Sir Alex Ferguson was excited. Manchester United’s U-18s, just weeks after being overwhelmed by Blackburn Rovers in the FA Youth Cup, had pummelled the same side 6-1 in the league in February 2010. Paul McGuinness, waxing lyrical to Fergie about two midfielders – absentees at Ewood who exhilarated at Carrington – decrypted the quantum leap.
A left-footed Irishman, on his return from a broken metatarsal, had been described as having the gifts of Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes. A 16-year-old Frenchman looked like a man toying with kids. One of those precious pearls has never fulfilled that potential. The other has been polished into a diamond reportedly valued at €120m.
Paul Pogba moved to Juventus, won four successive Scudetti and inspired them on a run to the UEFA Champions League final. He won the adidas Golden Ball at the FIFA U-20 World Cup and the Best Young Player Award at the FIFA World Cup™. He arrived at UEFA EURO 2016 piloting a plane of mega-hype, with Real Madrid reportedly front-running a race to make him the costliest footballer in history.
Robbie Brady, on the other hand, was discarded by the Red Devils. His first Premier League campaign was ravaged by groin surgeries – one of which cost him the prestige of playing in the FA Cup final. His second ended in relegation with Hull City. His third culminated in a repeat, this time with Norwich City. He arrived in France with few outside his homeland even whispering about him – and looked likely to have just three games to change that.
Martin O’Neill’s Republic of Ireland had, after all, been drawn in the proverbial ‘group of death’. It featured the highest-placed European side on the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking in Belgium, four-time FIFA World Cup winners Italy, and a Sweden team for whom Zlatan Ibrahimovic was gunning to go out with a bang. Furthermore, Brady started their first match at left-back – a position hardly designed to unearth headline-grabbers.
The 24-year-old nevertheless impressed in the 1-1 draw with Sweden, and displayed enough invention for O’Neill to station him on the left-wing for game two. Although Ireland lost 3-0 to Belgium, Brady was arguably their best player.
Those results left Ireland requiring victory over Italy to advance. Despite the No19’s best endeavours from an unaccustomed central-midfield role – devilish dribbles, defence-panicking deliveries included – a flight back home to Dublin appeared imminent. That was until, minutes from time, Brady did something his Norwich team-mate Wes Hoolahan joked you “never see him do in training”, scoring a success-snatching header. Ireland’s dream wasn’t extinguished. Robbie Brady apparently needed to be:
It wasn’t just the Dublin Fire Brigade showering Brady in salute, but seemingly a who’s who of Irish sportsmen. Shane Lowry, fresh from a runners-up finish at the U.S. Open, wrote: “Robbie Brady you absolute ride.” Conor McGregor, the UFC featherweight champion, enthused about Brady’s header. WWE superstar Sheamus followed suit:
Another Irish hardman, Roy Keane, showed his appreciation as only Roy Keane could – by clasping Brady in what the internet immediately labelled a ‘death choke’! Ireland’s assistant manager then, however, surprisingly showed a softer side as he struggled to hold back tears in the early aftermath of Ireland’s victory – something that was, understandably, beyond an emotional Brady.
"I grew up dreaming about this stage, and to go and do it in front of my family is the best feeling in the world,” he gushed. “I am absolutely flabbergasted by it all. I lost myself a little bit in the celebrations – I couldn't help it, it was an outer-body experience.”
Another Keane, Robbie – an unused substitute against Italy – added: “I think Robbie Brady’s been brilliant in the last three games. It’s not easy when you’re going from left-back and getting moved around and playing in midfield, but he’s a quality player. He came up with a magnificent goal.”
Another veteran Irishman was doubly relived he did. Hoolahan, who spurned a sitter before providing the cross for Brady’s settler, admitted: “I probably owe him a few drinks.”
Brady will be desperately hoping he’s not calling in those Guinness-favoured debts to drown his sorrows in the hotel lobby of a Lyon hotel on Saturday evening. A glass of water and an early night will signify that his reunion with his aforementioned Carrington co-star went triumphantly. But can the Gaelic speakers prolong their Gallic adventure against the might of Pogba and France?
“We watch a lot of their players on the world stage,” said Brady. “We know they're not one to be taken lightly. We have to prepare as much as we can, but we'll concentrate on us and do our homework.
“We've shown some fantastic results to get here. I don't think we've got anything to fear. We know they're a top-class team, but if we click we can hurt anybody. We can go as far as we allow ourselves in this tournament.”
It’s been 35 years since Ireland beat France. That day Ireland’s string-puller was a midfielder surnamed Brady who began playing football at a little Dublin club called St. Kevin’s Boys. Guess where a six-year-old Robbie Brady began honing the skills that would one day have a Scotsman salivating and now has his nation dreaming big?