Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Do You Remember The First Time?

A treasured memory from my childhood seemed a little further away today when I heard of the untimely passing of Tony Grealish, a stalwart member of the Irish team that was so cruelly robbed of qualification for Espana '82. Ireland finished 3rd on goal difference in a group that contained two of the eventual semi-finalists in Belgium and France as well as Holland, with only 2 points separating the top 4 teams.

Add to this the fact that Ireland had perfectly good goals disallowed away to both France and Belgium and that the Belgium winner in Brussels came from a free won by a dive in addition to a clear foul on the goalkeeper, I'm sure that being deprived of the chance to play on the biggest stage in world football in that fashion would have rankled with such a genuinely honest and committed player as Grealish was.

But despite the fact that Grealish had a superb personal qualifying campaign in central midfield alongside Liam Brady, scoring in the home games against Belgium and Cyprus, that's not what I really remember him most for.

They say you never forget your first, your first kiss, your first love etc.  Well, Tony Grealish was the player who scored the first goal I ever witnessed Ireland score in the flesh which kick-started the love affair I've had with the Boys In Green ever since.

It was only a mickey mouse friendly against the USA in October 1979 that's better remembered these days for the fact that Chris Hughton made his debut and thus became the first black player to represent us. But, although I'd been brought to Croke Park on a number of occasions to watch Heffo's army as they cut a swathe through the best that the GAA could produce, this was the first time to be brought to my Mecca, the home of Irish football, Dalymount Park.

Despite being young enough to spend most of the game on my Da's shoulders, I can still remember it as if it was yesterday.  I can remember making our way up the Connaught Street end and finding a spot at the back under the famous King crisps sign which would be familiar to anyone who watched any matches on tv back then and which seemed gigantic to me.

I can remember that sinking feeling that I've gotten so used to over the years as Ireland went behind early on against a country that were minnows in football terms back them.  I can remember the annoyance of my Dad and his mates as Ireland huffed and puffed but couldn't get back into the game and the good-natured resignation as they said "here we go again".  And I remember the curses that filled the air when the USA went 2-0 up not long after the hour mark.

But then it happened.  I can't recall much of the build-up as it happened so quick as Ireland attacked pretty much straight from the restart but the ball somehow made it's way to Tony Grealish and next thing it hit the net.  Suddenly I was bouncing up and down with my Dad as the atmosphere changed in the space of a minute from one of embarrassment to a feeling that the game was there for the taking.

Sure enough, once Ireland had their tails up the USA crumbled and substitute Don Given equalised within a couple of minutes before another sub, John Anderson hit the winner two minutes after that.   From 2-0 down on 63 minutes, Ireland were 3-2 up after 68 with the other two goals coming within 4 minutes of Grealish putting us back in the game! I can remember thinking that if every football match was like this I'd like my Dad to bring me more often!

From there on I always took an interest in his career at club level as a boy and remember rooting for him in the 1983 Cup Final as he led Brighton out as captain v Man Utd due to Steve Foster's absence wearing Foster's trademark headband as a mark of solidarity with his suspended teammate.  There were numerous Irish players playing that day with three and a sub for Brighton and two and a sub for Man Utd but the fact that an Irish player might actually lift the FA Cup really caught my interest.

And he came so close in the last minute with that famous 'and Smith must score!' line roared by the commentator before Gordon Smith somehow contrived not to and instead fluffed his shot straight at Gary Bailey.  Although Grealish wasn't captain in the replay with Foster's return, I can still recall how gutted he looked going up to collect his losers medal as Man Utd ran out easy winners. And still recall how gutted I felt for him myself.

At international level, I saw him play many more times in the early '80s as my Dad often brought me again untill I got old enough to start heading in with my own mates around the same time as the Jack Charlton reign began. Unfortunately, Grealish was one of only a couple of players from the Hand era who never got a chance under Jack as a move to Man City didn't work out and he dropped down through the leagues.  In fairness we had an abundance of players who could play in his position with the great Paul McGrath often having to be accommodated there due to the quality we had at centre half but I was always sorry that he got stuck on 45 caps when 50 was considered a huge achievement back then.

By the time we started qualifying for the tournaments that he was cheated out of appearing in in 1982, he was seeing out his career with Rotherham and Wallsall but he was never forgotten by a certain vintage of supporter who grew up admiring his tenacity and never say die attitude, not to mention his trademark beard!  He also represented the 2nd generation fans with pride as, despite his London accent, you only had to look at him to know he was Irish through and through even before finding out that he played hurling and Gaelic football as a child and actually represented London in the All Ireland in his youth.  I have no doubt that he brought his battling qualities to the fore in the fight with his illness but unfortunately this was one fight he just couldn't win.  

Since that day back all of 34 years ago I've travelled far and wide supporting the Irish team and have long lost count of the amount of home games I've been to or the amount of goals I've seen us score. Hopefully I'll see many more.  But no matter how many I've seen or how many more I will in the future there'll only ever be one first.

Rest in peace, Tony Grealish.  Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.