Tony Grealish: Ireland footballer who also played in the FA Cup final

He shone for his country in a nicely balanced midfield with Liam Brady and Gerry Daly

Tony Grealish was an effervescent little footballing tiger who prowled central midfield for seven clubs and the Republic of Ireland during an 18-year senior career stretching from the mid 1970s to the 1990s, and encompassing some 700 games. With his beard, tousled hair and combatively dynamic approach, there was an almost piratical aspect to Grealish, who was born a Londoner but owed his international opportunities to a father who hailed from Galway and maternal grandparents from Limerick.

As one of the game's perennial wanderers he never became indelibly associated with any one club, though his heroic contribution to the progress of his first employer, Orient, to the last four of the FA Cup in 1978, and his captaincy of Brighton in the 1983 final against Manchester United, were notable highlights. For his country he shone often in a beautifully balanced midfield triumvirate with Liam Brady and Gerry Daly as Ireland failed agonisingly, on goal difference, to reach the finals of the World Cup in 1982.

Brady was a consummate artist and Daly was also full of craft, but although Grealish might be remembered principally for his ceaseless industry, passionate commitment and formidable toughness, his own ball skills were not negligible and should not be downplayed.

Having excelled at both Gaelic and association football as a boy, he was signed by Second Division Orient as an apprentice in 1972, turned professional two years later, scored on his first full appearance, at home to Nottingham Forest in November 1974, and soon was a regular in George Petchey's Brisbane Road side. Grealish's first full cap arrived when he was 19, as a stand-in full-back in a friendly against Norway in March 1976, but it was not until the qualifiers for the European Championships of 1980 that he earned a regular midfield berth.

His game blossomed further under the new Orient manager Jimmy Bloomfield and he starred as the east Londoners beat Middlesbrough in an FA Cup sixth-round replay in 1978 before bowing to Arsenal in the semis. With the Grealish potential attracting ever-wider attention, Luton Town manager David Pleat recruited him in August 1979, the £150,000 fee set by a transfer tribunal after the O's had initially demanded more than twice that amount. He thrived at Kenilworth Road, boosting the Hatters in two attempts to rise from the second tier, both of which fell just short, before a £100,000 deal took him to top-flight Brighton in July 1981.

At first the gutsy newcomer faced flak from fans upset that he was replacing a Goldstone Ground favourite, Brian Horton – who that summer made the opposite journey, from Brighton to Luton – but gradually they were as engaged by his heart-on-sleeve enthusiasm and all-action style as were his team-mates by his bubbly humour.

However, he could not prevent their slide into the Second Division in 1983, the gloom being mitigated only by an exhilarating run to the FA Cup final. An abiding image of that Wembley encounter with the Old Trafford giants was of Grealish, deputising as captain for the suspended Steve Foster, leading the team out beneath the twin towers, wearing Foster's trademark headband as a tribute to the regular leader.

That day, as Grealish toiled productively alongside the marvellous Jimmy Case, he set up a late equaliser for the impressive young Gary Stevens, and the game finished 2-2. Foster was back for the replay, which United won 4-0, and the Seagulls were left to face a second-tier future.

Grealish remained at the Goldstone only until March 1984, when his former Republic of Ireland team-mate and manager, Johnny Giles, paid £75,000 to take him back to the First Division with West Bromwich Albion. At the Hawthorns he acquitted himself with typical zest, only to suffer another demotion in the spring of 1986, by which time he had won the last of his 45 full caps, the majority of them under the inspirational Giles and the methodical Eoin Hand, and he had captained his country 17 times.

Grealish's next club was Manchester City, who paid £20,000 for his services in October 1986, but the season ended with an unwelcome personal hat-trick as he experienced his third fall from the elite grade. Having reached his thirties, in August 1987 the gritty midfielder, still as competitive as ever, enlisted with Third Division Rotherham United, with whom he suffered yet another relegation in 1988 before finally sampling promotion joy a seson later when the Merry Millers rose from the basement division as champions.

After helping them to consolidate at the higher level, Grealish moved to Fourth Division Walsall in August 1990, spending one campaign as a regular and another mainly on the sidelines before leaving the League for Bromsgrove Rovers in 1992. Later came coaching roles with a succession of Midlands non-League clubs and work in insurance and the scrap-metal business.

Tony Grealish was the uncle of the rapper Elliot Gleave, better known as Example.

Anthony Patrick Grealish, footballer; born Paddington, London 21 September 1956; played for Orient 1974-79, Luton Town 1979-81, Brighton and Hove Albion 1981-84, West Bromwich Albion 1984-86, Manchester City 1986-87, Rotherham United 1987-90, Walsall 1990-92; capped 45 times by the Republic of Ireland 1976-85; partner (one son, one daughter); died Ilfracombe, Devon 23 April 2013.

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