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How RTE’s Liam Brady documentary gave us all an insight into a great man

All the stimulating colours in the innovative rainbow overflowed in the palette of Brady’s imagination.

Liam Brady was a true Irish hero


EVEN the melting cubes of memory cannot reduce to slush those eternal images of Liam Brady forging magic on the anvil of his scorching imagination.

For those of us of a certain age, Monday night’s engaging RTE documentary, Liam Brady: An Irishman Abroad, brought an essential and stirring truth about this soulful, songlike poet rolling back across the decades.

The one that places the Dubliner among that tiny elite of sporting alchemists who, to paraphrase the American writer Don DeLillo, make the distance between truth and wonder erode and crumble until they are one and the same.

Liam's left foot was less the lower part of a limb than a divine, spell-casting wand.

Seated alongside Roy Keane, Paul McGrath and John Giles in the school of authentically great Republic of Ireland Internationals, he conjured wizardry with the ease of a Hogwarts graduate.

And his unbreakable impulse to create something beautiful and profound and everlasting was that of a fearless renaissance artist at his easel, mind bursting with ideas.

All the stimulating colours in the innovative rainbow overflowed in the palette of Brady’s imagination.

In an age when Association Football was far more feral and poorly policed than today, Liam was a bard among the brutes, a laureate whose vibrant, eloquent sonnets were composed using a football as his quill.

Many will be far too young to remember that May afternoon in 1979 when Brady seized the title deeds to an epic FA Cup final (back then the biggest day in England’s football calendar, one that towered above all the rest), or to recall those days in the uniforms of Arsenal or Juventus or Ireland when he presented his vast audience with the precious gift of bottomless possibility.

Goals that downed Brazil and France on wild Lansdowne Road afternoons; a strength of mind to relocate to Italy - at 24 and become a superstar of Serie A.

In an age where big-name footballers moving from England to the continental mainland was a rarity, his flight to Turin felt as exotic as Columbus sailing off for the New World.

Some will know Liam best from his RTE work, or from his days as Giovanni Trapattoni’s Irish wing-man, times when the weather of his face was often as frigid as a January frost.

The documentary was revelatory in the way it opened a frequently padlocked gateway to his too-often hidden essence.

A bright, thoughtful figure with a passion for music, an easy and warm smile, a capacity for sharp self-reflection and, a treasure trove of memories.

Here at last was the man the peerless wordsmith Con Houlihan regarded as a friend, an individual of depth and emotional intelligence, throwing off the guarded, suspicious public persona.

There were authentically moving and surprising snapshots: Brady close to tears as he sang along with the John Lennon song (Just Like) Starting Over blaring from his car stereo.

And, tender again, as he read a lovely letter from Jack Charlton, one that debunked the notion of a lasting feud between the Irish manager and the genius playmaker he relegated to the international fringes.

Both the letter and its effect on Brady oozed humanity, it threw open a window to his soul.

It made for magnificent, affecting TV.

As an aside, it was a reminder, too, to those who prefer to reduce Big Jack to gruff caricature that the Geordie was the custodian of a multi-layered, often sensitive personality.

Brady was a childhood hero to many of us who grew up in 1970s Dublin.

PFA Footballer of the Year in 1979, he offered a rebuke to the claustrophobic consensus that to be Irish in that largely grim decade by definition bolted the door shut on adventure or success or any kind of escape from what was a prevailing hopelessness, a stunting melancholy.

Sashaying along Broadway, Brady was an antidote to our communal inferiority complex.

“Chippy” stepped onto a rectangle of grass in London or Manchester or Merseyside and his effortless grace, the fluency and poise with which he conducted the Arsenal choir, lit up the lives of so many in the council estates he had left behind, polished the diamond that is vicarious thrill.

The bravery and joy and sheer brilliance with which he – one of us - glided across the turf delivered the ultimate remedy to gloom for a kid living through those grey days...a license to dream.

Recently, I read Danya Kukafka’s searing new novel, Notes on an Execution.

A gorgeous description of one of the characters just happens to fit a younger Brady like a tailored suit.

“Hazel was her real self when she danced, but she was more than that. She was feather, she was breath. She was an illusion, a mirage that answered only to music and memory. She flew.”

Through the 1970s and deep into the next decade, Liam Brady flew.

On the plumage of his feathered wings, he transported so many of us to a place above the clouds.

Decommissioning despair, the Whitehall sorcerer persuaded his Irish congregation that eloquence with a ball was a kind of magic, that fantasy and truth could be one and the same.

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