On March 8th 1973 the people of Northern Ireland went to the polls to vote on a border referendum. The British Government posed two questions: ‘Do you want Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom?’ and ‘Do you want Northern Ireland to be joined with the Republic of Ireland outside the United Kingdom?’
That same day the provisional IRA brought their terror campaign to the streets of London by planting four car bombs in the capital. One exploded outside the Old Bailey while a second detonated close to Whitehall; two hundred people were injured and one other person in the vicinity died of a heart attack. The two other bombs were defused. Within hours of the explosions, most of the group were arrested at Heathrow airport.
Nine people were found guilty for their part in the Old Bailey bombings including Gerry Kelly, now a Member of the Legislative Assembly for North Belfast. The terrorist cell had been infiltrated and the IRA leadership realised leaving the country immediately was a mistake; from then on small sleeper cells would spend months in the UK causing destruction. This led to the emergence of the deadliest Irish Republican Active Service Unit to ever set foot on British shores and it would become infamously known as the ‘Balcombe Street Gang’.
On that same March day, Arsenal’s football teams were training at the Shenley Grounds owned by the University College London Union on Gordon Street and sited nine minutes away from the Old Bailey. The last time the Old Bailey had been attacked was in 1790 during the ‘Gordon Street riots,’ when the courtroom was damaged and the rioters carried the furniture out of the courtroom to burn outside.
Among the Arsenal group in training that day was seventeen-year-old Liam Brady who hailed from Glenshesk Road in Whitehall on Dublin’s Northside. In 1956 the Brady family had welcomed William (Liam) into the world and this was a family steeped in football tradition; ‘football the so-called ‘garrison game” introduced to the Irish by occupying British forces. By the age of seven, Liam was looking on proudly with forty thousand others as his brother Ray – who would make his name at Millwall and QPR – starred for the Ireland national team. The Free State Eire team had been in existence since 1921 after the partition of Ireland, and on that day in 1963 it defeated Austria 3-2 at Dalymount Park. Noel Cantwell of Manchester United scored a brace.
Brady was besotted with sport generally, though football was his enduring passion and he honed his skills on the streets and fields of North Dublin. By the age of fifteen Brady was in demand and while playing locally for St. Kevin’s Boys, he was picked to captain the Irish youth’s U15 side against Wales. There was a problem however as the game clashed with a Gaelic football match at the St. Aidan’s school in Dublin which Brady attended. This was a school run by the Christian Brothers, an organisation that promoted Gaelic games and frowned upon students playing the so-called foreign sport of ‘association football’.
The Gaelic Athletic Association promotes Gaelic football and hurling and is Ireland’s largest sporting organisation. In its handbook was a ‘Rule 27’ which banned members from playing foreign sports including soccer, hockey and rugby which were all seen as sports from the land of the Crown. In 1938 the then Irish President Douglas Hyde – who was also patron of the GAA – had faced the wrath of the organisation for attending a football match.
Brother Paul Hayes, the school’s principal, gave Brady the ultimatum of playing the Gaelic game or not returning, and with his heart set on captaining Ireland and emulating his brother in professional football, Liam never set foot in St. Aidan’s C.B.S. again. His stance made the local newspapers but he didn’t need to worry too much about his education with his sporting stock on the rise.
Bill Darby, a man who scoured the pitches of Dublin for over forty years for Arsenal football club, had his eye on young Brady. That same year of 1971 saw Arsenal emulate their bitter rivals Tottenham by winning the double under the guidance of Bertie Mee and Scots captain Frank McLintock. As the staff and management at Highbury were still celebrating the club’s remarkable success, Liam Brady walked through the gates of the club that summer, aged fifteen.
Fast forward a couple of years to 1973 as the nation looked forward to the start of another football season. This was a time of goodbyes with the retirement of World Cup-winning goalkeeper Gordon Banks and a number of Arsenal’s double-winning heroes from ’71. Bertie Mee, the physio turned manager supreme, was still very much in situ at Highbury though and his position was untouchable. With those trophy memories starting to fade for the North Bank faithful, on the 6th October 1973 a new messiah arrived in the shape of a seventeen-year-old second-half substitute.
At 4pm that afternoon and armed with Bertie Mee’s instructions, Liam Brady walked onto the hallowed Highbury turf for the first time to replace centre half Jeff Blockley. North Londoners stood in unison to welcome the young Irishman. Within a week ‘Chippy,’ as he was affectionately known in the dressing room because of his love of the chip pan, was thrown straight into action against fierce rivals Spurs at White Hart Lane. The Big Match cameras rolled as the timid looking Dubliner wearing the number 11 shirt was given a baptism of fire as Spurs ran out 2-0 winners, but there were glimpses of that soon-to-be-famous drop of the shoulder and left foot wizardry.
That same week Brian Clough and Peter Taylor decided to resign at champions Derby after, as some said, ‘they had built an ocean liner out of a shipwreck’ in the East Midlands, while England was denied a place at the World Cup in West Germany by the superb goalkeeping of Poland’s Jan Tomaszewski, labelled a ‘clown’ by the aforementioned Brian Clough. As the newspapers reported the death of ‘English Football,’ Brady found himself on the plane to Barcelona with Arsenal scheduled to face the Catalans in a prestigious friendly. This fixture would mark Johan Cruyff’s debut for Barca who had not won a Spanish league title for thirteen years. Rested by Mee, Brady watched from the side-lines.
While Brady was enjoying the whirlwind rise in his career at Arsenal, the IRA Active Service Unit was realising that one bomb in London had a greater impact than a dozen in war-torn Belfast. In total thirty-six bombs would be detonated in London that year and against the backdrop of this carnage, Liam Brady would continue to learn, notably starring for Arsenal against Mechelen of Belgium in another friendly.
As 1973 ended Ted Heath and Irish Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave agreed ‘The Sunningdale Agreement’ with pro-agreement Northern Ireland parties. A power-sharing executive would sit in Stormont where Green and Orange could debate the future of the island giving hope of peace to the people of Ireland. Sadly it was a false dawn. The following year in 1974 there was further hope as the IRA called a truce leading up to Christmas, but two hours before the truce came into effect on December 22nd, the Balcombe Street gang targeted Ted Heath, the man who had introduced internment in Northern Ireland. Luckily for the former Prime Minister and his family he was conducting Christmas carols that night and not at home.
That same year the IRA had targeted so-called ‘army pubs’ in Woolwich and Guildford killing eight people in the bomb attacks. Thirteen innocent people were arrested for the crimes. On their arrest members of the Balcombe Street gang would confess to Guildford and Woolwich, but these confessions would fall on deaf ears. In 1989 Gerard Conlon would stand outside the same Old Bailey which the IRA had bombed in 1973 and proclaim to the world’s media “I’ve been in prison for 15 years for something I didn’t do…I’m a totally innocent man… I watched my father (Giuseppe) die in a British prison for something he didn’t do”.
That Christmas of 1973 saw Liam Brady return to Dublin to celebrate his achievement of breaking into the Arsenal first team. As 1974 got underway, Brady starred for Arsenal in a two-nil victory against Norwich City playing in midfield alongside the England World Cup winner Alan Ball, who scored a brace that day. In his breakthrough season Arsenal would finish tenth in Division One, while the teenage Brady – who could only legally drink by the second half of the campaign – would amass thirteen league appearances, nine of those starts and four as a substitute.
Brady would go on to become the darling of Highbury and amass 307 appearances over a seven-year period. He would star in three FA Cup Finals, orchestrating Alan Sunderland’s last-minute winner in 1979 against Manchester United in perhaps the greatest Final of them all. Brady would score and give one of the greatest midfield displays ever witnessed by Arsenal fans at White Hart Lane just before Christmas 1978: ‘Llook at that!’ John Motson would exclaim as Brady’s swerving left-footed drive arrowed its way into the roof of the Spurs net.
Today, Highbury the stadium has become Highbury the square with 711 flats developed on the grounds where Chapman, Mee, Graham and Wenger created red and white history. However, in Islington, Holloway and Highbury the Irish name of ‘Brady’ is still looked upon as God-like. The Good Friday Agreement came into being in 1998 it has brought a lasting peace in Ireland, perhaps of little comfort to those who lost loved ones in the IRA’s campaign of terror in Britain between 1973 and 1975.