Irish football great Anne O’Brien dies in Italy aged 60
The Dublin factory team where O’Brien played her early football was Vards, named for Julian Vard furriers.1
Vards played their home games on public pitches in the vast Phoenix Park, and took their place in the vibrant Leinster Ladies League which sprang up at the end of the 60s.
As well as O’Brien, Vards boasted the talents of prolific twins Joan and Jacinta Williams – who spelled double trouble for opposition defences.
The Williams’s honed their soccer skills on the streets of Ballyfermot with the lads – including the brothers Furey, who grew up into diddly-dee music megastars.
Joan went to a Fureys gig in Wales some 30 years later and beamed when they recognised her from those marathon childhood kickabouts. Her hard-won soccer reputation undimmed by the passage of time.
Vards’ sworn rivals were Bosco, of the St John Bosco Youth Club in Drimnagh.
O’Brien’s first serious column inches came in 1971 when she let fly at Bosco with a sensational hat-trick in Vards’ 3–2 Drumcondra Cup win at Tolka Park.
Reims come calling
The story of Reims unearthing O’Brien on their 1973 Irish tour has passed into soccer lore. But a controversial final fixture in Bray almost threw a spanner in the works…
Still smarting from a 2–1 reverse at Kilkenny dog track – reportedly their first defeat in two years – Reims’ fiery Gallic tempers boiled over at the Carlisle Grounds, Bray.
O’Brien scored once and Carol Carr twice as Ireland snapped terrier-like at the heels of their French opponents, who led 4–3.
Carr was an exceptional attacking midfielder, or inside-forward in old money, who many rated just as good as O’Brien. But she was a couple of years older and Reims passed on signing her.
The Irish papers relished this “past it at 20” angle and linked Carr with lucrative switches to AS Roma and Standard Liège, but it was not clear if she ever took the plunge.2
In Bray, Carr looked poised for a hat-trick when she won Ireland’s second penalty of the match. Instead it sparked an undignified free-for-all.
Raging Reims boss Pierre Geoffroy legged it onto the park, “struck” the ref and led his side off before the penalty was taken.
That led to scuffles between the players and amongst the 1000-strong crowd, who marauded onto the pitch.
Impugned local whistler Harry O’Reilly demanded satisfaction from Geoffroy in the form of an apology. When none was forthcoming he abandoned the match with four minutes to go.
Geoffroy said his beef was with the pitch having no markings and ‘homer’ O’Reilly making two nonsense penalty calls.
It was a storm in a teacup, albeit with elements of black farce; the sort which continued to dog the women’s game for many years to come.
Irish squad player Margaret O’Driscoll reckoned the French were fed up at facing the same seven or eight Dublin-based national teamers in every fixture.
After all, the tour matches were supposed to be against local selections in rainy outposts like Dundalk, Kilkenny, Waterford and Limerick.
Familiarity seemed to breed contempt when the piqued French party gave the post-match cuisine at Kilkenny a swerve.
But Geoffroy wanted to run the rule over all the best Irish players. O’Brien recalled many years later that she had seen out the tour being taken around as a guest of the French club.
Anne seals the deal
The contretemps in Bray was soon forgotten and Reims snapped O’Brien up for their assault on the newly-formed national league in France.
She had just turned 18 and would be trousering £75 per-week with a gig in the club owner’s leather jacket factory.
Never a big drinker, in the heart of Champagne country she would have been forgiven for quaffing a celebratory glass or two.
By 1970s standards, O’Brien had already attained women’s soccer Nirvana. But Reims was only the first staging post in a footballing journey which secured her place among Ireland’s all-time greats…
1. The suggestion that O’Brien played for Julian Bars seems to have originated from an interview she gave in Italian to Nicholas Pascale in 2013. Pascale, a temperamental genius of women’s football history, may have misheard or may have made an assumption that a bar would be involved – based on the famed Irish proclivity for booze! ↩
2. A Carol Carr starred for Doncaster Belles during the South Yorkshire giants’ golden age, but that was a different player who was a few years younger. ↩
Update: Check out our list of Republic of Ireland women’s soccer greats here.