Game Changers: Shay Brennan the first foreign-born player to answer Ireland’s call

Manchester-born defender blazed a trail subsequently followed by over 100 players

Born in Manchester to parents both from Carlow, Shay Brennan was an unlikely pioneer, perhaps even a reluctant one for a time.

But the Manchester United defender embraced his Irishness after becoming the first ever player to represent this country on the basis of what was then the newly-enacted ancestry rule. More than 100 other have followed in his footsteps since.

The international eligibility landscape was the tricky one for Fifa from its very earliest days and players representing countries that they had not been born in was almost as common at the first World Cup as it was at the last with the only major spike in percentage terms being 1938 when Germany fielded rather a lot of Austrians.

The federation could influence things through its rules but had no control over the way citizenship was granted and so factors like patterns of emigration and the treatment of colonies, among others, played their part down the years.


In 1930, Spanish-born Lorenzo Fernandez, one of many southern Europeans to represent countries in South America during the first half of the last century, was a World Cup winner with Uruguay and in 1966 four of the Portuguese side that reached the semi-finals, including their captain and greatest star, Mario Coluna and Eusebio respectively, were actually from Mozambique. There are countless such examples.

Here, there was a touch of chaos about the situation because of the divisions between the two parts of the island and the football associations. Until 1950, players could line out for either or both Irish international teams and there are various instances of individuals featuring for one then the other in the space of a few days as Johnny Carey, celebrated captain of the Republic of Ireland side that had beaten England at Goodison Park in 1949, and Bill Gorman did on September 28th then 30th in 1946. They played first in Windsor Park then in Dalymount, both of the games also being against England.

Thing might have drifted on but for the fact that the IFA finally entered the World Cup for the first time in 1950. When four players from the South featured for the North against Wales in Wrexham and so became the first to play for two different teams in the same qualification campaign, the FAI complained and Fifa decided enough was enough. It would take another three years before the finer points of the situation were clarified but Celtic’s Sean Fallon became the last southerner of the era to be drafted into a Northern Ireland squad at the end of 1950 and, under pressure, he withdrew.

During the previous decade four players born north of the border had been capped by the Republic but it would be 2007, when Darron Gibson made his debut in Denmark, before it happened again at senior level.

By then, players born in Britain had actually become a mainstay of the team with more than half of those handed debuts in the 1980s and 90s qualifying under what became known, somewhat disparagingly, as “the granny rule”.

Brennan was the first, though, and already in the mind of Carey, international team manager by then, when the FAI supported the rule change at Fifa's 1964 Congress in Tokyo, one of a number of attempts by the world body around that time to address issues with its regulations in the area, that would make him eligible.

Club level

The full-back was already very well established at club level and when he ultimately made his Irish debut the following year in a World Cup play-off against Spain it was the eve of his 28th birthday.

He had been with United for a decade, initially as a member of its highly successful youth team of the mid-1950s and also, it seems, the club’s ground staff for a spell. Carey had been a huge hero for Brennan as he watched from the terraces growing up but he was well gone by the time Brennan was called up to make his senior debut in a makeshift team for a cup tie against Sheffield Wednesday.

It was the club’s first match after the Munich air disaster and with David Pegg dead and Albert Scanlon, like Matt Busby, still in hospital, assistant manager Jimmy Murphy started Brennan, an inside forward, as an outside left.

“I had as little idea about playing on the wing as the man on the moon,” he would recall later but in front of 60,000 people, he scored two goals in a 3-0 win on what was a hugely emotional night. He would only get another four goals in the other 358 games he played for the club but he won two league titles and played a big part in the European Cup final victory of 1968.

After such a remarkable start, it was more than a year and a switch to right back before be actually nailed down a regular place in the team. Prominent survivors of the crash initially displaced him but by 1962 he was a big enough fish himself to be on the margins of England squad and he certainly sounded, when he reflected upon his invitation from Ireland four years later, as though he would happily have answered a call had it come.

“I received overtures from (FAI Secretary) Joe Wickham asking me if I would like to play for Ireland,” he remembered.

“I didn’t have much chance of playing for England even though I had been in the 40 from whom the 1962 World Cup squad was chosen. I had attended a week’s session in Lilleshall that year and played one or two representative games for the league against the army but Jimmy Armfield was a permanent fixture and then and George Cohen took over from him.”

The fact that he was surplus to requirements was actually quite specifically confirmed by Alf Ramsey because the FAI asked their English counterparts if it would be okay to make the approach and they consulted their manager. Still, there is not one suggestion in all that was written about him subsequently that he had an ounce of regret over the way things turned out.

It was a tough time to be involved with the Irish team, though. Over the five and a half years he played, he started 18 games, five of them as captain, and came on once. There were just three victories and reading back over accounts of the era, “Ireland were unfortunate to lose,” features a little too often.

Deciding game

On his debut, they seem to have been rather fortunate to win with the only goal of the game coming when Noel Cantwell put goalkeeper José Ángel Iribar off by shouting at him as Frank O’Neill floated in a free kick. The Spaniards refused to change jerseys afterwards and beat Ireland in both the second leg and then the deciding game in Paris.

Brennan, though, added quality to the team from the outset, however, and was very clearly well liked.

"A Shay Brennan performance was like a study of applied intelligence, wit, guile and perception," recalled Eamon Dunphy in his autobiography, The Rocky Road. The Dubliner encountered him both at United and with Ireland, around that time, and reckoned his assets, "more than compensated for the rugged aggression absent from his nature".

Dunphy maintains that he could neither tackle nor head the ball well but, like others, he highlighted his tremendous ability to read the game, unsettle opponents, retain his own composure under pressure and pass the ball.

“Shay was a wonderful footballer,” Dunphy recalls, “and a lovable rogue. The quintessential Mancunian: mischievous, savvy about street life, funny, especially about the frailties of the human condition. He looked like a movie star and talked like a street bookmaker. Everybody at United loved Shay.

"Gambling was his Achilles heel," he says, however. He recalls seeing him regularly at greyhound racing in Manchester and tells the story of, much later, the team bus being diverted on the way to Pisa airport after Brennan's last ever game for Ireland, a European Championship qualifier against Italy in Florence. The officials wanted to see the city's leaning tower before they left and as it loomed into view, Dunphy paused mid poker game to tell Brennan to look behind him. "'Deal,' he replied, drily".

By then he had moved to Ireland to manage Waterford where he enjoyed considerable success winning two league titles and the first League Cup in scarcely three years. Then, it seems, he had had enough and he left to concentrate on a courier business he was involved with.

He died, aged just 63 20 years ago, pursuing what was said to be his other great passion, golf, when he suffered a heart attack on the course in Courtown. He was buried in his adoptive home of Tramore.

The warmth of the tributes from the time are striking with United well represented at a funeral where Irish football honoured a man clearly regarded as one of its own.

The fact that he might so easily have played for England seems only to flag how complicated so many of the situations of the players who followed in his footsteps would prove to be. But Brennan made it that little bit easier for them all and, even if others would enjoy better times for the team, showed just how life changing embracing the opportunity could be.

Born abroad....four more who became synonymous with the Irish cause and one who choose to leave it behind again.

Mick McCarthy

Born in Barnsley in 1959, McCarthy qualified on the basis of his father, Charlie, who had left Waterford for England. Between 1984 and 1992 he won 57 caps. A firm favourite of Jack Charlton, and supporters, for his total commitment to the cause, he captained the side at Italia’90. Sports a thick Yorkshire accent to this day but just try telling him he’s not Irish.

Ray Houghton

Perhaps the most celebrated “recruit” of them all after his heroics against England and Italy, the midfielder qualified on the basis of his Donegal-born father and was famously brought on board in the Oxford United dressing room. Jack Charlton had gone there to ask John Aldridge to make himself available and the striker had pointed to his team-mate as another likely signing.

Paul McGrath

A contender for the “best ever Irish player,” title McGrath, like Dave O’Leary, Curtis Fleming and, much more recently, Sean Maguire, is one of a small number of Irish internationals to have been born in Britain but who then spent their formative years in Ireland. These days, a player with his background and talent would likely attract interest from the English FA at an early stage.

Kevin Kilbane

It is hard to think of a British-born player who was clearer in their own heads about their Irish identity from such an early age. Kilbane turned down an England call-up at under-18 level despite a fair bit of pressure to go with the flow. In recent years he has lived in Dublin and forged very firm links with Mayo where he has roots. The former Sunderland and Everton full back/midfielder is, with 110 appearances, the country's most capped player not born on the island.

Declan Rice

After impressing in various Irish underage sides, the London-born West Ham midfielder insisted his future was green when he made his senior debut in March 2018 against Turkey. Two further caps followed but he prevaricated when it came to the competitive one that would have decided matters and as he made dramatic progress at club level, he found an offer from England, when it came, to be irresistible.