O’Brien, Anne Monica (1956–2016), soccer player, was born 25 January 1956 at Holles Street hospital, Dublin, one of five daughters and five sons of John O’Brien, a distillery labourer, and Rosanna O’Brien (née Giles) from 13 Oblate Drive, Inchicore, Dublin. Her father died when she was five. Good at all sports, especially athletics and soccer, she was obsessed with soccer, which she played on the streets of Inchicore with the boys. Her relations included Irish soccer internationals Jimmy Conway and Johnny Giles. When Anne was twelve, her mother formed a girls’ team for her called Inchicore Celtic. At age fourteen, she finished her education at the Model School in Inchicore to work locally in a sweet factory and then in a chicken factory.
In 1970 she joined Vards, a factory team playing in the Dublin league first division. She scored three goals, despite being the youngest and smallest player on the pitch, as Vards won the 1971 Drumcondra Cup beating Drimnagh Boscos 3–2 at Tolka Park. When Vards became one of three Dublin League teams to amalgamate into Ballyfermot All-Stars in 1972, she began participating in her first proper training sessions. In 1972 she excelled as Ballyfermot All-Stars came second in the Leinster League while winning various cup competitions. She received her first international cap when she played in the Republic of Ireland’s second international women’s match, a 4–1 victory over Northern Ireland in Dublin on 1 July 1973.
That August the celebrated French women’s club side, Stade de Reims (‘Reims’), visited Ireland for a two-week tour that consisted of playing an Irish selection and local selections in Dundalk, Limerick, Kilkenny, Waterford and Dublin (twice). O’Brien was among the seven or eight Dubliners picked in most of the ‘local’ selections and in the Irish selection. She lined out for Reims in the Limerick encounter (21 August). The Ireland versus Reims match occurred at Kilkenny on 26 August, and is considered an international, which Ireland won 2–1 with O’Brien scoring a penalty. She also scored against Reims for a Dublin selection in a match held in Bray, Co. Wicklow, on 30 August, which was abandoned over a disputed penalty decision.
When Reims then offered O’Brien a contract, she grabbed the chance to escape an Irish women’s soccer scene that she regarded as shambolic. Her Ireland teammate, Carol Carr, who performed similarly well, missed out, possibly because she was considered too old at twenty years of age. O’Brien had to wait until she turned eighteen before her mother allowed her to leave home. In the interim she won another international cap against France (10 October 1973) at the Parc des Princes, Paris, earning a player of the match award even as Ireland lost 4–0.
In January 1974 she joined Stade de Reims. As professionalism in women’s soccer was not permitted in France, her three-year contract was technically with a local factory, where she worked part time with plenty of leeway allowed for training and matches. The club also arranged a free shared flat for her. Her Reims teammates were either students or (effectively) part-time professionals; most of them were teenagers, like her, with the rest being in their early twenties. She was not the first woman footballer in Ireland or Britain to sign what was effectively a professional contract – Sue Lopez of England had joined the Italian club Torino on a contract in 1969 – but it was the first such signing to generate publicity in Ireland and Britain. This inspired O’Brien’s Scottish contemporaries, Rose Reilly and Edna Neillis, to embark upon similarly pioneering careers on the European continent.
Initially a centre-forward, she shed half a stone upon arriving in France (leaving her at eight stone (50.8kg)) to play in midfield, becoming renowned for her relentless running. She had balance, technique and speed, and was an intelligent reader of the game, capable of routinely unpicking opposing teams with her passes. Although primarily a creator rather than a scorer, her fierce long-range shooting and heading ability posed a serious goal threat. Throughout her career, she generally took her team’s corners, free kicks and penalties.
Upon the revival of the French women’s football championships in 1974, she won two French national championships (1974/75 and 1975/76) with Reims, scoring a goal in the 1974/75 championship final. The Reims women acted as the curtain raiser to their men’s team and so routinely played before crowds of 10,000–20,000. Reims toured abroad regularly, as there were not many women’s teams in France, and she played in Haiti, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Morocco and Algeria.
In 1976 she joined the Rome-based club, Lazio, mainly because Italy was then the only country where there was enough money in women’s football for her to become a full-time professional. The Federazione Italiana Calcio Femminile (FICF) was a mix of professional and semi-professional teams with funding coming from business rather than the Italian football federation. It was a summer league before switching to a conventional season from 1981/82 onwards. Europe’s best women footballers then gravitated towards Italy, where star imports like O’Brien raised standards. A strong character and a good team leader, she had a lively personality, which she used to encourage younger players. As had been the case in France, she took quickly to the Italian culture and language.
First appearing for Lazio in April 1976, she quickly established herself as the Italian league’s top trequartista, the crucial playmaking role that links the midfield with the attack. She played for seven Italian clubs: Lazio (1976– 81), Trani (1981–4), Lazio again (1984–6), Modena (1986–7), Napoli (1987–8), Prato (1988–9), Reggiana (1989–91) and Milan (1991–4), before retiring at the age of thirty-eight. Her travels indicate the febrile nature of a league where newly formed clubs could flourish through a wealthy backer, then just as abruptly fall away and even fold when the money dried up. In 1990 she was reported to be earning IR£15,000 a year. She won two league titles with Lazio (1979, 1980), one with Trani (1983/84), two with Reggiana (1989/90, 1990/91) and one with Milan (1991/92). Her team finished second on five occasions. She also won the Italian cup twice with Lazio (1977, 1984/85) and once with Trani (1982/83).
In the 1980s women’s soccer became a reasonably big draw in Italy. The big-city clubs occasionally played their matches as a prelude to the men’s match: as a result, she played before 50,000-strong crowds in places such as the San Siro Stadium in Milan. Home matches at provincial clubs, such as Trani, could draw up to 10,000 passionate fans who would embrace their successful women’s teams as a source of local pride. In her first two seasons there, Trani narrowly lost out to Lecce for the league title. Both clubs hailed from Italy’s deep south, and an intense rivalry developed between the teams and their respective fans.
She formed memorable partnerships with some of the league’s most illustrious goal scorers, including Susanne Augustesen, Carolina Morace, Conchi Sánchez and Rose Reilly. During Trani’s triumphant 1983/84 season, O’Brien, Morace and Reilly comprised one of the most potent attacking triumvirates in the league’s history. She won four league titles (1983/84, 1989/90, 1990/91, 1991/92) playing behind Morace, who dominated Italian club soccer for much of the 1980s and 1990s. At the outset of her career, the younger Morace saw O’Brien as her role model. They became close, with Morace acting as godmother to O’Brien’s only child, her son Andrea (b. 1987). O’Brien resumed playing competitive soccer just four weeks after giving birth, breastfeeding Andrea in the dressing room on match days.
Much to her regret, moving abroad all but prevented her from playing for her country again, as the Women’s Football Association of Ireland (WFAI) could not cover her travel expenses. The WFAI did pay for her flight back for a crucial European Championship qualifier against the Netherlands, which ended scoreless in Dalymount Park, Dublin, on 29 April 1990. It was her fourth and final appearance for Ireland, only three of which are recognised by the world soccer authorities.
Following her mother’s death in 1994, she retired from playing football and briefly lived in Ireland before pursuing a full-time coaching career in Italy. She had moved into coaching in 1990 by setting up a soccer school for children. In 1992 she obtained her coaching badges from the national football academy in Coverciano, Florence, and became involved in coaching at her club, Milan. Later, she coached Italian national underage teams and managed Lazio for a season (2005/06), but the club was in crisis, and she could not prevent its relegation. She also managed Civitavecchia for the 2007/08 season. The 2008 financial crash hit Italy hard with women’s soccer suffering especially. Latterly, she worked as a childminder and cleaner. Retaining her infectious love of soccer and of Rome, she ran a soccer school for children on the beach near her apartment in Fregene, outside Rome.
Anne O’Brien died in Fregene on the 29 August 2016 following a short illness. Her ashes were brought back to Ireland where she gained recognition only after her death. The Football Association of Ireland (FAI) paid tribute to her at the World Cup qualifier against Georgia on 6 October 2016. In 2019, she became the second woman to be inducted into the FAI Hall of Fame.