Echo Sport Replay: O’Brien- The flame that helped light a path for women footballers in Ireland

Echo Sport Replay: O’Brien- The flame that helped light a path for women footballers in Ireland

By Stephen Leonard

WHEN it comes to the major ground-breakers in women's sport, few can compare with the late Anne O'Brien and her phenomenal achievements over the course of 20 years in top European soccer.

At 18 years of age, the Inchicore woman left Irish shores back in 1974 to pursue her dream of playing the game at the highest level and carved out a massively successful career that saw her lauded in continental Europe.

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Susy Augustesen and Anne O’Brien

Yet despite winning two French League and Cup titles with Stade de Reims before her move to Italy that brought with it a wealth of league and cup success with the likes of Lazio, Trani, Reggiana and Milan, O'Brien would only ever chalk up four international caps for Ireland.

Regardless of the fact that the gifted midfielder was the greatest Irish player of her time, the expense of bringing her home to compete for her country was too much for the Women’s Football Association of Ireland and consequently cost her time in her beloved green jersey.

Diagnosed with cancer in August of 2016, O’Brien sadly passed away in Rome just three weeks later surrounded by family and friends, leaving behind a legacy that was duly recognised by the FAI earlier this year when she was inducted into the Association’s Hall of Fame.

It was the perfect tribute for a player who illuminated a pathway to a career in the game, which in the 1970’s was never really considered a possibilty for women, and certainly not women in Ireland.

Hailed by her peers as one of the greats of the women’s game in the 1970s and 80’s, O’Brien played with and against other top competitors in the sport at the time, including Italian legend Carolina Morace.

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Anne O’Brien with Stade de Reims team mates and manager Pierre Geoffroy

Scoring 105 goals in 153 appearances for Le Azzurre, Morace shared in a lot of O’Brien’s success in the Women’s Serie A as they won titles together with Reggiana and Milan.

And the Italian is unequivocal about O’Brien’s ability and her impact on the women’s game, comfortably placing her among the top foreign players in Serie A at the time.

“There was Rose Reilly, the Scottish player, Susy Augustesen, Conchi Sánchez, all of them they were champions at the top level” Morace told The Echo.

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Anne O’Brien from Inchicore (pictured sitting, third from left) celebrating with her Milan team mates, including Italian great Carolina Morace, as well as her son Andrea, after the team captured the Serie A title in 1992

“All of them were players that changed the game, so for us as Italians, they were a model for us. They pushed the level of the Italian players higher for sure and Anne was absolutely one of those players.

”She was Number 10, a universal player. She was the soul of the team.

“She had a lot of responsibility in her role and all the time she would support her team mates. She wanted to win and she was a great leader. She was always a very nice person with the young players.

“She read the game really well and that helped me to read the game too. I scored many goals because of her, because of the way she would pass the ball” she recalled.

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Anne O’Brien (left) takes a break during a match in Haiti in what was part of a Caribbean tour made by the Stade de Reims women’s team

O’Brien’s story, which stretched from days playing on the streets of Inchicore and working the floor of Kiely’s Chicken Factory all the way to the glittering lights of Rome and Milan, is nothing short of phenomenal as she demonstrated that dreams regarded as virtually impossible for Irish women could, in fact, be realised.

Growing up in a family with five brothers and four sisters, O’Brien, who was also a proficient athlete, as well as hurler and gaelic footballer, hailed from footballing stock of the highest pedigree that includes former Ireland player and manager Johnny Giles, and another great servant to the Boys in Green, Jimmy Conway.

Three of her brothers, Paul, John and Fran won the FAI Junior Cup with Inchicore Athletic while her nephews Ger and Stephen O’Brien competed on the League of Ireland stage.

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Anne O’Brien racing into attack for Reims during a French Cup match

It is little wonder then that she developed a love for the game and after joining Julian Vards, she scored a hat-trick in a 3-2 victory over St John Bosco in the Drumcondra Cup Final in Tolka Park before later making the move to Ballyfermot All-Stars.

It was clear that O’Brien possessed the natural abilities that could see her flourish given the right opportunity and that very opening came in 1973 with the arrival of Reims women’s soccer team for a tour of Ireland.

Lining out for an Irish selection against the French giants in Walkinstown and again in Dundalk, she quickly caught the attention of Reims manager Pierre Geoffroy.

So impressed was the Frenchman with O’Brien’s ability, that he asked her to play with them in their next game in Limerick.

Invited to take part in a tournament in France that Christmas, O’Brien played three games for Reims with the offer of a contract quickly following and, after turning 18 the following January, she made the move to France.

It was a move she would have only dreamt about a few months before and one which she completely embraced when it came her way.

Success was not long in coming as she helped Reims to FFF Championship honours and scored a hat-trick in their 4-0 victory in the 1975 French Cup decider, her impact on football there proving so profound that she finished third in the vote for the French Sports Personality of the Year Award.

It was a stunning start to a career for the young Dubliner who quickly learned the language and integrated into French culture, just as she would do in Italy when Lazio came in search of her services.

O’Brien was now playing before crowds numbering tens of thousands, touring the Caribbean where she competed in stadiums in the likes of Guadeloupe, Haiti and Martinique.

Her sublime performances for Reims soon sparked interest from Italy where the women’s game was enjoying a massive surge and it was the Italian Capital that was to prove her next stop as she donned the sky blue of Lazio.

A year after that move, the Dubliner was lifting the Coppa Italia with her new club following a thrilling final against Milan that was decided on penalties.

It was to signal the start of a prolific trophy haul for the Dubliner in ‘Il Bel Paese’ and a great period with Lazio that featured two Scudetti titles in 1979 and ’80.

It was during her days with Lazio that O’Brien first came in contact with Morace and the Dubliner was immediately impressed with the ability of the young Italian.

“The first time we met I was playing with Belluno against Lazio” recalled Morace. “I was just 14 and she was already ‘Anne O’Brien’. She was here, she had a great career and she was respected by everyone.

“I remember that we were in Rome and at some point in the match she was protecting the ball and I was at her back. I took the ball away from her, passing my leg through her legs and I stole the ball.

“And she turned and she said, in a very Roman way, not Italian way, ‘A ragazzí, brava. You’re very good’.

“For me it was my first year in Serie A and to receive a compliment from her was amazing of course.”

O’Brien remained in Rome until 1983 when she opted to travel south to join Trani and, although spending just one season with the club, she helped them to a first ever Italian Championship.

A second spell with Lazio and another Coppa Italia followed with the Biancocelesti in 1985 after they edged the decider against Trani 1-0.

It was the highlight in a three-year spell with the club before she signed for Modena, during which time she gave birth to her son Andrea, to whom Morace would later become godmother.

O’Brien was not long out of the game and returned for short spells with Napoli and Prato before a hugely successful period with Reggiana that brought with it two Championship honours.

A third successive Scudetto followed in the colours of Milan in 1992 and she continued playing with that club until her retirement in 1994 at the age of 38.

The influence of O’Brien on the pitch continued to be hugely valued by the top teams in the game and, having raised several Serie A Championships as her team mate at the time, Morace could see just why.

“Anne used to receive the ball and would have in her mind just what the team had to do next” she remembered. “She would think in advance what could happen so she had a great vision of the game

“Generally her passes were always the key passes, the passes that allowed you to get to the goal.

“She was small and was also a great shooter from outside the box and she was great at heading and scored many many goals from corners because she was able to time her jump” she explained.

It was a massive loss to Ireland that the country was unable to avail of her services in those days and something that saddened O’Brien who had looked on as her team mate and great friend Morace clocked up the caps and goals for Italy, lining out in no less than six European Championships as well as the inaugural FIFA Women’s World Cup in China in 1991.

Indeed O’Brien had talked with Morace on more than one occasion about the anguish of being unable to don the green jersey of the nation she loved so much.

“I know she was sad she didn’t get to play for Ireland a lot, because many times we talked about that” said Morace.

“I think that what happened after she died when she was inducted into the [FAI] Hall of Fame and that we are talking about her now, I’m sorry that she’s missing all of this stuff and that she didn’t have this gratification when she was alive.

“But I am so happy that it has happened. She was so proud to be Irish and it’s so good to recognise her. Meglio tardi che mai [It’s better late than never].

“I think it’s good to have her memory and to have a model for the younger players. Of course the young players have to know who she was and what she did.”

While not gracing the pitch as a professional player anymore, retirement did not spell a complete departure from the game for O’Brien who, after earning her coaching badges in the Centro Tecnico Federale di Coverciano in Florence, took over the role of Milan youth team manager.

Further coaching roles with the Lazio senior women’s outfit and various Italian underage teams followed before that side of her career drew to a close after her time in charge of Civitavecchia.

O’Brien’s love for the game never waned as she continued to build a life for herself in Italy, coaching young players close to her hometown in Fregene, all the while maintaining a strong bond with her family and homeland.

“I think that she had a good life” said Morace. “She used to be outside Rome in Fregene, on a beautiful beach. She used to go every day on her bicycle, she used to run, she used to walk, she was an athlete.

“She became a Roman. She was a big fan of Roma and a big fan of Francesco Totti.

“She had a very strong relationship with her mum and a very strong relationship with all her family and I know how much she missed them all when she was here.

“It was beautiful, because when she turned 60 all her brothers and sisters came to Italy and they surprised her in a restaurant. She was so happy with that.”

Now, four years after O’Brien’s sad passing, the Republic of Ireland senior women’s team is knocking on the door of qualification for a first ever major international tournament as they prepare to take on Ukraine tomorrow night in a match that could secure at least a play-off for inclusion in the Europeans.

While today it is common-place to see most Irish women internationals play their club football abroad, it was O’Brien who ignited such a trend, the indomitability of a young 18-year-old who left these shores in pursuit of a dream 46 years ago lighting the way for generations to follow.

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