Tony Brien

The devastating news has reached the club that popular former player Tony Brien passed away in hospital last night at the age of 54.

Stuart Basson pays this tribute to Tony…

I can still remember the shock of walking past Spire News in town, and seeing the sign that said “Spireites splash 90k on Leicester player.” The surprise was even greater when the Chesterfield Star revealed that the player wasn’t Carl Muggleton, the goalkeeper who had performed well while with us on loan earlier that season, but was a centre-half named Tony Brien.

The Dublin-born Irish youth international was Paul Hart’s first major permanent signing, arriving in December 1988 from his first club, Leicester City, for a jaw-dropping £90,000 – a colossal sum, given Chesterfield’s financial position and Tony’s lack of previous first-team action.

Supporters very quickly saw what the manager had seen, though, and took Tony to their hearts. For one thing, he smiled, and fans found the idea that he was enjoying the battle that the club was in to be reassuring. He had the class to suggest that a long international career lay before him and he played his best football for Chesterfield under the tutelage of Hart who, being a centre-half himself, was a fine playing mentor for the young man. Few thought Chesterfield would be anything more than a stepping stone on the path of a good football career.

Tony made his Chesterfield debut at Swansea City on December 17, 1988, in a 2-0 defeat. His first goal for the club came in only his third appearance, in a 4-1 win over Fulham that sparked a run of four wins and lifted the club off the bottom of the table, and he played in the first Wembley play-off final against Cambridge United, in May 1990.

During the 1990-/91 season, Tony’s form began to falter. He played in 43 out of 46 league games that term, but the confident swagger that had characterised his play from the start had disappeared, and it seemed as though neither player nor management could find the reason and bring about a return to his most imperious form.

Unaware of any injury concerns, supporters tended to lay the blame at the feet of some of the club’s more senior professionals, under whose influence Tony seemed to have fallen. Throughout these leaner times, Tony remained a first-team regular on ability alone, giving everything he had to the side.

The arrival of John Duncan did not immediately spell the end of Tony’s time at Saltergate. He was in Duncan’s first side and played in 30 straight games under the Scot until a player-exchange deal brought Nicky Law to the club and saw Tony move to Rotherham United. Hindsight tells us that this was a good deal on the manager’s part; there was an elegant and thoughtful touch to Tony’s game that was perhaps not best suited to the rough and tumble of fourth tier football, while Law turned out to have just what the team needed to tighten up the defence, as well as being a natural leader on the field. In all, Tony played 204 league games for the Spireites, and scored eight goals.

Freed by the Millers in the summer of 1995, Tony made one appearance for Sheffield Wednesday in an Intertoto Cup match before joining Alan Buckley at West Bromwich Albion. This step forward, career-wise, may be taken as a measure of the ability Tony possessed. Sadly, his time with the Baggies was marred by the emergence of the degenerative hip injury that had been blighting his career for some time and would eventually end it. Tony was freed to Hull City in the summer of 1996 and was forced to retire from full-time football in January 1998, at the age of 28.

After football, Tony worked as a sales representative for a beer distribution chain and spent seven years running a bar in Majorca before returning to England and settling in Hull. He became a pub manager for Mitchells & Butlers in 2006 and later a sales rep for EON, before relocating to Bromsgrove where he worked as a salesman for a garage door company.

In 2021, Tony became the bar manager of the Fox Inn at Lower Chaddesley in Kidderminster and was working in sales and as a driver for Edmundson Electrical until his health recently declined. Tony remained an enthusiastic supporters of Chesterfield, attending matches when the club was in the West Midlands and contributing to events organised by the Former Players Association.

The club would like to express its condolences to Tony’s wife Donna, and to his wider family and many friends.