Ten years on since the passing of Tony Grealish, we look back on his contribution to the Republic of Ireland and the GAA in London
By Damian Dolan
Sunday will mark ten years since the death of one of London Irish’s favourite sons, Tony Grealish. He was just 56 when he passed away on 23 April 2013 following a battle with Cancer.
London born and bred, his death stunned London’s Irish community, and the Irish footballing world.
It was Grealish’s wholehearted approach on the pitch which made him such a fans’ favourite, for both club and country. And a respected teammate and opponent.
Capped 45 caps by the Republic of Ireland between 1976 and 1985, Grealish was a hard-tackling midfielder whom Liam Brady described as “all action”.
It made him the perfect foil for the mercurial talents of the Ireland, Arsenal and Juventus great.
“Tony was very good for me when we played together in midfield because he was a ball winning all action player, and we had a good understanding,” Brady told the Irish World in 2013.
“Around the Ireland dressing room, he was very enthusiastic, determined and very motivating – he liked to motivate everyone around him. He’d be up for every match.”
Speaking to RTE’s Des Cahill on Sports Week in 2001, Grealish described himself as an “aggressive midfield player” – an image somewhat at odds with the gently spoken man himself.
“My idea was to win the ball and let the creative players get on with it – the likes of Liam Brady and Gerry Daly. They were the more cultured players,” he said.
“But I popped up every now and then with a goal or two, which was fantastic. It was great to score, especially at Lansdowne.”
Indeed, Grealish’s eight Ireland goals came at a better scoring rate than Brady’s, as Brady himself observed. Brady scored nine in 72 appearances – a strike rate of 0.12, compared to Grealish’s 0.17.
“He was a goalscorer in his own way and some of his goals were very good, shots from outside the box and clever runs into the box. He was a very bright footballer,” said Brady.
In his book, First Hand My Life and Irish Football, former Ireland manager Eoin Hand said Grealish was “more Irish than the Irish themselves”.
“With his dynamic, combative style in the midfield engine room, Tony, with his tousled hair and Viking beard, was the kind of guy you were happy to go into battle alongside,” he said.
“He was a natural leader, and although known for his ceaseless industry, he was no mere artisan. Grealish could play as well and conjure up the odd goal from deep positions.
“Some players find a new level when they pull on the colours of their country. Tony, who had a nomadic career at club level, always upped his game for Ireland.
“He was, invariably, a consistent name on my team sheet.”
Arguably the greatest moment in Grealish’s club career came when he captained Brighton and Hove Albion in the 1983 FA Cup final at Wembley against a star-studded Manchester United team.
The game ended in a 2-2 draw after extra-time.
In the absence of suspended club captain Steve Foster, who always wore a white headband, Grealish led the Seagulls out onto the Wembley pitch next to United and England skipper Bryan Robson.
In homage to Foster, Grealish donned a white headband for the occasion.
To play at Wembley in a cup final was a “dream”, he told Cahill.
“If you asked professional footballers at that time, ‘what would you like to do in football?’ It would be to get to a cup final – and that was very true with me,” said Grealish.
“I had very good fortune to not only play there (at Wembley), but to lead them (Brighton) out.”
Grealish lined up in the Brighton engine room alongside former Liverpool hard man Jimmy Case, against United’s Robson and Ray Wilkins. Quite the midfield quartet.
The Seagulls team included Irishmen Michael Robinson, Gary Howlett and Gerry Ryan, while Kevin Moran, Frank Stapleton, Ashley Grimes and Norman Whiteside all adorned the United team.
“Tony played really well in the drawn game. Brighton dominated our midfield that day, and he had a really good game against Bryan Robson,” said Stapleton, speaking in 2013.
But for a fantastic late save by United ‘keeper Gary Bailey, Grealish would have been climbing the Wembley steps to lift the FA Cup. ‘And Smith must score…..’ and all that.
Foster returned for the replay five days later, which United won 4-0.
Fitting that exactly ten years to the day of Grealish’s passing, Brighton will be in FA Cup semi-final action on Sunday at Wembley against, of course, Manchester United.
Grealish grew up in a family engrained in the London GAA scene. His father, Pakie, was a founding member of St Gabriel’s hurling club in 1960, and was appointed as the club’s first president.
From Athenry in Galway, Pakie would also serve as treasurer. His mother, Nora, was London-born, with both of her parents coming from Limerick.
Pakie and Nora would later become involved with Moindearg GAA club.
Together they ran The Flora Pub on the Harrow Road in Willesden for many years.
Tony was born in Paddington and as well as a younger brother, Brian, also had two sisters, Anne and Christine.
Tony played underage for St Agnes Gaelic football club in Cricklewood – alongside Brian – and represented London at various underage levels up to Minor.
Brian would go on to establish himself as one of London GAA’s greatest dual players, representing the county at senior level with distinction in both Gaelic football and hurling during the late ‘70s and ‘80s.
Brian hurled for St Gabriel’s and played his football for Moindearg.
Tony’s appearance in the FA Cup final of ’83 ensured him an unusual claim to fame, as reportedly the only person to play soccer and Gaelic football at Wembley Stadium.
He’d previously played there in the early ’70s for London’s Minors against New York in the annual Whit weekend tournament, which ran from 1958 to 1976.
“For a group of London lads, playing at Wembley Stadium was magnificent,” says Éamonn Whelan, a teammate of Grealish’s for St Agnes and London.
“Just walking out through the old Wembley tunnel was mesmerising. We climbed the steps to get our trophy like England did when they won the World Cup, and after the game we celebrated in Geoff Hurst’s bath!”
Whelan also played alongside Grealish at Croke Park, before an All-Ireland semi-final. They beat a Dublin ‘North City League Selection’ side by 6-2 to 1-5.
“If my recollections are right, Tony smashed at least one goal in the top right-hand corner,” recalls Whelan.
“I remember the stadium being empty at the start, but as the crowds arrived for the All Ireland semi-final they started to pay attention to what was going on in the Minor game.
“I remember them applauding us, and I believe many of them were shocked at how good we were.”
Whelan adds: “It is only in retrospect that I now understand how significant it was to play at both Wembley and Croke Park.
“We were London Irish boys with thick London accents, but our love for both places – Ireland and London – was strong.”
That was one “a few times” that Grealish played at Croke Park.
It was in 1972 that a 15-year-old Grealish took his first steps to becoming a professional footballer when he joined East London club Leyton Orient as an apprentice.
He would soon have to call time on his hurling career.
“I got a skelp across the forehead with the hurl, and had six stitches. The manager wouldn’t believe I was playing hurling – he thought I was out fighting,” Grealish recalled.
“So, I had to knock that on the head, but I carried on with the football for a few years with them not knowing.”
In ’74, he signed professionally for Orient and at the end of the 1975/76 season won the player of the year award.
Over five seasons at The O’s, Grealish made 171 appearances, scoring ten goals.
In 1977/78, the club reached an FA Cup semi-final, only to lose 3-0 against Arsenal at Stamford Bridge.
“He man-to-man marked me that day and put me out of the game,” Brady recalled in 2013. “Luckily some of our other players performed despite the fact that I didn’t.”
Brady added: “If he was your opponent then he wasn’t your friend for 90 minutes, but we had a strong friendship, and I haven’t met anyone who played with him who wasn’t a friend of Tony Grealish’s.
“He was a super man, and a super bloke. He made the atmosphere better wherever he was.”
Grealish transferred to Luton Town in the summer of 1979 for a fee of £150,000.
In two seasons at the Hatters, Grealish racked up 78 league appearances before making the move to Brighton in July 1981 for the sum of £100,000.
Brighton’s FA Cup final reaching heroics were tempered by relegation from Division 1 that season, and when Giles was appointed manager of West Bromwich Albion he brought Grealish to the Hawthorns in March 1984 for £75,000.
In his one and a half seasons with the Baggies, Grealish made 65 appearances before moving on to Manchester City. He made his City debut in the caldron of a 1-1 draw with Manchester United.
City were relegated at the end of that season, and Grealish departed for Third Division Rotherham United, where he’d spend the next three seasons.
Following relegation in 1987/88, he’d helped the club win the Fourth Division title the next year.
After Rotherham would come spells at Walsall, non-league Bromsgrove Rovers, Atherstone United and Halesowen Harriers, but it’s with Orient and Brighton that Grealish remains synonymous.
It was Johnny Giles who handed a 19-year-old Grealish his Ireland debut in a friendly against Norway at Dublin’s Dalymount Park on 24 March 1976.
Ireland won 3-0 thanks to goals from Brady, Jimmy Holmes and a penalty from Mickey Walsh. Grealish, unusually, started at full back.
Another of Grealish’s teammates that day was former Ireland record goalscorer Don Givens.
“He gave so much effort that he wasn’t going to accept anything less from his teammates,” Givens told the Irish World in 2013.
“Tony was a 100 per cent tough little midfield player, and a great character off the pitch.”
Grealish won his second cap in May ’76 in a 2-0 win over Poland.
That year he’d also help Moindearg win a junior league title, with victory over St Brendan’s in the final at New Eltham.
Mick Gannon, who was involved with Moindearg for 40 years, recalls Grealish coming on as a substitute that day against a Brendan’s team which included former Mayo senior footballer Eamonn Brett.
Not too many GAA clubs can boast to having a senior Republic of Ireland international as a sub.
“George Petchey was Leyton Orient manager at that time and a couple of times Tony came in after playing hurling and he’d have marks on him, and George said to him ‘I can’t afford to let you have an injury playing that mad game’,” remembers Gannon.
“Tony never really stopped [playing GAA] until he went to Luton. David Pleat [then Luton manager] knew about Tony playing Gaelic.”
Mick added: “I knew Tony from when he was a kid – he was a really nice lad.”
Interestingly enough, though, a book chronicling the first 50 years of Robert Emmetts GAA club has Grealish lining out for them at corner forward in a hurling league win over Sean Treacy’s on 2 October 1977.
Although the first of Grealish’s eight international goals came in a 3-3 draw against Denmark in Copenhagen on 24 May 1978, he didn’t feature during Ireland’s unsuccessful ‘78 World Cup qualifying campaign.
It was during Euro 1980 qualifying that he established himself in the Ireland midfield, scoring twice in six appearances. That included a 1-1 draw with England in Dublin.
Eoin Hand took over the reins in the summer of ‘80 for Ireland’s bid to reach the 1982 World Cup in Spain, when a controversial 1-0 defeat to Belgium ultimately saw Grealish and Co miss out to France on goal difference.
France, with the likes of Michel Platini, went on to reach the World Cup semi-finals and win Euro ’84. It was group which also included two-time World Cup finalists Holland.
As part of a three-man midfield alongside Brady and Gerry Daly, Grealish scored twice in seven appearances during that qualifying campaign.
Only Brady and Stapleton played in all eight games, while Stapleton, Gerry Daly and Robinson top scored with three goals a piece.
What might have been for one of the most talented of all Republic of Ireland teams.
Hand made Grealish his captain for the ’84 European qualifying campaign, which Ireland ended in third place behind Spain and Holland.
His final Ireland cap came in a World Cup qualifier against Denmark at Lansdowne Road on 13 November 1985, when injury forced him off after just 30 minutes.
It brought the curtain down on his international career.
“I had some good ten years with the Republic, and they were fantastic times,” reflected Grealish in that 2001 interview with Cahill.
“I played with some very talented players who’d walk into any team at that time.”
How Ireland could do with an Anthony Patrick Grealish today.