Friday, 9 December 2011

Eric Barber

A League of Ireland Idol

1967 - 1969 : Chicago/Kansas City Spurs (USA)
1970 - 1972 : Wiener Sport-Club (Austria)
1980 :  Al-Ittihad (Saudi Arabia)

Barber was born on 18 January 1942 in Dublin. A natural striker he began his career with local club Shelbourne. While at the club, he earned 2 caps for the Republic of Ireland in a 1966 World Cup Qualifier with Spain and a friendly against Belgium. He played the full 90 minutes in both games, but failed to find the net in either and would not be called up to the Ireland squad again. Domestically though, he would win the League of Ireland once and two Cup medals with Shels.

He moved briefly to English football with Birmingham in the mid-1960s playing just a handful of games before being convinced by his agent Gibby McKenzie  to play in the North American Soccer League with the Chicago CIty Spurs. His time in America was productive and successful. Barber would bag 25 goals in 44 games with the Spurs. After a year, the franchise moved from Chicago to Kansas, and Barber followed with them. He captained his side against Santos in 1968 and was named in the NASL All-Star team alongside legends like Vavá and Enrique Mateos. In 1969, he led the Spurs to the NASL championship. 

In spite of its on-field success, like many NASL franchises, his team would face financial trouble. Uprooting from Chicago to Kansas had not reaped the rewards hoped for, and Barber himself was feeling home-sick. For the remainder of the 1969-70 season, he would play on loan at Shamrock Rovers and scored both goals in their memorable 2-1 win over Germany's Schalke 04.

Barber lining up against Santos' Pele

After his official release from Kansas, he was signed by Austrian outfit Wiener Sport-Club (WSC) playing in the Austrian Football Championship, the predecessor of today's Austrian Bundesliga, alongside famous clubs such as Rapid Vienna, Sturm Graz and Salzburg. WSC are Austria's oldest club, having been founded in 1883, and have spent 77 of the past 101 seasons in the Austrian top-flight. They are three time Austrian Champions, last winning the league in 1959, and play their home matches at the 8,700 capacity Sport-Club Platz.

In the 1969-70 season, WSC had finished as runners-up, thus qualifying for the following season's Inter-City Fairs Cup (UEFA Cup). Barber was the first Irishman to ever play in Austria and his first season with the Viennese club started brightly, as he found the net 8 times in the first half of the campaign. But ultimately, WSC failed to make gains on their impressive finish the previous year, and they came tenth. The Fairs Cup campaign didn't go well either; they were thrashed in the First Round against K.S.K. Beveren of Belgium 0-5 on aggregate.

Eric Barber, centre, challenges for the ball

Barber though, had failed to settle, and by mid-season he was dropped, despite his tally of goals. He spent the rest of the season, and most of 1971 in the reserves. In January 1972, he was rescued by his old team Shelbourne, who would pay (a then massive) fee of 1,000 pounds for his services. "My heart was with Shels, they are my club", he would later declare.

Back in Dublin, Barber would never win any more trophies, and his basic wages would have been much less than what he was earning in America and Austria. But he did manage to score a huge amount of goals with Shels, and is currently the 11th all-time top goalscorer in the league's history. He finished his career at Shelbourne, and would briefly go on to manage the club. In 1980 he retired, remaining a legend at the club to this day. He scored over 150 goals in 250 games for Shelbourne.

He coached briefly with Al-Ittihad in Saudi Arabia. In spite of earning the then massive salary of 3,000 pounds a week, the culture-shock was too much for him. "I would walk down the street to buy a paper and there would be some poor lad getting his head cut off". He left Jeddah, and returned to Ireland to run a clothing business.

Eric is a League of Ireland legend, and rightly so. His record at that level was phenomenal, and its a pity he couldn't bring it with him to Austria, or sweat it out in the United States. He is a perfect example of a very talented Irish footballer, whose inability to settle abroad, caused him to fail outside of Ireland. One wonders if he could have achieved so much more.

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