Premier League Career: Coventry City (1997-2001), West Ham United (2002-2003), Sunderland (2003-2006)
Centre-back Gary Breen spent the whole of his footballing career playing in England. However, his story could have taken a totally different direction if he’d made the move to Inter Milan in 2002. The Serie A giants were seriously interested in Breen’s services after a stellar 2002 World Cup finals for the Republic of Ireland. Ultimately, three Premier League relegations on his CV might indicate his career wasn’t the best but that doesn’t tell the whole story. Breen was often a shining light in teams that would always struggle against survival in the top-flight.
Breen started his professional career at Charlton Athletic but never made the first-team grade with the Addicks. He would then join Maidstone United in 1991 and then followed a season with them with spells at Gillingham and Birmingham City. Gordon Strachan was impressed by his mature displays at Birmingham and it was the Sky Blues who would bring Gary into the top-flight, paying Birmingham £2.5 million. There was an embarrassing own goal in one of his first appearances for the Midlands side at Old Trafford but Breen settled down quickly and would form a strong partnership at the centre of the Coventry defence alongside Richard Shaw.
He would spend five seasons at Highfield Road and won Coventry’s Player of the Year in 2001, despite their relegation from the Premier League. Still one of the club’s top-earners in Division One, he was released to balance the books before the 2002 World Cup. His dependable performances were noted by several club teams. Breen played every single minute and even scored in the Republic of Ireland’s 3-0 victory over Saudi Arabia that sealed their place in the knockout stages. No fewer than nine clubs made offers for the free agent and it was Inter Milan who led the queue. Heartbreak though would follow for Breen. He admitted in a 2016 interview: “Prior to the Spain game, I had agreed a deal with Inter Milan. When we got back to Dublin, I flew out to Milan, I had the medical, failed the medical, and I still haven’t got over it.”
A knee injury was to blame and perhaps Inter were sensing what would ultimately happen in 2002-2003 to Breen. He was snapped up by West Ham United but injuries restricted him to just 18 appearances in all competitions. Glenn Roeder’s side were relegated and he became a free agent again.
Having knowledge of his tactically astute ways from the Republic of Ireland days, Mick McCarthy wasted no time in signing Breen for his Sunderland side in the summer of 2003 and made him club captain. He made over 100 appearances for the Black Cats’ and helped them win promotion in 2005 but that was followed by being part of a team that managed just 15 points in 2005-2006 and instant relegation back from the top-flight. Breen was signed again by McCarthy at Wolverhampton Wanderers but this time, their relationship turned sour. He left abruptly in 2008 after an altercation with McCarthy. He would finish his playing career at Barnet in 2010.
Gary Breen was a dependable defender for all the teams he played for. However, his story could have taken a completely different turn if only he’d passed that medical at the San Siro.