INTERVIEW / Preaching to the faithful from an Italian translation: Liam Brady was a hero in Dublin. He was a hero in London and a hero in Turin. Now he is in Glasgow, where success may lead to sainthood

Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
Sitting in silence in the boardroom at Celtic Football Club in Glasgow, waiting for the manager, trying to rest my eyes, wishing I'd brought sun specs. Green as far as the eye can see, a harsh, horrible green that makes every leather chair, sofa and carpet look phoney. Emerald green, of course. From the club's Irish origins in 1888.

Every 10 minutes a guide comes through, ushering another group, come to worship in front of showcases filled with trophies, draped in green and white ribbons. The same speak-your-weight spiel, the same intakes of breath at the same stories. How Celtic won a World Champions cup in 1895. Nivver. That's Patsy Gallacher's medal. Charlie Tully's personal ring. Tales of long-gone 7-1 and 7-2 victories over Rangers. Then the great team of 1967, who won everything, including the European Cup. Aye, that was something. Then a hesitant request to take photographs of each other, in front of the altars.

There's a passion about football in Glasgow not equalled elsewhere in Britain, not even in Liverpool or Newcastle. And if you follow Celtic, it becomes an act of faith. You feel the rest of the world is against you. A Catholic club, surrounded by a sea of Protestants, with the dreaded Rangers, number one enemy.

Ah, a flash of pink. I can rearrange the old eyes. It is the manager, now at his desk, reading La Gazetta dello Sport, one of two Italian football newspapers he gets every day. A British football manager reading Italian? And at Celtic? A club obsessed by its own history? Since 1888, every manager has been a former Celtic player. Liam Brady is the first outsider. In more ways than three. How he came to be here covers the story of British football these past 20 years.

He's 36, born in Dublin, the last of seven children, son of a dockyard worker who played a bit of Gaelic football. By the age of eight, Liam wanted to be a professional footballer, corny ambition, for any eight-year-old, but not so fanciful in his case. Big brother Ray had gone to London, aged 17, uninvited, knocked on Millwall's door, asked for a trial and was taken on. He then said: I've got a brother Paddy, he's not bad, have a look at him. Later came Frank. All three became professionals. (Pat is now a lecturer in economics in London. Frank has his own design business in Dublin. Ray has a pub in Kent).

No need to give little Liam a leg up when his time came. The world beat its own way to his door. He was Ireland's schoolboy wonder. At 13, Arsenal had nabbed him. At 15, he left for London. Were there, er, any special inducements? 'Nothing. My parents were brought over and treated, that was about all. My mother always talked a lot and she told Arsenal's chief scout that I'd be OK as long as I was given lots of chips, so the chief scout said: 'We'll call him Chippy'. In that one second, I was given a nickname which lasted throughout my eight years at Arsenal. Strange. I was never called that in Ireland, or anywhere else.'

He felt homesick in the first few months, in digs with strangers, but he didn't run away like George Best or Graeme Souness. He managed to stick it out till Christmas, when he went home to Dublin. And stayed there. 'The chief scout kept ringing me, wanting me to come back, but he handled it well, never bullying me. After three weeks, I began to miss Arsenal, so I decided to go back. I was never homesick again. Ever.'

At 17, he was in the first team, loved by the North Bank, winner of a Cup Final medal. Then at 24, he told them he was going abroad when his contract ended. 'I wanted to be up front with the club and the fans. I'd seen how well Kevin Keegan had done in Germany, so I fancied going there. I'll admit the money was a big attraction, but it wasn't the number one reason. I just wanted to live and play football abroad.'

He was about to get married to an English girl called Sarah, whom he'd met in Dublin. She'd been working at the theatre festival. Together, they started learning German. Bayern Munich was after him, so he was told. Then nothing.

'My contract came up, and I was left with egg on my face. I'd told everyone I was going to Germany. Man United came for me and I had discussions with them, but to be honest, I didn't want to leave Arsenal for another British club. I only wanted abroad.'

He'd never thought of Italy. The history of British players in Italy was poor - Greaves, Law and Baker all doing badly. Only John Charles had been a huge success. There had also been a ban on foreign players, but that was suddenly lifted - and Juventus made an offer. 'I presume they had a shopping list of players. I suddenly came top of it.'

His Juventus salary with bonuses was pounds 200,000 a year, plus car, flights home and other perks. At Arsenal, he was on pounds 40,000 a year - before tax. This was 1980, but the figures are still worth pondering. They explain a lot, such as the exodus of Paul Gascoigne and David Platt. He says that the Italian salaries and benefits are still five times greater. The club presidents in Italy, usually wealthy industrial or media tycoons, are prepared to pay any salary, any inducement. Not even Germany, Europe's richest country, can compete. Most of their World Cup stars played in Italy.

The first culture shock was the Ritiro. This is Italy's pre-season system, a monastic retreat, three weeks in the mountains, away from all fleshpots. In Britain, players knock off training at one o'clock, go home, free to turn on children's television, or wait till the pubs open.

'We all had breakfast together, trained together. After lunch, we were sent to our beds, then wakened at five o'clock for more training. We talked football all day. I did miss my wife, as I'd just got married, and it was a bit lonely, sleeping on my own, but I loved it. It was exciting. If you told the normal British player there would be no sex or booze for three weeks, he'd be knocking the doors down.'

Back in Turin, with his wife, they got a flat, decorated it, bought Italian furniture, bought Italian clothes, ate Italian food. 'It was smashing. I loved everything about Italy.' Except their drinking habits. 'After one match, I said to Marco Tardelli, let's go for a beer. I was ordering my third glass, and he said he'd have to go, he'd finished. I was amazed. I was just getting warmed up. I soon learnt that in Italy, they don't go out drinking for the evening, not the way we do.'

He took Italian lessons and in six months could understand the dressing-room talk. In a year, he could make himself understood. 'The biggest problem was the press. Even in the Ritiro, there were 20 press there every day, looking for stories. They print a lot of trivia, as they have so many pages to fill, but they are more serious, more clued up than British reporters. You are not allowed an indifferent game. As a foreign player, you have a harder time if you're not playing well.'

But he did play well. In his first season, Juventus won the league. Towards the end of the second season, the president called him in. 'I thought it was strange when I saw these press men hanging about. I didn't know then, but I know now, that the president in Italy decides everything. He told me he was replacing me with Platini. It was totally unexpected. Looking back, perhaps I hadn't played the second season as well as the first - but we did win the title again, with me in the team. My first reaction was that's it, I'm going back, but Sarah said don't rule out the possibility of staying. A few weeks later, at the end of the season, Roma wanted me, but the president wouldn't allow it. He didn't want me going to a rival. In the end he agreed I could go to Sampdoria, who had just been promoted.'

As a creative midfield player, with an ever- so-educated left foot, he had always been a playmaker. Now he was told he would be running the team, making it function on the pitch. He and his wife had a seaside home at Nervi, just outside Genoa. Trevor Francis joined the club, so there was English company. 'I played my best football in those two years - and they were very happy.'

When his contract ended, he joined Inter Milan. 'It was exciting playing in the San Siro in front of 90,000, but I began to feel the pressure. I didn't get on as well with the coach. The team was in transition.'

He then made his first mistake. He went to Ascoli. 'I rushed myself into it. I should have waited for a better club. It was the money that did it, which was stupid of me. The town was small and provincial and we didn't like living there. I was soon at loggerheads with the president. I had a bust-up and refused to play. It was a very unpleasant time.'

He returned to England, after seven years in Italy, as a millionaire. 'You say that, I don't say that.' Considering he negotiated every contract without an agent, and got more each time he moved, he must have done pretty well. Unless it went on gambling - and he's still a fan of the horses - or on the stock market, where he still dabbles.

'It's not just the money but the football in Italy which is miles better. They score better goals, individual goals you don't see here. It's not as physical. You don't get the terrible injuries you get in British football. The Italian player is more skilful, more single-minded, more serious.

'We do have something the Italians lack - we can always generate a team spirit. The Danes won the European Nations Cup - not with the best players, but with team spirit. The Italians didn't even qualify - perhaps thanks to the Latin temperament. I think you can generalise. The Italians are . . . superficial, vain, temperamental, very generous, but fickle.'

That last sentence seemed to take him hours, picking each word carefully. Does he think Gazza will survive?

'To succeed, he'll have to learn the language, adapt to their culture, be open minded, not expect things to be the same as at home, not to be rash, to stay calm, not to say, 'I've had enough, I'm going home'. Italians take their football very very seriously. People expect a certain standard, on and off the pitch. But he's an exceptional player, so I'm sure they'll like him.' But will he succeed, given his personality? He looked thoughtful but refused to speculate further.

He finished his own career with West Ham, at the same time reaching a record 72 caps for the Republic of Ireland. They gave him an international testimonial when he retired that made pounds 350,000 - part of which he gave to a drugs charity. He had no intention of becoming a manager. He didn't need the money, or the aggravation. 'I doubted if I had the right personality. I am rather reserved, at least in public. I didn't know if had the knowledge, or the ability to spot players.'

Instead, he set himself up as agent and consultant, handling other footballers. He did that for a year, then began to miss football. 'I didn't like being on the outside, working on the phone putting propositions to people.'

Just over a year ago, a Scottish journalist rang to say his name was being mentioned as a possible manager of Celtic. 'I said it was news to me, and hung up. I then thought about it, and wondered why not, so I rang their chief executive. I went for an interview. Ten days later, I started.'

The culture shock was not quite as great as arriving in Italy. No need to buy the clothes or learn the language, but his geography was hazy. He thought Motherwell would mean an overnight stop, not realising it's just 20 minutes from Glasgow, nor did he know where St Johnstone played (Perth). As for the food, well, he's always liked chips.

'I did have an affinity with Celtic, like any little Catholic boy in Ireland. When their great '67 team came to Dublin, I got their autographs.

'It can't be denied we are still a Catholic club. I should think over 90 per cent of our supporters have an Irish Catholic background, but we have always chosen players irrespective of race or religion. I suppose a lot of Catholic players have always been drawn to Celtic. If I wanted to count up, I could tell by their names, but I've no interest.

'I was told when I joined about 'Celtic's paranoia'. Now I know it's true. We are hard done by. Religiously and politically, there are people against us. I meet people who hate me, just because I'm the manager of Celtic. I've had to grow mentally stronger.'

Usually, the press give new managers their biggest headaches. 'After the pressures of the Italian press, I can cope.' What he hasn't got used to is the office work. 'People ask me what time I want the team coach , which hotel are we staying in, the sort of decisions I never realised had to be made. As a player, everything is done for you.'

His wife and two children, Ella, aged nine, born in Turin; and Michael, aged four, born in London, have settled well. They have what he says is an ordinary, four-bedroom detached house near Hamilton, nothing flash, and live an ordinary life. Ella is at a private Catholic school. 'I always believed in the state system, but in England the Tories have ruined it. Up here, the education is better, but I had to send her to a Catholic school. Her life would be pretty miserable otherwise, with her Da the manager of Celtic.'

It could not have been all that easy when recently her dad was banned for drink-driving, which all Rangers fans loved. 'I wasn't drunk, just over the limit, but I was ashamed. I'd let myself down, and the club.'

It will be interesting to see if he succeeds. British managers come in two models: flash, fluent, loud mouth, aggressive, jewellery an optional extra; or tight-lipped, surly, saying nothing. Liam Brady is neither. He speaks openly, honestly, but very slowly, thoughtfully. On the pitch, he has two instructions: give your all, but go out there and express yourself.

So far, he enjoys managing. 'When you lose as a player, you have a few drinks on Saturday night, and by training on Monday morning, you've got over it. A manager doesn't get over it. It hangs over you all week. On the other hand, the pleasure of winning is greater for a manager.'

(Photograph omitted)

Comments