Last amateur to play for Republic's soccer team


Willie Browne, who has died in Dublin at the age of 68, was one of the last of a Corinthian breed for whom the romance of sport transcended all other considerations.

A talented footballer who could easily have made good money by playing professionally, he stayed loyal to Bohemians at a time when they hadn't yet renounced their amateur status in the late 1950s and '60s.

Instead, he was happy to settle for the epitaph of the last amateur player to represent the Republic of Ireland, winning the last of his three senior caps in a high-profile game against England at Dalymount Park in 1964. He was much more than that, however, encompassing a wide variety of sports with a passion and a degree of skill which was the envy of his contemporaries in those less pressurised times in Irish sport.

Away from the playing fields, he was a respected accountant who went on to become managing director of GEC Ltd. In commerce no less than sport, his was an easy but efficient style which made for good fellowship.

Willie Browne was born in Longford. Like his four brothers, he was educated at St Mel's college, a famous Gaelic games nursery at the time. He played with St Mel's in the 1954 Leinster Colleges championship and later when he moved on to UCD to secure a commerce degree, he was reunited with two of his sporting brothers.

Harold, the oldest of the quintet, was studying medicine and Raymond was doing a degree in dentistry. This redoubtable Longford trio formed the core of the UCD team which dominated the Irish Universities Championship for the Collingwood Cup in the late 1950s.

It was around this period that he aligned himself with Bohemians where the old Corinthian ethos still survived in an increasingly alien world. He was one of those natural athletes who got by without undertaking long endurance work in training and, with the blessing of George Lax, then in charge of Bohemians, devised training schedules to suit his particular needs.

To complicate matters, he was also heavily involved in lawn tennis, in which he attained interprovincial status with Leinster.

In his student days, he was known to spend his Saturday afternoons playing tennis and the remainder of the day reminiscing about it. For a player committed to big football games the following day, it was scarcely ideal preparation and the coach conveying Bohemians players to provincial venues on Sunday mornings was occasionally known to deviate sharply from schedule to get him on board.

The inconvenience was well worth while, however, for once he pulled on the celebrated red-and-black strip, he was generally half a team in himself.

A tall central defender who was widely regarded for his heading ability and strength in the tackle, he was frequently dispatched to the other end of the pitch when desperate circumstances demanded desperate measures of redress by Bohemians.

Not surprisingly, his special talent was quickly recognised at a higher level and at a relatively early stage of his career, he made the first of his 16 amateur international appearances for Ireland. At inter-league level also, his skills would soon find an outlet for expression before inevitably, he was elevated to full international status.

Not since the celebrated O'Flanagan brothers, Kevin and Michael, were in their prime in the mid '40s, had an amateur been selected to play in the national team but if Browne was inhibited by the august company he was keeping, it certainly didn't show in his performances.

On his first appearance, in an European championship game against Austria in Vienna in 1963, he was widely acclaimed for his contribution to a brave rearguard action which enabled Ireland to emerge with a creditable scoreless draw.

Later when Joe Wickham, the FAI's general secretary, was handing out the pay cheques in the dressing room, Charlie Hurley asked why he had bypassed Browne. When it was pointed out that he was an amateur, Hurley promptly organised a whip-round and the Longford man was able to boast that he received more money that evening than any of his professional colleagues.

His subsequent senior international appearances in 1964 were against Spain and a formidable England team which included such names as Bobby Charlton, Bobby Moore and Jimmy Greaves.

A year earlier, he had received an offer to pursue a professional career with Wolves, at the time a highly respected club in Britain, but predictably, perhaps, he rejected it.

Later he would say that his only regret in sport was that he never went into a game 100 per cent fit.

Those who wondered how he would deploy his exceptional talent when his football career ended, need not have worried.

Although his Elm Park tennis commitments took precedence, he also turned to badminton, cricket and, on occasions, hockey.

It was only when a serious shoulder injury terminated his involvement with tennis that he concentrated seriously on golf, again at Elm Park. It is testimony to his exceptional co-ordination, that he quickly reduced his handicap in this discipline to single figures.

Appropriately,this true cavalier of Irish sport, played his last round of golf just days before his unexpected death last week.

He is survived by his wife, Pat, daughters Philippa and Caroline and son Ronan.

Willie Browne: born February 21st, 1936; died October 14th , 2004.