reagan made “keep it simple” her mantra in order to harness her fantastic talent for the team’s benefit.

Gallimore played for the Broadoak club, based in the Middleton area of Manchester. A defender who was strong in the air and possessed a wand of a left foot, she too went on to enjoy a fine England career, before a knee injury wrecked it after 35 caps.

Theresa “Terry” Wiseman had taken over as first-choice goalkeeper from Sue Buckett. It was reported in the Irish newspapers that Wiseman was a Londoner with green roots, as one of her parents hailed from County Cork. Presumably Martin Reagan and Liz Deighan could also boast of Irish heritage somewhere in their own family trees.

England were without Pat Chapman, so St Helens-born winger Janet Turner played on the left flank.

The match


After eight minutes England took the lead. Right-back Gabrielle Byrne, a Kells LFC player from Drogheda, inadvertently turned the ball into her own net under intense pressure from Janet Turner.

Ireland were outmatched but scrapped for a foothold in the match during the first half. Teresa McCann was prominent in midfield as the Girls in Green worked hard to shut down the wide open spaces of “Dalyer”.

Disaster befell Ireland on the stroke of half time; Tracy Doe’s fine cross was headed powerfully into the net by her strike partner Eileen Foreman.

The two-goal cushion persuaded Reagan to roll the dice at the interval. Coultard was brought on for Linda Curl, who at that stage was a fixture on the right of England’s midfield three.

That gave England their second debutante of the day. Gallimore had impressed after starting at left-back.

Inspired by what the Irish Independent called a “wonderful performance” from Coultard, England went further ahead on 50 minutes. Half-time substitute Maureen Reynolds of Lowestoft got the goal.

The fourth goal came from Christine Hutchinson on 58 minutes, five minutes after she entered the fray as England’s final substitute.

A tough Geordie with a talent for arm-wrestling, Hutchinson’s playing career took in Wallsend, Percy Main and Whitley Bay. But she was also a PE teacher and successfully got girl’s football on the timetable in 1986.

As Ireland ran out of steam Reynolds’s second goal made it 5–0 on 65 minutes.

The decidedly blunt match report in the now-defunct Irish Press blamed: “a blatant lack of stamina coupled with an extremely shaky defence”.

Reagan showered his squad with praise, taking the same 16 players to Japan later that year, insisting they had grabbed: “a host of friends and admirers and were a great credit to England”.

With one or two minor tweaks (and the addition of prolific young striker Kerry Davis) this squad formed the basis of the side who pushed Sweden all the way to penalties in the Euro 1984 final.

Coultard ruled England’s midfield roost for the next 19 years, famously becoming the first female England player to scoop a century of caps.

Veronica Guerin


With his Ireland team 5–0 down and the match ebbing away, coach Tony Kelly handed his impetuous substitute Ronnie Guerin a debut cap.

During her short cameo Dunseedy striker Ronnie failed to make any impression on an English defence led by vastly-experienced Sheila Parker – a holdover from the classic Dick, Kerr’s Ladies era.

Young Ronnie grew up into Veronica Guerin, the fearless investigative journalist, immortalised in celluloid by Cate Blanchett.

Her 1996 murder by netherworld drug lords led to an outpouring of national grief and sweeping new laws which sent Dublin’s gangsters scuttling away overseas.

A year before her killing Guerin was shot in the thigh. She was saved from more serious injury when her femur stopped the bullet, a feat attributed to her soccer-toughened bones.

Sports nut Guerin also played basketball for Ireland, before destiny marked out a greater and more noble path than any ball sport.

In a world where “legends” and “heroes” are ten-a-penny, this is a genuine case. And the wider women’s football family can proudly claim her as one of our own.

Players: Sue Hayden

Irish goalkeeping great Sue Hayden

Sue Hayden 1987

Born: 8 July 1962

Position: Goalkeeper / Defender

Debut: v. England (1985)

Occupation: Computer operator (1987), Security printer (1994)

Susan Mary Hayden made her Republic of Ireland debut against England in Euro 1987 qualifying and remained in the squad until the 1999 World Cup campaign. An inspirational presence in the Irish goal, she went on to join Jennings, Bonner and Kelly in the pantheon of all-time greats. Quite simply, she ranks as one of Ireland’s best-ever goalkeepers.

 

Remarkably, many of Hayden’s early Ireland caps were won as a cultured full-back. That was because The Girls in Green had another brilliant young keeper in the shape of Sue Kelly from Cork Celtic.

On the club circuit, Hayden was a regular face in Ireland’s patchwork regionalised setup. She spent the summer months with Rathfarnham United in the Leinster League, then turned out for Greystones in the winter Wicklow League.

The impression is of a hopeless football junkie: “have boots, will travel” and willing to play anywhere to get a game!

1990 saw Hayden acclaimed as Opel Player of the Year, as Rathfarnham swept all before them. A quadruple of league, LFAI Cup, Presidents Cup and Westport 5-a-side gave the club its annus mirabilis.

In Ireland’s topsy-turvy Euro 1993 qualifying campaign Hayden, now settled in goal, ran the full gamut of ecstasy to agony.

She backstopped Ireland’s incredible smash n’ grab in Spain – repelling attack after attack from stars including Itziar, Jose Maria Bakero’s footballing sister.

Olivia O’Toole’s deft free kick past future Arsenal goalie Roser Serra gave Ireland their greatest ever win. But nine months later in Borås, Hayden was between the sticks for a 10–0 humbling by Sweden.

Ireland’s plucky grafters had no answer to the bison strength and tall, muscular athleticism of the Super Swedes – bronze medalists at the previous year’s World Cup in China.

It was a black day for Irish football and a grave disappointment to all involved. The Football Association of Ireland, previously disdainful of women and girls, hoiked the team out of the 1995 Euros to avert further embarrassment.

A restoration project, mostly paid for by the lucrative World Cup exploits of Jack Charlton’s men, was rolled out under new coach Mick Cooke.

Ireland’s number 9 in that fateful match, who narrowly beat Hayden to the 1993 Opel Player of the Year, was Sue Ronan of the Welsox club. Ronan would one-day (2010) take overall charge of a totally revamped women’s football setup in the Republic.

In August 1994 Ireland hosted a USA XI at Richmond Park in Dublin. They were billed as a ‘USA B’ team, but were apparently an amateur select picked by the USASA organisation, not the American FA (USSF).

It marked the first appearance in Ireland’s senior squad of a gangly prospect from Kildare, Emma Byrne, who had turned 15 earlier that summer and was already a fixture in the FAI’s new under-16 team.

By then Moreen Celtic’s player-coach, 32-year-old Hayden had 29 caps and was the national squad’s senior player. The wise owl took Byrne under her wing. In some ways this mirrored the sorcerer–apprentice relationship between their male counterparts of the time, Donegal duo Packie Bonner and Shay Given.

Byrne’s stellar career with English club Arsenal brought an avalanche of silverware and extended into the FA WSL era. This meant decent press coverage and a level of professionalism, or near-professionalism, that Hayden’s generation could only dream of.

But Byrne never forgot Hayden’s kindness and rarely misses a chance to heap praise and gratitude on her former mentor.

It is said “One repays a teacher badly if one remains only a pupil”.1 During the Euro 1997 qualifiers Byrne stepped up to be Ireland’s first choice, with Hayden looking on proudly from the bench.

That was not the end, though. Far from it! Honourable patriot Hayden had returned to plug away with Rathfarnham United and humbly answered Ireland’s call during the 1999 World Cup qualifying campaign.

In 2002 evergreen Hayden and her ex-Ireland team mate Siobhán Furlong were drafted into Shamrock Rovers’ UEFA Women’s Cup squad. It was the first time any Irish club had made a sortie into the premier continental women’s competition.

At the mini-tournament in Niš, Rovers beat Croatians Osijek but lost to Serbian hosts Masinac and German cracks Frankfurt.

FACTFILE: Outfield GoaliesWomen’s Football Archive recently profiled Claire Lacey, who played in goal for England but often outfield for her clubs.

Pauline Cope herself was a sometime centre-half with Millwall Lionesses, where her whole-hearted efforts earned the sobriquet “Chopper”!

Liz Deighan called Cope up to the WFA’s England under-21 team as a goalie, while she was still playing outfield for her club.

Sue Buckett played her first games for Southampton outfield, before pulling on the gloves and becoming England’s original number 1.

Versatile Donny Belles legend Karen “Skiller” Skillcorn wore shirt numbers 1 to 11 during her career with the South Yorkshire giants. She played twice for England.

It seems that the goalkeeper position has not always enjoyed the specialized consideration it does in the women’s game of today.

Even in more recent times, Kay Hawke—a brilliant custodian worth far more than her measly one England cap—had to move to second tier Lincoln because her top flight club had no proper goalkeeper coaching.

 

1. Swiss upstart Carl Jung famously wielded this quote from Nietzsche’s Zarathustra in an impertinent letter to Austrian elder Sigmund Freud.