With the eyes of the sporting world fixed on Madrid ahead of the all-English Champions League final between Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur, memories are evoked of some of the best players from the Emerald Isle to ply their trade on club soccer’s biggest stage.
A regular Irish international throughout the 1970s, Heighway was a prominent member of Liverpool’s first two European Cup triumphs in 1977 and 1978. Heighway played a pivotal role in Liverpool’s maiden European Cup success, registering two assists in the final against German outfit Borussia Monchengladbach.
He first set up Terry McDermott with a defense-splitting pass to give Liverpool an early lead, before his corner allowed Tommy Smith to head home midway through the second half. Eventually winning 3-1, Liverpool owed a debt of gratitude to Heighway’s creativity. He also put them ahead against Zurich in that season’s semi-finals.
The 1978 final against Club Brugge saw Heighway play a more peripheral role in Liverpool’s success. He came on as a second-half substitute as the Merseyside club became the first English team to successfully retain the European Cup with a 1-0 win.
Heighway returned to Liverpool after his playing career had come to an end in an academy role. He remains there to this day and is extremely well thought of by the Anfield hierarchy.
While Roy Keane didn’t participate in the 1999 Champions League final, he still played a huge role in Manchester United’s second European success. Two goals down away to Juventus in the semi-final, United were staring into the abyss.
They had never won in Italy – in fact, as recently as March 1999 they had not even managed a draw in Italy – so a comeback looked highly unlikely. However, this United team, led by Keane, had had its mettle tested on more occasions than most teams.
Keane led the comeback with the definition of a captain’s performance. His herculean effort began when he nodded home a corner midway through the first half. Within minutes, Dwight Yorke had equalized for the English side and they led the tie courtesy of the away goals rule.
Keane was heroic in midfield as United somehow kept the Italian giants at bay during a frantic second half before Andy Cole’s goal practically sealed United’s place in the final.
Unfortunately for Keane, he picked up a yellow card after an ill-timed tackle on Zinedine Zidane midway through the first half, meaning that he would miss the final through suspension. Rather than mope about missing the biggest night of his career, Keane selflessly turned in an inspirational performance to ensure United had the chance to complete a historic treble.
Another Cork native, Irwin played almost as important a role as Keane in 1999. Far more understated than his fellow countryman, Irwin did his talking on the pitch. He was one of Alex Ferguson’s most trusted lieutenants and the Scot has since said that Irwin would be the only guaranteed name on his best ever Manchester United team.
Signed from Oldham for a measly $750,000, Irwin was a bargain. He went on to make 529 appearances for the all-conquering United side, including 45 appearances during their treble-winning campaign. Irwin was versatile and could play either left back or right back comfortably. He provided an attacking threat too, scoring 33 goals from full-back across his illustrious United career. When he moved on from Old Trafford in 2002, he left with a staggering 19 medals to his name. Not bad for a player who cost less than a million dollars.
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In an unprecedented era of English dominance in Europe, Liverpool flew the flag with four European Cup successes between 1977 and 1984. In 1984, they boasted a strong contingent of influential Irish players, none more influential than Ronnie Whelan.
Despite being injured for part of the season, Whelan scored twice in the European Cup quarter-final win over Benfica and started on the left-wing in their penalty shootout victory over Roma in the final.
Whelan is often remembered for his spectacular goal against the USSR in Euro ’88, but it was the wealth of trophies that he took home with Liverpool throughout the 1980s that made his career standout. He was voted the 30th most influential player in Liverpool’s history by a fan forum and for a club that has won it all on numerous occasions, that is some achievement.
Although Martin O’Neill pledged his international allegiance to Northern Ireland, he makes the list due to his five-year tenure as Republic of Ireland manager.
O’Neill was part of the unlikely success story at Nottingham Forest under the charismatic Brian Clough. He flourished under Clough’s stewardship and played an integral role in Forest’s promotion to the First Division in 1977. A year later, O’Neill and Clough were celebrating the unlikeliest of league title wins.
It is scarcely believable, even forty years later, that a team would win the league immediately after securing promotion, but what happened next was utterly unfathomable. Forest won not one, but two European Cups in the most remarkable of underdog stories.
O’Neill, struggling through injury, missed the first final against Malmo, but he played the full 90 minutes a year later when Forest beat a Kevin Keegan-inspired Hamburg 1-0.
Who do you think was the best Irish player in European Cup history? Let us know below.