Brendan O'Brien interviews his childhood hero Frank Stapleton for Brendan Courtney’s new show, Keys to my Life

There’s something deliciously nosy about being shown around other people’s houses.
Brendan O'Brien interviews his childhood hero Frank Stapleton for Brendan Courtney’s new show, Keys to my Life
Frank Stepleton and Brendan Courtney

There’s something deliciously nosy about being shown around other people’s houses. This all-too-human curiosity as to what the Jones’ are doing has fashioned an entire TV genre and, unlike that wallpaper in the guest room, it never gets old. Throw a famous face in among the kitchen counters and patio doors and you’ve got yourself a particularly solid foundation.

But you could weep at times for material relegated to the cutting room floor. Frank Stapleton is the ‘celeb’ on this week’s episode of RTÉ’s Keys To My Life. A rare presence on our screens these days, the former footballer retains a hold on those of us old enough to remember him in his pomp, but the realities of a half-hour prime time slot forced the makers to excise one notable house call from the finished product.

He hadn’t lived at this particular address for nigh on 30 years and he was faced with the truly odd sight of a scene frozen in time when he walked through the front door. The owner, chuffed at living in his old haunt, had left the interior untouched. The furniture and carpets were the same. Stapleton’s wife, Christine, even remembered buying the curtains.

“Frank’s houses were the easiest to access, by far,” says Brendan Courtney, who presents the series and found himself warming to his fellow Dubliner and to the game of football in general after seeing first-hand how unashamedly thrilled people were when seeing Stapleton. “They were all fans. You had to beg people to get into the other houses.”

For Courtney, this was an eye-opener. Among the other faces featured in the series are Eurovision winner Johnny Logan, Dancing With The Stars judge Lorraine Barry, Rory Cowan from Mrs Brown’s Boys and former newsreader Anne Doyle. All four have been far more prominent on Irish screens in recent decades and yet Courtney says the interest in Stapleton outstripped them all.

You do forget how big a name he was. Courtney maybe guilds the lily a tad when he describes him as the best centre-forward in the game in his day. Liam Brady, who played alongside him with Arsenal and Ireland, offers a more measured assessment when suggesting that was the best header of a ball he had ever seen.

You’d take that, especially from Brady.

Stapleton played for Arsenal and Manchester United, two of English football’s biggest clubs. He was a million-pound signing at a time when that was big money and the Republic of Ireland’s record goalscorer until a lad called Robbie Keane emerged from Tallaght. Yet, what the programme presented us with was a steady man devoid of airs and graces.

If anything, he doesn’t give himself near enough credit.

Now a match day ambassador for United, he half-jokes at one point that some of the fans he meets at Old Trafford these days might not remember him. In the course of his interview with the Irish Examiner, he points out how TV rarely shows clips of old games from his era which predated the glitz and the glamour of the Premier League.

The full Stapleton family early 1960's - Frank is far right beside his Mam Chrissie
The full Stapleton family early 1960's - Frank is far right beside his Mam Chrissie

The programme serves as some redress for that. There are clips of memorable goals scored for club and country and the stately houses he revisits speak eloquently for the success he enjoyed across the water. What really shines through is not so much the extraordinary career but the more ordinary story of an emigrant’s journey and what the concept of ‘home’ means to him.

It’s a deceptively simple word but one that asks a bunch of complex questions.

How many of us still talk of trips ‘home’ to our parents’ house or the town where we grew up years, and sometimes decades, after moving out and on? What is home anyway? Where is it? And how has that idea changed in these times when it has become a refuge from harm, a type of open prison and maybe even a schoolhouse and office?

Frank as a baby in his parents' first flat on Dorset Street, Dublin 1954
Frank as a baby in his parents' first flat on Dorset Street, Dublin 1954

Stapleton’s story started in 1956 when he was born to Mick and Chrissie who had moved from inner-city tenements to a corporation house in Artane on Dublin’s northside. London called when he was only 16 and in the form of an apprenticeship with Arsenal and digs in Alexander Palace with Alfie and Annie Bowd, their two daughters and a changing cast of other young hopefuls.

“She’s in charge of you,” he explains. “She’d say, ‘If you step out of line I have to tell the club’.” The first 12 months were the hardest, scrambling to play catch-up with the older pros and players with far more training under their belts by day, then warding off the homesickness by night. Stapleton knew he wasn’t the most talented player but no-one worked harder. When training was done he stayed behind to work on his game while others made for the pub or pool hall.

It worked. He made his first-team debut as an 18-year old and contributed to the greening of Arsenal where, at one point in the decade, he was joined in the team by fellow Dubliners Liam Brady and David O’Leary as well as three others from Northern Ireland. Terry Neill, from Belfast, would take over as manager in 1976. Even the kitman was a Dub.

It was their own Kilburn, a thriving Irish enclave in the heart of the English capital, but all the fame and all the fortune couldn’t shelter Strapleton to some of the harsh realities of life at the time. In 1973, his first full year in London, the IRA bombed the Old Bailey, Harrods department store, the King’s Cross and Euston stations and Westminster.

“When you lived in England then it was a difficult time. In North London, or certainly on one side of North London, people would have pops at you and things like that. I was always aware of the situation. If I was travelling on the Tube I wouldn’t talk so people wouldn’t hear my accent. It was one of those situations because it was a bit volatile at the time.

“Liam [Brady] was on the Tube one time, I think it was maybe with his girlfriend at the time, and somebody heard him talking and tried to attack him. That was from way back but it did happen during the 70s. Over time, that changed and people’s attitudes towards Irish people here now is totally different.”

The accent is still pure Dublin, and his commitment to Ireland was evident when he signed for Manchester United and insisted on a clause that allowed him to be released for every game at a time when club managers were liable to persuade impressionable players to pull a sickie, but his life is in England now where he has kids and grandkids and made most of his homes.

Frank, His Wife Christine & their two sons outside their home in Chesire during The Manchester Utd Years
Frank, His Wife Christine & their two sons outside their home in Chesire during The Manchester Utd Years

He played for ten clubs throughout his career and managed two more. In all, there’s been roughly a dozen changes of address. There have been houses in the fashionable footballers’ enclaves of Hale and Cheshire in the northwest, others in the affluent suburbs of Amsterdam and Boston and an apartment in Le Havre that was way too tight for a family of four.

He was wary of letting the cameras into his life again but agreed when it became apparent that the makers wouldn’t dig too deep. It makes for a programme that skims lightly across the surface, although there is a glimpse of the man when he is shown a picture of his younger self with his then infant son and almost wells up.

Frank with his firstborn son James - he believes having his 2 sons was his greatest achievement
Frank with his firstborn son James - he believes having his 2 sons was his greatest achievement

There’s a clip at the start of the programme when Courtney calls to his current home and they chat about the fact that Stapleton has been living there for eight years. The last move was on his wife’s behest, he explained with something close to a shrug. What’s evident is that the bricks and mortar, or the postcode, are of secondary importance.

“For me it was always about family,” says Frank. “It didn’t matter to me that it was a house. It was important that the family was there. That’s what makes the difference. There were adjustments to be made because you were in different places and sometimes different countries and everybody lives differently throughout the world. The family is the constant: your kids and your wife.” Family and a certain gaff in England’s northwest that, no matter how many times he moves, will always be ‘Frank Stapleton’s house’.

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