The (relative) success of Republic of Ireland footballers

Awards for footballing excellence are given on a number of reasons, namely; footballing brilliance, public opinion, media support and success at international and club tournaments.

While nations the size of the Republic of Ireland have previously enjoyed footballing success, it has never been without that dreaded caveat; relative success.

With the expanding nature of international tournaments over the last thirty years, the Republic of Ireland football team have had relative success on a number of occasions in terms of appearing in tournaments and sometimes even beating larger nations.

It can also be said that while the Republic of Ireland football team has never achieved unequivocal success, its footballers have reached great heights in their club careers with near countless league winners and eleven Republic of Ireland footballers winning the European Cup/Champions League with their respective clubs.

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Republic of Ireland footballers have often been acknowledged at club level for their outstanding performances, with many top English sides from the 1960s to the 1990s being built on a bedrock of Irish granite.

Two Republic of Ireland players have even won the PFA Player of the Year. But like with international footballing success, on an individual level, Republic of Ireland footballers have often had to settle for praise and plaudits and rarely achieving outright acclaim.

In the same manner that a Republic of Ireland team has never won an international tournament, players from the Republic of Ireland are yet to win football’s biggest individual prize, the Ballon D’Or.

However small a nation that the Republic of Ireland is, eight players have been nominated and voted for; never winning yet perhaps their nomination is a demonstration in itself of relative success.

What follows is an examination of the Republic of Ireland players who have previously contested the Ballon D’Or.

Tony Dunne

Tony Dunne appeared 530 times for Manchester United having joined from Shelbourne in 1960. He was part of the FA Cup winning team in 1963 and won the English First Division in 1965 and 1967 and with Shay Brennan became the first Republic of Ireland players to win the European Cup in 1968.

Dunne was nominated for the Ballon D’Or in 1966 and received one vote, coming joint 18th.

In the book A Strange Kind of Glory, author Eamon Dunphy describes how Dunne, discovered in Dublin by scout Billy Behan, was ‘the best defensive left back in a generation of outstanding quality’. Dunphy continues that ‘Tony cost £6,000 in one of the best deals United ever did’.

In a similar vein, in his autobiography A Football Man, John Giles describes how his then teammate ‘became one of the best full-backs in the old First Division over a ten-year period. In a team of extraordinary talents, the full backs didn’t get much of the credit, so Tony’s contribution to the team’s success is generally underestimated.’

Dunne would play for Manchester United until 1973 and was capped 33 times by the Republic of Ireland.

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John Giles

A pattern emerges with the second Irish player to be nominated for the Ballon D’Or: John Giles. Like Dunne, Giles was discovered by Manchester United scout Billy Behan in Dublin.

Eamon Dunphy would later tell the Second Captains podcast of Giles at a young age ‘everyone had heard of John, but no one had seen him play’. Giles was one of the players debuted following the 1958 Munich Disaster.

The Cabra native did not see eye to eye with Matt Busby, though he was in the 1963 FA Cup winning team with Tony Dunne. It would not be until Giles joined Leeds United that his career hit its greatest heights.

It was at Leeds that Giles was paired with Billy Bremner and together they formed one of the greatest midfield partnerships English football has ever seen.

Giles had an outstanding award worthy season in 1970 but it was in 1972 he was nominated for the Ballon D’Or following Leeds’ FA Cup win, despite missing out on winning the league on the final day of the season.

In 2004 Giles was voted the Republic of Ireland’s greatest ever player.

Don Givens

The third successive Republic of Ireland Manchester United product, Limerick native Don Givens debuted in 1969 during the ill-fated post-Busby Wilf McGuinness era.

Givens made twelve appearances for United before being sold to Luton Town in 1970 for £15,000. Givens next joined Queens Park Rangers in 1972 and immediately helped them to promotion to the old First Division.

Givens scored 49 goals in four seasons helping QPR to become league contenders in the process, finishing second in 1973 and 1976. In a team featuring the legendary Stan Bowles, Givens was a top performer, scoring 21 goals in 1975.

It was following this terrific season that Givens received one vote for the 1975 Ballon D’Or. Givens had famously scored a hattrick the year earlier in a 3-0 victory against the USSR at Dalymount Park.

Giles would later call it ‘one of the happier days in Ireland’s football history’, a game notable not only for Givens’ goal glut but for the fact that Liam Brady made his debut in Giles’ first game as a player-manager while Steve Heighway also featured.

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Steve Heighway

Steve Heighway became the third Republic of Ireland player to win the European Cup when Liverpool beat Borussia Mönchengladbach in 1977. (He won a second in 1978, coming on as a substitute against Club Brugge).

He was lauded for a superb performance in 1977 in which he created two goals, one with a defence splitting pass and the other from a corner, which helped secure Liverpool’s first European crown.

Heighway, a left footed winger of special talent, was a central part of arguably the most dominant English team during an era of British domination in European football.

Heighway was born in Dublin but his parents emigrated to Sheffield when he was young. Heighway famously didn’t start playing professional football until he was 22 years old.

He made his debut in the 1970-71 season and quickly won the hearts of the Liverpool faithful with a dominant performance against Everton in a 3-2 win before later that season scoring the winning goal against their Mersey rivals in the FA Cup Semi Final.

Heighway played for Ireland 34 times without ever scoring.

Liam Brady

Liam Brady was one of the best two or three passers of the last twenty years, and this in itself was why he was revered by every single Arsenal fan, but for me there was more to it than that. I worshipped him because he was great, and I worshipped him because, in the parlance, if you cut him he would bleed Arsenal (like Charlie George he was a product of the youth team); but there was a third thing, too. He was intelligent. This intelligence manifested itself primarily in his passing, which was incisive and imaginative and constantly surprising.

Liam Brady was arguably the Republic of Ireland’s most technically gifted player. A player that was a delight to watch, Nick Hornby’s adoration for the Arsenal legend in Fever Pitch was unequivocal and devoted.

Athletic, skilful and cultured, Brady was a player ahead of his time who would later depart Arsenal to play for Juventus, Sampdoria and Inter Milan in Serie A.

In his outstanding book, Where Have All The Irish Gone? Kevin O’Neill calls Brady a ‘genius and a brilliant servant to Arsenal.’ Brady, a Dubliner, joined Arsenal aged fifteen and made his Irish international debut against the USSR just three years later.

John Giles would later write of his decision to name Brady in the starting XI, that ‘you didn’t need to be a genius to see that he had it’. Brady was among the Ballon D’Or voting for an amazing four seasons; 1979, 1980 (for Arsenal), 1981 (for Juventus) and 1983 (for Sampdoria).

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Paul McGrath

[McGrath] had an athleticism that was musical, if you know what I mean. There was a rhythm about Paul running, this change of pace he had. You’d see him do it and be thinking, “Jeez, can he run…”

– Sir Alex Ferguson on Paul McGrath

There is a case for a number of players being considered the Republic of Ireland’s greatest ever footballer but it is highly likely that the popular vote winner would be Paul McGrath. Intensely shy and inhibited off the field, McGrath was a colossus on the pitch.

McGrath possessed a delicate touch, electric pace and a level of bravery beyond that expected by soldiers in battle. Mick McCarthy has described him as a footballer without equal in terms of style and grace.

Operating in an era of muddy pitches and harsh English winters, McGrath was a player ahead of his time, often deployed in central midfield from where he could control the game.

A continental player in the truest sense, McGrath exuded class. Sadly, Paul’s Manchester United career did not prosper under Alex Ferguson where Ferguson’s heavy-handed treatment of McGrath did little to help the Dubliner curb his serious alcohol issues.

Like John Giles and Don Givens before him, McGrath’s career would not fully prosper until after leaving Manchester United. McGrath moved to Aston Villa playing under Graham Taylor and later Ron Atkinson.

While McGrath’s drinking ills did not go away, Taylor and Atkinson accommodated McGrath to truly get the best out of their star defender.

McGrath was nominated for the Ballon D’Or in 1987, 1990, 1991 and 1993. McGrath also won the PFA Player of the Year in 1993, and with Brady (in 1979) remain the only Irishmen to have won the award.

Packie Bonner

Probably the most iconic still frame of the Republic of Ireland’s storied history is that of Packie Bonner saving Daniel Timofte’s penalty at the 1990 World Cup.

It was the gloves of Bonner that propelled Ireland to their greatest – relative – success and produced one of the Republic of Ireland’s most memorable moments.

Famously a one club man throughout his career, the Donegal native played for Glasgow Celtic from 1978 until 1998.

The last player ever signed by Jock Stein, Bonner went on to win four league titles with Celtic though he is best remembered for his exploits playing for the international team.

Bonner was nominated for the Ballon D’Or in 1989 and finished 17th (tied with John Barnes).

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Roy Keane

The Republic of Ireland’s most recent Ballon D’or nominee (6th in 1999; 27th in 2000) has been Roy Keane.

The engine of arguably the greatest club season by any English side, Keane is often characterised by his uncompromising attitude and his aggressive playing style.

Many players have had these qualities before and after Keane but few coupled it with his intelligence, immense footballing skill and technical ability.

A player with an eye for goal and a fantastic range of passing, Keane was frugal in possession. Alex Ferguson wrote in his autobiography:

With Roy Keane present, keeping the ball was never a problem. I said so from the minute he came to the club: ‘He never gives the ball away, this guy’

Bryan Robson was unquestionably one of Manchester United’s great heroes, a talisman in an era when the club struggled greatly.

Perhaps the greatest compliment to be paid to Roy Keane is that Manchester United did not suffer for the decline of Robson when they had Keane in their ranks.

Robson would later say that Keane’s arrival was merely the arrival at the club of a top-class player and that was all that mattered.

More recently Alex Ferguson has described Keane as the ‘most influential presence in the dressing room’ ensuring motivation was never a problem among his teammates.

His Irish fire was fundamental to his immense value as a player

– Sir Alex Ferguson on Roy Keane

It is worth acknowledging that Manchester United’s greatest ever club season was marshalled by an Irishman at the peak of his powers.

Keane produced a level of consistency from 1998 to 2002 which was without equal, being named in the PFA Team of the year each of those years except for the year that Manchester United won the treble.

Keane’s sixth place finish in the 1999 Ballon D’Or race remains the greatest success of any Republic of Ireland player for that award.


Another noteworthy point is that one man – Manchester United scout Billy Behan – is credited with ‘discovering’ four of the players listed, in addition to the likes of Johnny Carey and Liam Whelan.

Like other English clubs, notably Liverpool and Arsenal, Manchester United have clearly built their success on formidable Irishmen and this was in no small part due to the keen eye of Behan spotting talent across Dublin.

Featuring in the Ballon D’Or race is by no means considered an accurate barometer of footballing success. It is indicative however of how footballers are perceived by the greater public.

Then we ask that dreaded question: is sixth in the world really the best that a Republic of Ireland player could feature in the Ballon D’Or?

By comparison, both Northern Ireland (George Best) and Scotland (Denis Law), footballing nations of similar repute, have previously featured winners.

The Republic of Ireland has produced some fantastic footballers though perhaps none with the required media presence and public support to achieve football’s greatest individual awards.

The Republic of Ireland is by no means a footballing powerhouse and arguably sixth in 1999 was the greatest acknowledgement an individual from this nation could attain.

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Kevin O’Neill’s excellent book Where Have All The Irish Gone? questions the presence of the Irish at top level clubs in England in recent years.

The book discusses how reaching the pinnacle of English football has become extremely difficult for the Irish since the dawn of the Premier League in 1992.

He suggests that with more and more continental players flooding into the country, the chances of Irish players coming through in the top clubs have become few and far between.

It is now less common to see Republic of Ireland players playing for the likes of Arsenal, Manchester United and Liverpool and Republic of Ireland players are more likely to be seen playing at the lower end of the Premier League or in the Championship.

Between Tony Dunne’s Irish debut against Austria in 1962 and Roy Keane’s final game against France in September 2005, there was an ever-present link between the Republic of Ireland’s truly elite, Ballon D’Or contesting, players in the national side.

Moreover, during that time frame the Republic of Ireland also had players of the quality of Ronnie Whelan and Denis Irwin who performed at the highest level.

While not currently having any players of the outstanding talent described here, the Republic of Ireland have since qualified for two international tournaments, perhaps demonstrating a collective superiority above any individual brilliance.

There are elements of football beyond our control as a footballing nation.

Producing the next Liam Brady shall be an aspiration of all but until that moment, we can hope that a collective drive shall unite the Republic of Ireland to pull together until our next Paul McGrath will appear and inspire another chorus of unforgettable chants.

Author Details

Aidan Boland
Aidan Boland

Irish Primary School Teacher living in Tipperary with a big interest in sports. Contributor to United We Stand. Main interests include Premier League and Bundesliga along with Golf and NFL (specifically New England Patriots).

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