Tears welling up in his eyes, Robbie Brady paused to reaffirm Ireland’s tendency of thriving in the face of adversity. It’s hardly surprising the trend has surged since his arrival on the scene given the personal history he’s endured in overcoming the odds.
Brady’s delivery of the late winner against Italy on Wednesday propelled Ireland into the last 16 of Euro 2016 and his own name into the satchel of major tournament moments. Ray Houghton, Kevin Sheedy, Packie Bonner, and Robbie Keane have new company.
Since he was tipped for stardom as an early teen, playing for the same St Kevin’s Boys club as his namesake Liam, the Dubliner was destined for interventions like the header supplied in Lille to slay the Italians.
That his passion from doing so resulted in the heart-warming embrace he shared on the full-time whistle with his brother Darren and girlfriend Kerrie Harris was understandable considering how choppy the journey to reach France became.
“There was over 20 members of my family in Lille for the match and I am so proud that they were present to witness the moment,” said Robbie, one of eight children born to Shay and Marie Brady.
“They have followed me throughout my career and have always been so supportive. To score the goal to put us into the last 16 is truly incredible.”
He may be 24 but the victory over Italy represented only Brady’s 26th cap, a meagre return attributable to some injury troubles but primarily because of Giovanni Trapattoni’s tardiness in recognising star quality.
By the time Ireland set off on their doomed Euro appearance four years ago, the winger was still a Manchester United player, yet one with 41 outings behind him for on-loan Championship outfit Hull City.
What’s more, his international star was on the rise with Ireland’s U21s throughout that season, only for it to be ignored by the senior manager, who not once travelled to Sligo for any of the underage internationals in which Brady revelled.
It was only after Ireland failed dismally in Poland that Trap turned to the U21 player of the year and, even at that, the player was publicly questioned about his mental and physical state throughout the Italian’s final year at the helm. Brady was more out than in the Ireland team.
Those difficulties were part of the territory throughout Brady’s involvement with Ireland, as his commitment to the cause had come under fire in 2011.
Having captained the U19s through the first phase of Uefa qualifiers, scoring three times en route, Manchester United then withdrew him for the elite phase in May 2011.
Alex Ferguson wanted the tyro to stick around Old Trafford for the Premier League run-in and possible involvement in Gary Neville’s testimonial game. A club decision — not his.
Still, that withdrawal infuriated his Ireland boss at the time, Paul Doolin, and FAI high-performance director Wim Koevermans, neither of whom could contact Brady.
His absence in Poland for the qualifiers which his teammates, including Jeff Hendrick, successfully negotiated cost Brady a place at the U19 Uefa finals that July, yet he still sent messages of support to Doolin and the players during the tournament.
Noel King, Ireland’s U21 boss, took a diplomatic stance on the fallout, insisting he wouldn’t overrule Doolin when it came to selection while stating the ‘sledgehammer’ approach shouldn’t apply under his watch.
The acid test on Brady’s international future would come for the U21 friendly against Austria a month later and, thankfully, a political truce was hatched in the background just in time to pave the way for his ‘comeback’. Brady spoke beforehand of a new start — and signalled his intent by scoring both Ireland’s goal in the 2-1 win.
“I think I showed out there tonight how much I enjoy playing for Ireland,” affirmed Brady, then still a teen, dispelling any doubts about his love of wearing the Irish jersey.
Now he’s got a familiar face to overcome on Sunday if Ireland are to reach the quarter-finals.
Paul Pogba was a colleague of Brady’s in Manchester United’s Academy and they’ll be reacquainted in Lyon, but on opposite sides, seeking progression for their respective countries. “I know what an unbelievable player Paul is,” admitted the Irishman about the French playmaker. “They’ve got some other top players too but we’ll have our homework done on them before Sunday.
“It is a great occasion to look forward to and I think we might work better under that type of pressure.
“As happened during the qualifiers, we never seem to do things the easy way. Coming into the Italy game needing to beat them, I’m sure many people wrote us off.
“But I knew what we’re capable of. All we had to do was show it, which is what we did, and it’s still an absolutely amazing feeling.”
It was only after James McCarthy got hauled off with 30 minutes left of Saturday’s 3-0 drubbing to Belgium that Brady was redeployed into central midfield and there he remained for the must-win clash against the Italians, slotting in seamlessly to dominate an area the Italians struggled to gain a foothold on.
“I had only played central midfield a couple of times before but they weren’t matches on this level,” said Brady, who had begun the tournament at left-back against Sweden.
“I feel at ease playing in there but it helps when I’ve got Jeff Hendrick and James McCarthy alongside me. They gave me plenty of options when I got on the ball.”
Based on his integral status in the team these days, it will be his teammates seeking Brady with the pass to generate another match-winning cameo.
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