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Republic of Ireland World Cup legend Gary Breen recalls his early days at Maidstone United

A future World Cup star was playing for Maidstone the last time they went to Blackpool.

Gary Breen lined up in central defence when the Stones drew 1-1 at Bloomfield Road in February 1992.

Former Maidstone defender Gary Breen celebrates after scoring for Ireland against Saudi Arabia in the 2002 World Cup Picture: PA Images
Former Maidstone defender Gary Breen celebrates after scoring for Ireland against Saudi Arabia in the 2002 World Cup Picture: PA Images

It was their final season as a Football League club before going bust and little did anyone know United's young centre-half would go on to play Premier League football and represent Ireland at the 2002 World Cup.

Breen joined the Stones under Graham Carr after Charlton withdrew their offer of an apprenticeship, feeling he'd taken too long over a decision while he considered taking his A-levels.

That wasn't an issue at Maidstone where the future Coventry, West Ham and Sunderland man was free to crack on with his studies.

"When I was playing for Maidstone I was still at school," said Breen, who now works as football pundit.

"I was doing my A-levels so I'd do my school work throughout the week and just come and play on a Saturday.

"Looking back now, it's incredible really but they felt I was good enough to get in the team.

"I loved it - I really enjoyed it.

"The big shame for Maidstone was how everything happened that summer when they went bankrupt."

Breen made his debut, aged 17, and while he's not one for remembering games, Maidstone's goalless draw at Wrexham is one that sticks in his mind.

He said: "I grew up as an Arsenal fan and my debut was the week after Wrexham had knocked Arsenal out of the FA Cup.

"We went there and got a 0-0 draw and I remember coming back and saying to my mates, 'I can't believe these beat Arsenal, they couldn't even beat us!'

"As a young player, that was a tough group of players.

Gary Breen in action for Coventry against Gillingham, going to ground to stop Marlon King
Gary Breen in action for Coventry against Gillingham, going to ground to stop Marlon King

"Ken Charlery, Tony Sorrell, those type of guys, were tough, uncompromising lads and it was a massive learning curve.

"Ultimately, I always say this about any young player now, you have to play first-team football.

"I'm quite vocal on this, forget these under-21 leagues, you just don't learn.

"You need to play, you need to be in an environment where people have to play for bonuses, they have to pay their mortgages, you have to play for points, play in front of a crowd and the pressures associated with it.

"You learn quicker and I do think that was brilliant for me to play league football at that age.

"If you’re playing in someone’s first team at 17 you’re going to get attention, aren't you?

"Straight away scouts are going to come looking.

"I was very slim, very lightweight at the time and I was getting into battles I was never going to win, but I was still game.

"You’re playing against grizzly, seasoned professionals and you learn very quickly to watch those elbows that come flying."

While the cut and thrust of Division 4 football was perfect for Breen's development, he was unaware of the scale of Maidstone's financial problems.

"To me I was doing my A-levels and at 17 you’re oblivious to certain scenarios like that," said Breen, now 45.

Gary Breen tussles with Charlton's Hermann Hreidarsson during his Premier League days at Sunderland Picture: Matthew Walker
Gary Breen tussles with Charlton's Hermann Hreidarsson during his Premier League days at Sunderland Picture: Matthew Walker

"The older guys have mortgages and bills to pay where I'm still living at home with my mum and dad.

"It didn’t really affect me in a way it should have done because you want to have an understanding of what’s happening.

"People are losing their jobs, not just the players but everyone associated with the club. It’s a horrible time."

Breen spent two seasons at Gillingham before joining Peterborough for £70,000 in 1994, linking up with John Still.

"John was great, he really was," said Breen.

"I learned so much under him in terms of organisation more than anything.

"Every player knew their role, and that was a really great learning curve.

"Initially I went up there and played centre-midfield for John which I really enjoyed.

"I'll always hold John in the highest regard.

"If you play for John Still you will know what your role is in the team.

John Still, now head of football at Maidstone, took Gary Breen to Peterborough in 1994 Picture: Steve Terrell
John Still, now head of football at Maidstone, took Gary Breen to Peterborough in 1994 Picture: Steve Terrell

"That’s not always the case, even the higher up you go, you expect it to be like that but it’s very much not."

Such was Still's impact on his career, he was in Breen's thoughts when he represented Ireland at the 2002 World Cup.

Breen, who won 63 caps, had a brilliant tournament in Japan and South Korea, scoring in a 3-0 win over Saudi Arabia as the Republic reached the last 16, losing on penalties to Spain.

"As a kid growing up, my ambition was always to play for Ireland," said Breen, whose entire family are Irish although he was born in England.

"I’d captained my country but whenever you’re dreaming about playing for Ireland it's at the World Cup, not necessarily in qualifying games.

"So when you get an opportunity to play in a World Cup you have those surreal moments when you're out on the pitch in your tracksuit looking around the stadium before a game.

"It's so strange but you start thinking about the people who’ve helped you.

"I’d have thought about John Still, there’s no doubt in my mind I would have done, and I’d have thought about Graham Carr.

"Everyone who's helped you along the way, you're so grateful and appreciative.

"You kind of say to yourself you'll never forget and you never will."

Maidstone visit Blackpool in the FA Cup second round on Sunday.

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