Anne O’Brien: Irish soccer star who carved out a glittering career on mainland Europe
The girl from Dublin who dreamed big – overcoming incredible obstacles to make her mark in international soccer. In the course of a long and successful career she won six Serie A titles, two Coppa Italia winner’s medals and etched her name into women’s football folklore.
Born in January 1956 from impeccable footballing stock, O’Brien sprang from the same dynasty as male soccer stars Johnny Giles and Jimmy Conway.
1960s Dublin was marked by grinding poverty and right-wing Catholic extremism. It was a society with very firm ideas about what its young women should (and should not) be doing.
But O’Brien spent an idyllic childhood kicking a ball around with the boys, in time-honoured tradition. She blagged her way onto a women’s factory team then joined the Julian Bars women’s club.
A talented middle distance runner, she was pushed in that direction by well-meaning teachers and coaches who saw running for Ireland as the summit of her potential.
The headstrong O’Brien had other ideas, sticking with soccer and joining the Dublin All-Stars club where all the best local players had gravitated.
Her big break came in August 1973, when French giants Stade De Reims came to play the newly-minted Irish women’s national team at St James’s Park greyhound track in Kilkenny.
Reims anointed themselves as “women’s club world champions” and toured the globe, barnstorming against any opposition they could find.
Pierre Geoffroy, a devilishly handsome sportswriter from the L’Union newspaper, ran the Reims team.
That afternoon in Kilkenny, the performance of Ireland’s young left-half O’Brien bowled him over. She was a natural. There and then, he vowed not to leave the Emerald Isle without her signature on a contract.
Geoffroy was no dilettante. The driving force of women’s football in France, he also managed the national team for many years.
His eye for a player was legendary. He gave the great Rose Reilly her break in the pro ranks after a tip-off from a Daily Record hack.
As O’Brien was still only 17, smooth-talking Geoffroy had to convince her mum and dad to let her go. Realising that the game was in Anne’s DNA, her far-sighted parents let her follow her heart.
With full-time training and playing at a higher level, O’Brien’s game flourished. Her timing, intelligence and educated left foot became the fulcrum of Reims’s play.
Beautiful balance was the secret of her artistry: fluid movement combined with remarkable vision. Her flighted passes raked holes in opposition defences.
Before long her talents outgrew France and she was on the move again, this time to Lazio in Rome.
In those days, the Italian Serie A was where the money was – but also where the culture and style was.
O’Brien’s childhood in Dublin gave her the street smarts to thrive against Catenaccio defenders, who, pound-for-pound were every bit as tough and cynical as their male counterparts.
In her number 10 shirt, O’Brien played behind the strikers, as what the Italians call a trequartista. She moved on to Trani and formed a fearsome front three with Carolina Morace and Rose Reilly, bringing the club their first title in 1984.
She rounded out her career with three successive Scudetti, two with Reggiana and one with AC Milan, all behind the goals of Carolina Morace.
After hanging up her boots football addict O’Brien settled in Italy and went into coaching, getting her badges at the Italian FA’s Coverciano HQ.
After a gig with Milan’s youth team she briefly managed her old side Lazio. She even worked with Italy’s Under 17 national team.
O’Brien was perhaps Ireland’s outstanding female athlete of her generation, paving the way for Sonia O’Sullivan then Katie Taylor who followed in her stead.
What’s more, she might be the single greatest footballer ever to put on the famous green shirt.
That will be heresy to those who adhere to the old maxim: “Pelé good, Maradona better, George Best”.
And Johnny Giles, Liam Brady, Paul McGrath can all lay their own claims to that particular title too.
But in a game of “show us yer medals” Anne beats them all – hands down.
And let’s face it – these guys had it all on a plate. The infrastructure was there for them.
It was sheer force of will – desire to go out and make her career happen – which led O’Brien to the very top.
It is high time that Ireland reclaimed its sporting heritage by giving O’Brien the recognition her achievements merit.
Over the last few years, belated and sometimes grudging recognition has come the way of Scots icon Rose Reilly. Her achievements were laid bare by the work of Stuart Gibbs and co. in the celebrated “First Ladies of Football” exhibition.
Quite rightly, Reilly was inducted into both the Football Hall of Fame and Scotland’s Sports Hall of Fame in 2007.
In Reilly’s contemporary Anne O’Brien, Ireland has its very own icon from the classic era of women’s football. Where is her place in the Hall of Fame? Where is the respect?
Thanks to football historian Nicholas Pascale (Wikipedia User:NIPAS) who researched and wrote the excellent Anne O’Brien article at the Italian Wikipedia. See also the article at the English Wikipedia.
Our list of Irish women’s national football team players is here.