THE Irish in Britain have lost a great ambassador following the death of Tony Grealish.
It is a cliché but it does only feel like yesterday when he was mascot at the St Gabriels versus Brothers Pearse London SHC final in 1965. He was there because his father Packie was one of the Gabriels’ founder members.
This week I had an image of a very young Tony in my mind, juggling the ball at pitch-side in New Eltham and later, juggling Gaelic games and a soccer career already starting to take off.
His cameos in New Eltham, in both football and hurling, while signed as a professional soccer player were always something that brought the Irish community great joy. And for him, the joy of playing made it a risk worth taking.
Even after Len Chesswright signed him for Leyton Orient, Tony would return to his local soccer club where he’d carry bags for them. People used to joke that the club had a professional bag carrier, but the man wouldn’t have thought twice about not doing it.
There’s lot of little stories I like about Tony, but I always loved hearing how he would return home to his parents’ house in Shirland Road, Paddington, only hours after playing for the Os, rejecting the penthouse culture that was available to him.
His first week’s wage was £6 plus food vouchers, which would have suited him fine — he was grounded.
His dad was from Carranmore in Galway and his mum, from
Co. Limerick. The day he made his debut for Orient, they were both in the stand and Packie is said to have playfully nudged Nora at the end of the game and smiled: “Do you think he’ll be playing next week.”
He knew. The thing with Tony is that he did play every week. He was known as Mr Reliable by the time he’d got to Brighton. Even before Tony put boot to ball, you knew he’d return a 7/10 performance when the final whistle blew. He didn’t hit great highs of performance; he was always consistently good.
So many other days he was great in how he carried himself; I’m proud to say I was at Wembley in 1983 when Tony captained Brighton and Hove Albion against Manchester United in the FA Cup final. You couldn’t be Irish in the stadium that day and not be lifted by the sight of Tony, walking to the centre circle to shake hands with Bryan Robson.
On other days he’d just shake down the middle of the park, humbling great players like Ray Wilkins.
Tony was a mainstay in the Irish midfield from 1978 to 1986, winning 45 caps, just as his parents were a mainstay in the stands of European stadia where he played. He didn’t miss too many games for the Boys in Green and his parents never missed any when he was centre-mid.
That May afternoon against United wasn’t his only day out in Wembley. When the GAA used to hold games there on Easter weekends, the young Tony would be present and I watched him line out for London against New York under the famous towers. Not long after that his soccer career took off. There were a lot of interested clubs. I remember hearing back that Spurs said he was too small. Their loss. In sport and in life, he was a giant.
Removal to Sacred Heart of Jesus Church, Quex Road, Kilburn at 6pm on Thursday, May 2. Funeral Mass will take place on Friday, May 3 at 12.15pm. Burial in Kensal Green Cemetery.