Willie Bryan — midfielder, All Star, Footballer of the Year, artist, gentleman, musician, storyteller, legend. And the first Offaly man to lift the Sam Maguire...
The crowd is out on the pitch. People surge and sway, pulled with emotion. There are men and women crying and dancing and jumping around in a kind of delirium. The light is dying, the rain is falling in torrents, driven by a wind that is pushing into every corner. Up in the gathering murk of the Hogan Stand, Willie Bryan is about to be presented with the Sam Maguire Cup. It’s 1971 and Offaly have just won the All-Ireland Football Championship for the first time. There can only be one first time — and here it is. He takes the Sam Maguire and lifts it and there is bedlam. He sees his mother in the crowd. She has pushed her way to the front and all he can see is her smile. The roars settle. Willie Bryan holds the cup in one hand and the microphone in the other: “This is the happiest moment in my life.”
And the roaring starts again. Every footballer is a product of the era they are born into. This is true for the type of football that is played, and true, also, for the social context of that play. Willie Bryan was a child raised in the 1950s. He was born in Walsh Island, a small village in Offaly. The scattering of houses and farms was surrounded by an ocean of bog. “It was about getting food up on the table, when it comes down to it. We were in the middle of the bog and times were tough. There’s no denying that. There was a lot of hardship growing up in Walsh Island. But everyone was in the same boat — nobody had anything.”
And there was football: “We went to school and we worked in the bog and we played football. That was our outlet, our only outlet really. It was all just football. The minute school was over or you were finished in the bog, you just went straight up to the field and kicked the ball until it got too dark. We’d a schoolteacher from Cork — Randall McCarthy — he was such a patient man and he put a lot of time into us. He used to have a left-footed week and then a right-footed week. He’d give a free against you if you used the wrong foot. It got to the stage where it didn’t matter which foot I threw the ball to.”
Making it for Offaly was what Willie Bryan wanted more than anything: “I desperately wanted to play for Offaly. When I was a young lad I actually got my white shirt and got paint out of the piggery at the back of the house — a bit of green and a bit of yellow. And I painted my shirt the Offaly colours. I hung it up to let it dry and then I put it on. Soon enough, of course, little lumps of paint started to fall off — that broke my heart. But that’s how badly I wanted to play for Offaly, how much I wanted to wear the Offaly jersey.”
And when he did play for Offaly he came through at the perfect time. The county had benefited from the growth of Bord na Móna and the ESB in the years after the Second World War. There were more people working, more families around, a little bit less emigration, more education — and a more organised set-up in the county board, which was now driven by capable, dedicated men.
Offaly won the O’Byrne Cup for the first time in 1955 and then won Leinster senior football titles for the first time in 1960 and 1961. This, in turn, inspired a new generation to see what was possible. Among them was Willie Bryan, and also men like Martin Furlong and Tony McTague. They were the spine of a brilliant Offaly team who beat Cork to win the minor All-Ireland of 1964 — the county’s first and only minor football title.
Offaly then set about building a senior team around this new generation of players and mixed in the survivors of the team that had lost by a point to Down in the 1961 All-Ireland final. They made it to the 1969 final where they lost to Kerry. They had been trained for that final by Fr Tom Scully: “He is a really lovely human being. He used to give a few of us a loan of his car. He gave it to us once when we were going to the wedding of one of the lads on the team — Mick Ryan. We headed off to Athlone, drank pints and pints. Then we brought the car back to his house intact — he then dropped us back into town for more pints. But he treated us like adults and he knew we were totally committed.
“The beer bans and all that at the moment are just such a complete and absolute load of rubbish. Do the lads at the moment actually enjoy what they’re doing? You have to have a life. I don’t mean that to be down on current players. I’d have huge respect for the Dubs who play the game the way it should be played.”
Offaly lost a classic Leinster final to Meath in 1970, but the team was coming and they knew it. And 1971 was a great year to be made captain. Offaly got to the All-Ireland final where they met Galway. They were, by now, a tough, experienced team who were ready to win. In an article he wrote for the Sunday Independent on the morning of the final, Willie Bryan began: “This is a final we must win. Not only that, but I firmly believe we can and will win.” The article continues in a vein that is fearless and honest. He wrote that he thought the Galway team was not properly selected as he thought some of their better players were being played out of position.
This is all done without arrogance, but it reveals a focused determination which culminates in the last sentence: “I couldn’t be happier about the team through the field and I needn’t tell you how much we want to win that first title.”
And win they did: “We had never won one, so there might have been a bit of concern over that, but we were actually really confident in 1971. Looking back that might sound strange but we just believed we were good enough. I remember John Dowling (then Offaly county secretary and later President of the GAA) on at me to have my speech ready. But making speeches wasn’t for me so I just said if it happens, it happens and I’ll think of something when I’m standing up there. And I did. To be honest, being captain never really meant much to me. In my opinion, the captain on a good team is only needed for the coin toss. And we had a good team and good subs.”
Reports on the final note the ‘merciless and remorseless tackling’ as the game finished in fading light. Indeed, things had been hectic from the throw-in: ‘We were under a lot of pressure early on and the ball was in our square a lot. The lads in there — Martin Furlong, Mick O’Rourke, Paddy McCormack and Mick Ryan — were tough men. It got very hot in there, there was a bit of boxing. So the referee (Paul Kelly from Dublin) came over to me and asked me would I go in and ask the lads to go a bit easier. I went in and passed on the message. Paddy McCormack ran me. He told me if I was catching the thing out in the middle, it wouldn’t be landing in so much and there’d be no problem. He wasn’t going to change anyway.”
Offaly had trailed by five points at half-time, but turned it around in the second-half.
The unrestrained joy at victory on the field was repeated in the dressing room. Micheál Ó Muircheartaigh: “I was in the dressing room under the Cusack Stand when Willie Bryan came back in with the Sam Maguire. I’ll never forget the great joy in that room.”
And then it was back home: “The crowds in Offaly and the madness of the people was unbelievable. We were fairly wild. We got to Walsh Island in the middle of the week.
It was still spilling rain. They put a marquee up — that was a big effort from the people. It was an incredible night — just water falling everywhere and nobody kind of really believing it, but there we were with the Cup.”
Offaly made it back again to the final in 1972 where they played Kerry. They wanted to beat Kerry to really underline that they were a champion team. The ambition on the day was set out by the team’s full-back Paddy McCormack, when he was questioned about facing Kerry’s tradition: “To hell with tradition. Tradition alone is no substitute if you haven’t got the team.”
The teams played out a draw, as Wille Bryan recalls: “We probably should have beaten Kerry the first day. Then we were kind of written off by everyone. Kerry had never been beaten in a replay and we had two big losses early in the game when Eugene Mulligan and Johnny Cooney got injured. But we didn’t panic.” And Willie Bryan had the game of his life. Mick O’Connell deemed Willie Bryan and Cathal O’Leary the best midfielders of his era. The replay in 1972 must have been central to that judgement. “Everything fell for me that day. The ones I didn’t catch on the way up, I caught on the way down. It was just one of those days. It was a fantastic experience to play on Mick O’Connell. I was a bit nervous about it of course, but also he was very nice to play on. He just went out to play football and so did I. No spoiling, just out to kick ball. He was mistreated when he was player. But I never laid a hand on him — nor him on me.
“During those years, to be honest, I felt he only really got the better of me once. That was down at a Railway Cup replay final down in Cork — he never gave me a look at it. He was a magnificent footballer — the best — but I usually did fine on him. I’ve been down in his house since and he’s just a very nice man, a fascinating man.”
Offaly won the 1972 All-Ireland football final replay 1-19 to 0-13: “We won two All-Irelands in one when we beat Kerry in that replay. There could be no doubt about us anymore.”
And Willie Bryan won a second All Star, as well as being named Footballer of the Year for 1972. The awards are laced with one big regret: “We got the trip to San Francisco with the All-Stars but I had to play for Offaly so I never actually played for the All-Stars. I would have loved to have played with O’Connell — we’d been named midfield together on the All-Star team in 1972.”
After 1972, he kept playing away with Offaly. And his club — Walsh Island, one of the smallest in Offaly — went on a spectacular winning spree. Indeed, the Walsh Island team that came together at the end of the 1970s lays fair claim to be the best club football team in Offaly history — they won six-in-a-row after 1978: “I played for the first two of them, ‘78 and ‘79. Then I got a bad injury. We went up to play a challenge match in Dublin. I was standing in the middle of the field with PJ Mahon, a great stalwart of Walsh Island and we were picking the team. A ball came down in front of me and I put up my arm to catch it and something went. I got a slipped disc. I had an operation but could never get back. It’s still at me today.”
He has had two more operations on the back and is facing into another. He can’t sit down for any length of time and is on painkilling medication: “We weren’t looked after medically. That’s just a fact — we knew no better. I was 32 or so when I stopped.
“I would always have feared the day I would have had to stop. But when it happens like this, all you want to do is get better. Three years later, Offaly won the All-Ireland.
And I would have thought I could have still been there. Maybe not — but I would have hoped so.”
Now, as he looks back across almost 50 years of history to the pomp of his playing days, the stories that tumble out are of the fun he had with the characters with whom he shared a field. He tells of the night training in Ballyfore in north Offaly and they were being run ragged: ‘We were doing laps and laps and I just wasn’t built for it.
“There were a load of high trees at one end of the field so on one of the laps I just kept going straight and went to hide under the trees. Unfortunately, I fell over Martin Furlong who was already in there lying on the ground. We had some laugh.”
He has needed those men since he lost his beloved wife Millie in 2009. She was a devoted football follower and was only in her early 60s when she died from cancer.
He is entirely open now about the grief that enveloped him: “I was in a very bad place. I just couldn’t cope. I drank too much, way too much. I was very grateful for the phone calls and all the people from the GAA who contacted me. Mick O’Connell rang me from Kerry and it gave me a huge lift. But I couldn’t cope. I went over and spent two weeks with Martin Furlong in New York, went working with him. That was a lift too. But I was down and drinking. It took a few people to tell me to cop on a bit. It’s still hard and I haven’t slept a full night since she died.”
He had a few ideas that didn’t come off: “I thought I’d write a book about characters in small towns across Ireland. So I got a dictaphone and took off for a week. I went to Kerry on a Monday and met Billy Keane. Great day, great night but nothing recorded. Met the Ó Sé lads and Mikey Sheehy and the Bomber the next day. Same result. Then the next day Tom Long, Mick Gleeson and Ambrose O’Donovan and a few others. Basically, it was some week, but I came home with no recordings and a good bit poorer.”
He has thrown himself into work with the St Vincent de Paul: “It’s been my lifesaver. I was two years drinking, trying to mask the pain and thinking I was codding everyone. And then I found my niche. I run this thing where we go into people’s houses and do it up for them. People are living in conditions that are just not acceptable. Things can get on top of them and they can’t cope and the place falls apart. We try and help out with that and you can see the terrific lift they get from it.
And I also get a huge lift from it, from just helping people out a bit.”
A life of work left him perfectly placed for the task. He worked as a draughtsman for the ESB and for Bord na Móna. And then he ran a successful engineering business for years: “I was dealing with the quarrying and concrete industries. Roadstone were my best customer – great GAA people like Michael Grogan in there. Being a footballer and being ‘Willie Bryan’ definitely helped open doors for me. But the opened door is only the start, you have to make use of it. And I’m not an attention seeker. I don’t like talking in crowds. I love talking to someone one-on-one – a good conversation. But there’s shyness there, I think. Certainly, no way do I make speeches — I’d choke at that.”
The pain in his back stops him doing a lot of what he likes to do. He plays guitar and he paints, but he can’t garden anymore and he doesn’t make the wood sculptures he was so brilliant at. And neither can he play golf (he got as low as five on his handicap). His talents as a sportsman meant as well as golf, he also played tennis, hockey, rugby, soccer and hurling. But Gaelic football was his love: “Just kicking a ball and playing for Walsh Island and Offaly. Even when I lived in Dublin, I could never think of leaving.”
And he loves the GAA: “We’re divided by ditches; ditches between parishes, ditches between counties. And we fall out, but then we come back together. It’s amazing what the GAA has become. I went to see the league final and left the place with my chest bursting with pride. Seeing a brilliant football team and the spectacle afterwards. I was so proud of the whole thing. I did the tour of Croke Park as well another day. Twice actually. It was fantastic. Walking out under the Hogan Stand and hearing the recording of the crowd cheering. It brought back memories.”
But Willie Bryan doesn’t live in the past. He’s shaped by it, but not defined by it. He remains a lovely, charming, intelligent, charismatic man. He is incapable of being boastful, but neither does he present a false modesty. He is straightforward and deals in facts. And the fact is that he was a brilliant, pure footballer — and the first Offaly man to lift the Sam Maguire.