From the Argus ‘Go For It Seagulls!’ pre-season preview of 1991/92:
There is a touch of Blarney about Gary O’Reilly’s return to Albion on a free transfer from arch rivals Crystal Palace. Believe it or not, the 30-year-old defender played for both England and the Republic of Ireland as a schoolboy.
The reason? Gary’s father hails from Dublin, but his mother is English.
Isleworth-born O’Reilly, who joins a strong Eire contingent at the Goldstone, took his first significant step towards stardom in an Essex Boys team.
Arsenal wanted him on associate schoolboy form, but their North London neighbours, Spurs, snapped him up at the age of 13. Among O’Reilly’s youth team-mates at White Hart Lane were Kerry Dixon and Mick Hazard. Nobody’s fool, he had the offer of a sports scholarship at Columbia University before signing for Spurs as a full pro.
O’Reilly made 45 first-team appearances in five seasons at Tottenham, including the Charity Shield at Wembley against Liverpool and a quarter-final victory in the UEFA Cup over German giants Bayern Munich.
But the arrival of Gary Stevens, ironically from Albion, and the now-retired Danny Thomas, led to him requesting a transfer, even though he still had two years of his contract remaining.
A willing listener, O’Reilly’s mentor during his stay at White Hart lane was Osvaldo Ardiles, now manager at Newcastle.
“Fear is a big killer in the game, and I learned a lot about that from playing against Ardiles in practice games and listening to him afterwards,” he said.
Albion’s then manager, Chris Cattlin, bought O’Reilly for £45,000 in August 1984. Cattlin recalls: “I watched him eight times before signing him, and six times with Tottenham Reserves he had stinkers. But I thought then he had great potential.”
He made 79 appearances in three seasons with Albion, scoring three goals. He was virtually an ever-present for the first two seasons, but injuries, including a worrying hamstring condition, restricted him to just eight games in the ill-fated 1986-87 season.
O’Reilly was a popular figure at the Goldstone with a social conscience. He led a campaign to help youngsters fight drug addiction and was president of the Junior Seagulls.
Supporters were upset when he joined Palace for £40,000 on January 3 1987.
Albion were in dire need of cash at the time, and his move came just two days before Alan Mullery was sacked in his second spell as manager.
O’Reilly played 70 times in his first four seasons at Selhurst Park and scored Palace’s opening goal in the 1989-90 FA Cup Final against Manchester United.
But he did not figure in Steve Coppell’s plans once last season and had just one game on loan with Birmingham City.
Now the versatile 5ft 11in. defender, who has been given a two-year contract by Barry Lloyd, is intent on holding down a regular place in Albion’s line-up.
“There’s no substitute for first-team football,” he said. “There is nothing like playing regularly to give a player the right degree of confidence.”
On returning to Brighton, Gary O’Reilly played in the crazy 5-4 friendly victory over mighty Steaua Bucharest in August 1991:
The classy defender then made 31 appearances for the club in the highly disappointing relegation season of 1991/92. He scored three times, including the only goal against Plymouth in November 1991, but a series of unsuccessful knee operations led to him retiring from the game in April 1993. Since hanging up his boots, he embarked on a successful broadcasting career for Sky, BBC and Trans World International’s Premier League international feed.
O’Reilly had underlined his credentials as a man of principle by supporting the fans’ campaign against the Albion board in 1996/97. As he said to the Argus in 2001:
“I recall going back (to the Goldstone) as a broadcaster for the Fans United match against Hartlepool in February 1997. I twisted Sky’s arm to be there because I knew it would be a great day. It was. There were 10,000 fans from Europe as well as all over the country to show support for a club going through bad times. The Goldstone was special. When it was full it was vibrant, full of excitement and possibilities until the last game. After they pulled it down I couldn’t bring myself to go to the retail park they built in its place until I had to take a bike back for my daughter Grace, who was born on a Saturday Albion beat Swansea. When the bulldozers went in it was devastating.”
No wonder in 2009, while on Radio 5 Live’s ‘Fighting Talk,’ when asked “Who is the one person whose hand you would refuse to shake?”, he said “Ex-Brighton and Hove Albion Chief Executive, David Bellotti.”
Well said, Gary.