The Wrong Foreigner
Leaving Arsenal for Juventus in 1980 was a huge step but Liam Brady thrived in Italy
“He’s obsessed with Liam Brady and Arsenal. He always wears his scarf and on the way to every session he goes and stands in the middle of Highbury and pays the cab to wait for him.”
Guy Stevens, record producer on seminal album London Calling, as recalled by Mick Jones of The Clash
Guy Stevens once poured beer into a piano “to make it sound better.” Guy Stevens once said, “There are only two Phil Spectors in the world and I’m one of them.” Guy Stevens adored music and acoustics. Guy Stevens worshipped Liam Brady.
It was Stevens who shaped the sound of London Calling. That record’s title track would later be played as Arsenal emerged from the tunnel at the ground which replaced Highbury, the Emirates Stadium.
Liam Brady didn’t know this. Brady had never heard of Guy Stevens. Now Brady reads, mildly perplexed, of how London Calling was recorded at Wessex studios near Highbury, of how Stevens would arrive at the stadium in a black cab every day, keep the meter running while he walked out into the centre circle and gazed up at the stands seeking inspiration, of Stevens’s Liam Brady scarf, of The Clash’s one-time manager, Bernie Rhodes, saying, “We picked Guy Stevens because we wanted a nutcase.”
Brady looks up and says, “They were a bit heavy for me, The Clash. Semi-punkish, weren’t they?
“I quite like some punk.”
Brady attracted many lyrical descriptions during a bountiful 17-year playing career but given how he faced down two domineering institutions – the Catholic church and Arsenal Football Club – by the age of 23, Brady was some punk himself. In 1979, as The Clash recorded a soundtrack for a generation, Brady had established himself as one of the greatest footballers in Europe. That year he came seventh in the voting for the European Footballer of the Year – he was in the top ten three years in a row – and in England he was voted the PFA Footballer of the Year. Brady was on the way to making over 300 appearances for Arsenal, having had a debut at 17. But in 1979 London was no longer calling him, he was on his way out of Arsenal. At 23, Brady informed the club he would leave at the end of the 1979-80 season.
He had seen Kevin Keegan move from England to Hamburg, Tony Woodcock move from England to Cologne and Brady wanted to join them in Germany. An island of independent thought on the pitch, Brady’s self-determination on it meant that even in that era he had an agent. He was a rare footballer: “Thinkers are the deadliest men,” he once said.
Brady’s agent was in contact with Bayern Munich – “So much so that I was learning German at home,” he says. “I thought it was more or less a done deal.” That 1979-80 season at Arsenal turned into a 68-game marathon. The club reached the quarter-final of the League Cup, the final of the FA Cup and the final of the European Cup Winners’ Cup. Arsenal came fourth in the league.
Brady played in 58 of those games, two of which were against Juventus in the semi- final of the Cup Winners’ Cup. Arsenal were victorious but in the space of five days in May 1980 Arsenal lost the FA Cup final to West Ham and the Cup Winners’ Cup final to Valencia.
But that was not the end. Two outstanding fixtures in the old First Division remained, at Wolves and Middlesbrough. Brady played in both. As he did, Bayern Munich withdrew. Brady got married that same month. He and Sarah flew to America on honeymoon. Their futures were up in the air.
“When I landed at the airport it was swarming with Juventus supporters. They were on the tarmac. [Giovanni] Trapattoni stood at the bottom of the plane’s steps to meet me, there were reporters from the press, TV, it was like rolling news. I hadn’t expected it. It was a bit daunting. Then they put me on their shoulders and carried me into the terminal – these are vivid memories coming back. We did a bit of a press conference at the airport, then there was a car to take me to their training camp – ritiro. I went in time for an evening meal with the players. The players all stood up in the restaurant when I walked in, shook hands with me. The captain, Giuseppe Furino, welcomed me. They had a translator and Furino said to me, ‘We know you’re going to do a great job for us,’ and handed me the No 10 shirt. That first night, they put me in a room with Roberto Bettega. They would have done the same for anyone. But what a welcome.”
Liam Brady is describing another flight and another airport – Turin’s – which followed his return from the US. This had not been part of the honeymoon plan. A life in Italy and a career in Italian football had not featured in Brady’s discussions and he had even resumed pre-season training with Arsenal, the club still hopeful of a change of heart.
Stalled, Brady was adamant he was departing – “I didn’t want to be eating any humble pie.” The arrival of a man called Gigi Peronace changed Brady’s direction.
“Peronace was an Italian Mr Fixit,” Brady explains. “He was saying Italian clubs would be interested. But nothing materialised. So I went pre-season training with Arsenal. I was wanting to go, I’d told Arsenal a year before. But it was only then that Juventus said they wanted to sign me.”
July 1980: for Italy and for Juventus, as well as Brady, this was momentous. For 16 years Italian clubs had been barred from signing foreigners; from the age of 15 Brady had been with Arsenal. Suddenly he was essential to the ornate re-invention of Serie A.
“There was nobody over in Italy at the time, they’d closed their borders. They’d decided that World Cup failures were down to having too many foreigners in Italy. I didn’t know that then. But in 1980 they decided to allow foreigners back in, they wanted to make their league more attractive and their top clubs weren’t having much success at European level. Real Madrid always had foreign players, Barcelona had had [Johan] Cruyff. So I got signed.
“Juventus are a huge club, so I didn’t hesitate. I spoke to Peronace, he was full of praise for the club and the Agnelli family who ran it. I knew it was a great club, I’d played against Juventus in the Cup Winners’ Cup, I’d played against their players, and I knew them all from watching the World Cup and European Championships.”
Italy’s self-imposed high wall had been erected in response to the World Cups of 1958, when they lost out in qualification to Northern Ireland, and 1962 in Chile, when Italy did not get out of their group. Italian frustration was confirmed by the 1966 embarrassment of losing to North Korea at Ayresome Park.
This was a new era. Not since another former Arsenal man, Paddy Sloan from Lurgan, joined AC Milan had an Irishman played in Italy. And that was in 1948. Juve had Brady, Roma signed the brilliant Brazilian Falcão, Inter brought the Austrian playmaker Herbert Prohaska to the San Siro. More would follow – Zbigniew Boniek, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge and, dramatically for Brady, Michel Platini. “This was just the start,” Brady says of the Serie A revival. He admits to “a few butterflies, a few,” but this was a self-confessed “cocky” young man. So there were no nerves in that first training session at Juve’s ritiro? “Nah, I wouldn’t have had a problem in that area. I was always pretty confident.” Such self-belief, added to the cocoon of professional football, aided acclimatisation.
But even if initially the language was a welcome barrier to the intense calcio culture all around Brady, he had an awareness of pressure and expectation. Juve had not won the Serie A title in the previous two seasons. They had never won the European Cup. Brady’s mission in Turin was to rectify this.
He was the new No 10, after all. At Arsenal, Brady’s left foot, vision and zip over five yards had seen him grow naturally into the team’s creative director. In Italy he discovered this was a more formal status.
“It was the responsibility that was put on you. In England you weren’t nominated as the most important player or the playmaker. In Italy you were nominated. It was a bit like a quarterback in American football. It was emphasised. The recognition, even from your own teammates, was there. You had to do it. You’re the No 10, they give you the ball.
“It meant I was just purely focused on being creative. As my teammates got to know me, they’d make runs for me to find them. [Marco] Tardelli was a bit like Terry McDermott, arriving late in that Liverpool team. We had [Pietro] Fanna up front who had speed and who could spin. And I had the ability to take people on.
“I played a completely different game. Trapattoni would say to me that he didn’t want me running up and down the pitch. In England I would have been considered a Hoddle or a Brooking – who wasn’t doing his work.
“But in Italy that was my role. Trequartista. No 10. You were marked man for man, so you have to know what you are going to do with the ball before it comes to you. You have to be always thinking. When you’re a playmaker, you can’t get the ball, then decide what to do, you have to know. If you watch footage of Platini, you see him walking with the ball – a lot. I used to say that when I was coaching the kids at Arsenal: ‘Walk with the ball, you’ve got more time to think.’ Platini walked with it, head up, thinking: ‘Right, who’s going to move for me?’ Like a quarterback. Then, ‘pop’, a pass. Those players have disappeared.”
First impressions were good. Brady took to Turin and Juventus took to Brady. But he soon understood this was a gentle introduction to Italian domestic football, via the Coppa Italia. Juventus were top of a seeded group stage which preceded the Serie A season. Brady’s real introduction, he felt, came on the league season’s opening day, mid-September 1980, at Cagliari in Sardinia, an island more than 400 miles south of Turin. It was, Brady remembers, hotter than your average September day in north Dublin.
“We’d the early rounds of the Italian Cup. It was a group phase. The Cup was a bit of a nothing competition until the semi-final and final. The focus was on the league, the game at Cagliari. So I had about seven weeks before my debut. It was in Sardinia and it was fucking boiling. We’d been playing at night time in the Cup, this was the daytime, about 90 degrees. On the day I struggled. I really suffered, oh yeah.
“The reaction in the papers was that I was ‘not impressive’. The critics had been favourable until then, but the real thing hadn’t started. I was beginning to understand what people were saying, bits and pieces. We drew 1-1, we were expected to win, I wasn’t happy with the way I’d played. Trapattoni was fine, he understood, he said to me: ‘It was hot.’”
There was more heat to come. If the temperature on the pitch got to a pale Irishman, there was a scene afterwards that pricked Brady and stayed with him.
He paints a picture: “We were on the bus, ready to leave. I was sat on my own. One of the directors, a dirigente, asked somebody how Inter had got on, because they were the champions. The reply was: ‘They won 4-0.’ Something like that.
“‘And Prohaska?’ – the dirigente asked. ‘Yeah, he played well.’ Brady heard the Juventus director respond to this news with: ‘Maybe we’ve got the wrong foreigner.’”
Brady was not yet fluent in Italian but he had grasped the language quickly and he understood both the words and, more so, the sentiment. All these years later he repeats: sbagliato stranieri – the wrong foreigner.
“I took note. I remembered it when he was kissing me at the end of the season. One game in … but then directors are like that.”
Presumably there was no such comment the following week when Juventus beat Como at home. This was Brady’s first taste of the Stadio Comunale; he remembers nothing bar the outcome. It was all a happy blur, though it was not the beginning of a surge. Over the next five weeks, Juventus drew at Brescia, Ascoli and Perugia. They lost at home to Bologna and Torino. Mighty Juve were in the bottom half of the table and to some it seemed as if they actually had signed the wrong foreigner.
The Torino game was a city derby, though as Brady explains: “It was not so big – like Man United v Man City years ago, when City weren’t so good.”
But looming next were Inter. This was il Derby d’Italia – Italy’s derby. The scrutiny is always extreme but in 1980 Inter were champions at a time when AC Milan had been relegated to Serie B in the Totonero match-fixing scandal. There was an even greater focus on Inter-Juve than normal.
“When we lost at home to Torino, I’d struggled,” Brady says. “I was coming in for criticism – ‘He hasn’t made any difference,’ that sort of thing. We lost 2-1 to Torino and I think Bettega was sent off for something he said to the referee. Yeah, the first few games were a bit of a struggle for me. Then we played Inter.”
It might sound overly dramatic to a football realist like Brady, but this was the moment he truly landed in Italy.
“It was a big game for us and I was very good that day. They don’t do Man of the Match, but I got star ratings. I scored a penalty and made the other goal, a long-range shot I hit smacked the crossbar and bounced down. [Gaetano] Scirea bundled it in. We were 2-0 up.
“Inter got a goal late on but we beat them. I was carried off shoulder-high by the players, because it was such a big game.”
To be chaired off on such an occasion is some image, some memory, even for someone as decorated as Brady.
“After that it was a breeze. As the season went on I was flying. We won 5-1 at Bologna, I scored two, at Pistoiese I scored a great individual goal. The consensus was that I was a great success and that Juventus had signed the right player – the right foreigner. We lost only one more match the rest of the season and that was at Inter.
“But during that time when I struggled, you’d get the newspaper ratings, they had a column: ‘How the foreigners are doing.’ The four sporting papers had ratings and they took the average. The press had power, for sure, but I think they were pretty objective. I always had confidence in myself, that I was going to do it. But if I’d known all that was being said out there, how mad it was, my bottle might have gone. Thankfully it didn’t.”
Taking penalties helped Brady’s assimilation. A fortnight earlier, Juve’s troubled autumn also included elimination from the Uefa Cup.
Having drawn 4-4 on aggregate with Poland’s Widzew Łódź, Juve lost the penalty shoot-out, at home, 4-1. Brady’s penalty was Juve’s only successful strike and from then he assumed the role previously held by Franco Causio. That task mattered against Inter – “It gave me great confidence” – and it was to become more significant.
Elimination from Europe meant Juve’s season became about re-taking the Serie A title. “We were head to head with Roma for a long time and we played them with three games to go. It was a hugely controversial game – 0-0. They had a goal disallowed for offside. To this day, in Rome, they say that’s a goal that should have stood.”
It did not. On the season’s final afternoon, Juve met Fiorentina at a heaving Comunale one point ahead of Roma. A 1-0 home win brought the title back to Turin and just as importantly brought back European Cup football the next season. For Brady it brought vindication.
“When we won the title I felt really, really proud,” he says. “I scored eight goals, the top scorer in league for the team. It wasn’t a lot, but Bettega had been banned for a while. A lot of people had said: ‘What’s he doing going to Italy? It’s defensive, horrible.’ I remember Keegan saying that he didn’t want to go to Italy because his wife was frightened his children might be kidnapped. It was shite.
“There were a lot of people who said I was going to fail, that I’d made a mistake going abroad, maybe they saw me as being a bit of a bighead leaving English football.’
Eventually the Italians even stopped referring to Brady as Inglese.
“I had to keep correcting them. They assumed my culture was a London bowler hat and umbrella. I had to keep reminding them it wasn’t. I suppose I’d come from England and English football. It wasn’t until 1990, Italia 90 really, that Italians thought ‘the Irish are an independent country with their own football team’ – I mean the masses.”
In Ireland, Brady’s Italian progress received little attention. Via Sean Ryan at the Irish Independent, Brady was writing a weekly diary – “So there was some awareness,” Brady says. “But only because of Sean Ryan. You never saw TV footage in Ireland of what I was doing. And Ulick O’Connor, he was a feature writer for the Sunday Times. He came over to see me in Turin. Ireland’s interest is the English league, isn’t it?”
In turn, Brady felt a sense of removal from his previous life and times: “There was no Internet then, no mobile phones. I used to go to get the Sunday papers on a Monday at Turin station. That’s how I kept up with what was going on.
“But I was detached. One of the things I do remember from 1980 was being told John Lennon was shot. I was in a car with three teammates – I think we were going to get Christmas presents – and I heard them talking in the car. ‘John Lennon e morto.’ I was in shock.”
That 1980-81 Serie A title meant the following season Juventus were back in the European Cup. And the first-round draw meant Brady was back in the Irish, and British, public eye. It was Celtic versus Juventus.
“I couldn’t wait to come back,” Brady said, “to show myself playing in this team. It was great. I got an unbelievable reception in Glasgow when they read my name out in the team line-up. My folks were over from Ireland, relations, all that. Great. Celtic beat us 1-0.
“It was a night that certainly left a mark on me. When I was offered the Celtic job [a decade later], I remembered.”
In the return leg, Juve won 2-0. They met Anderlecht in the second round. Brady was confident prior to the first leg in Brussels: “I was hoping we’d win the European Cup, we had the team to win it.
“But we were beaten by Anderlecht. I have no evidence but that was at a time when the Belgians were buying everything. I’ve a feeling that was fixed, that match. You look into the referee. He was English and he was struck off. Anderlecht beat us 3-1. I think that was fixed.”
The English referee was Clive White. At the end of that 1981-82 season White resigned from England’s Football League referee list after admitting a charge of deception in court.
That is not proof of wrongdoing eight months earlier in Brussels, however, though Anderlecht were subsequently found to have bribed the referee of their 1984 Uefa Cup semi-final against Nottingham Forest. The Brussels club were banned from Europe for 12 months.
That Anderlecht 81 still rankles with Brady is obvious. “Aston Villa went on to win it that year. We could have won it. That’s another thing that would have counted against me with Agnelli.”
Agnelli was Gianni Agnelli, head of the family who owned Juventus. He was a billionaire, known as the uncrowned King of Italy, a sleek, Gatsby figure. His family’s fortune stemmed in part from their ownership of car manufacturers Fiat.
“Juventus had never won the European Cup, you see,” Brady says. “That was the Holy Grail. They couldn’t view themselves on a par with the likes of Real Madrid unless they won it. Inter and AC Milan had it over Juventus because they’d won it. That was a big thing for the Agnelli family.”
Agnelli’s style was to suggest players to the Juventus manager, rather than dictate. But it amounted to the same thing.
Serie A’s 1980 experiment had been a success and the foreigner quota was expanded to two per club, so Juve signed Boniek from Widzew Łódź. Brady and Boniek: all at Juve thought that was the future.
Giampiero Boniperti, club chairman and a Juve legend, even confirmed it officially. But Boniperti knew that Agnelli had already visited France to meet Michel Platini. There was a sensational transfer being kept under the radar.
It was now April 1982 and Juventus were three games away from sealing a second consecutive Serie A title, their 20th in all. Fiorentina were pushing them hard. Their foreigner was Argentina’s World Cup winner, Daniel Bertoni.
But when a flight control officer in Lyon leaked details of a private jet carrying Platini to Milan, the news broke. Brady was in anguish, undermined, shocked and angry. “Devastated.”
He has been asked repeatedly down the decades since about this, because of what happened next. On the season’s final day Fiorentina were above Juventus on goal difference. Both were away from home. Juve had to beat Fiorentina’s result, and they did. While Fiorentina drew at Cagliari, Juve won 1-0 at Catanzaro. It was via a penalty-kick from Liam Brady.
“What happened at the end at Juventus was very hard for me to understand then, but I understand now,” he says. “It was shocking to me at the time. But that’s the way it is, there was a foreign player Agnelli wanted – Platini – and what Agnelli wants, he gets.”
Brady cannot regret something he had no control over. Unlike others, he did not run for home; he moved to just-promoted Sampdoria, then to Inter, then Ascoli.
“I probably played better football at Sampdoria than at Juventus. We won our first three games [Juve, Inter, Roma], we were top. We fell away to mid-table. It would have been a Leicester City story. I played well the following season as well, so much so that I’d Inter, Roma and AC Milan all wanting me.”
He moved to Inter in 1984: “The regrets I have are that we didn’t win the league with Inter when we had the team to do it. Rummenigge, Altobelli, Ferri, Zenga, Pepe Baresi, Bergomi. We had a real team. We should have won at least one title and we should have won the Uefa Cup – we were beaten by Real Madrid twice in semi- finals.
“Then when I was leaving Inter I should have waited. But I went to Ascoli and that’s my big regret. Not because of the place or the people, but the president was a rogue. Apart from Ascoli, it was brilliant. The first four years were particularly good, winning two league titles. I went on a bit of a wing and a prayer and it turned out great.”
Seven years Brady stayed in Italy. He was anything but the wrong foreigner.
This is an edited extract from Michael Walker’s book Green Shoots: Irish Football Histories published by DeCoubertin Books.