Anne O’Brien: The Irishwoman who won six Italian league titles and four international caps
Ireland’s forgotten gem: Anne O’Brien.
When asked to think of legends of the Irish game, the same names are usually mentioned.
Roy Keane, the hardman who led United in their glory years.
Paul McGrath, a jewel of a defender who also called the ‘Theatre of Dreams’ home.
Robbie Keane, the man who has scored more goals than anyone else for Ireland.
While all players mentioned are undoubted icons of the game, there’s one name that’s often forgotten, one that you may not even know.
Let's hear it for Anne O'Brien, who paved the way for the 'girls in green'. The soccer player from Inchicore, Dublin, was the first female player (Irish or British) to play the professional game. She won 9 league titles with Stade de Reims, France and Lazio, Italy pic.twitter.com/4PuljVkRur
— Clodagh Finn (@FinnClodagh) July 10, 2023
Anne O’Brien was born in 1956. Brought up in Inchicore in a footballing family, Anne honed her skills on the streets of Dublin.
Aged 17, Anne was asked to play in a Dublin All-Stars team against touring French outfit Stade de Reims.
Due to a slight injury crisis, along with O’Brien’s impressive performances, the Irish teenager was invited by the Reims manager to play in the concluding matches of the tour.
More notable performances followed, leading to her signing a professional contract with the French side.
This made her the first Irish or British woman to ever play professional football, leading to headlines at home and abroad.
RTÉ reported on the young starlet’s move to France, mentioning that she had decided “to give a professional career a go”.
Anne, interviewed by Tom McCaughren outside her home in Inchicore, said she hoped to spend many years in professional soccer.
Anne O'Brien, (1956-2016) Inchicore, footballer. First Irish woman to play European professional club football. An accomplished midfielder, Anne played in Reims, Trani, and Lazio, later coaching Lazio. #NollaigNamBan #IrishWomenInHistory pic.twitter.com/yD0mGAHQal
— IrishWomenInHistory (@IrishWomenin) January 4, 2020
Cailín on the continent.
Anne O’Brien went on to do just that, spending twenty-one years in professional soccer across France and Italy.
In that time she played for giants of the game such as Lazio and Napoli, taking home a trophy haul that most Irish professionals could only dream of in the process.
She became the first Irish player to win the Scudetto, winning her first with Lazio in 1979, before going on to collect another five during her nearly twenty-year stint in Italy.
Along with three French titles won at Stade de Reims, O’Brien also won two Italian Women’s Cups.
Her trophy haul isn’t the only aspect of her career that many would envy, she also experienced playing in front of 50,000 people at the infamous San Siro in Milan, this fact highlighting that interest in women’s football wasn’t lacking in Italy.
Anne O'Brien (1956-2016) learned to play football on the streets around her home in Inchicore going on to become the first female player, Irish or British, to play professionally. She won 9 league titles in France and Lazio, Italy.
More 👇https://t.co/rLwwg21NaZ https://t.co/wxxMEHensX pic.twitter.com/CJuM4m5liI
— Clodagh Finn (@FinnClodagh) March 15, 2022
An elegant trequartista, Anne O’Brien was heralded as one of the best to play in Italy, perhaps even one of the best in the world at the time.
Despite this, she only won four caps for the national team, a statistic which seems baffling today.
One can only imagine the impact a player of such talent would have had on a national team hoping to make their mark on the European stage.
Regardless of her talent, O’Brien revealed that she was never invited to an Irish camp during her time on the continent.
It can be safe to assume that the lack of funding for the newly founded Irish Women’s team would have made it difficult to subsidize travel back and forth for the talented midfielder.
O’Brien retired at the age of 38, later going on to work as a coach in her adopted home of Rome.
Following her untimely death in 2016, at the age of 60, women’s football outlets in both Italy and France mourned the loss of a legend of Italian football.
Despite her lack of recognition during her life, Anne’s legacy is slowly starting to be recognised in Ireland.
She became just the second woman, after Emma Byrne, to be inducted into the FAI Hall of Fame.
2019 @ThreeIreland FAI International Awards 🏆
HALL OF FAME
Paul McGrath / Anne O'Brien
⏺ Former Ireland player McGrath has 83 caps & played in EURO 88, Italia 90 & USA 94
⏺ Ex-WNT player O'Brien won six Italian Leagues & two Italian Women's Cups before passing away in 2016 pic.twitter.com/LpgwBhhKl4
— Ireland Football ⚽️🇮🇪 (@IrelandFootball) August 8, 2020
Her home of Inchicore has also proceeded to commemorate her life and achievements, commissioning a mural, showcasing Anne wearing the green of Ireland holding a football at her hip.
The lack of Irish interest in the women’s game at the time, along with her absence from the national team has led to Anne O’Brien’s name being unknown, when she should be simply remembered alongside the other greats of Irish football.
A true trailblazer, Anne O’Brien should be recognised for the immense talent she held, and the path she helped to pave for those following in her footsteps.