It’s wild to think Kevin Moran played for Dublin and Manchester United at the same time

Kevin Brannigan’s terrific new documentary Codebreaker tells the story of a unique Irish sporting career

We take some life stories for granted. Time passes. Day into week, week into month, month into year. The eternal present stretches on for decades until one day you sit down to remind yourself of what a person did with their one wild and precious life and you are blown to bits by it.

Kevin Moran has been a fixture in the Irish consciousness for almost half a century. He has always been just basically there, somewhere close, tousled-haired and windswept. Looking like he went out to take in the bins of an evening and along the way got dragged into a battle for the soul of the Sandinistas. But if you tried to explain him to a 15-year-old, they’d think you were talking about a character from fiction.

But as Codebreaker, Kevin Brannigan’s terrific documentary that runs on RTÉ on Monday night explains, Moran’s career was entirely real and perfectly unique. He won two All-Ireland medals with Dublin and two FA Cups with Manchester United and, at least for a while, played on both teams at the same time. It’s the sort of factoid that everyone who is into Irish sport probably knows on some level and yet it’s nothing short of completely ludicrous when you sit down to think about it.

“The [1978] Leinster final was on a Sunday,” Moran says at one point in the film. “We would have been free on a Sunday. I wouldn’t have told Manchester United about it. I was keeping it from my employers because, you know, ignorance is bliss! At the time, there was no internet. You could come home and do things and nobody would know a thing about them.”


Impossible to conceive of now, of course. But as the reams of press coverage it received at the time shows, it clearly felt like a bit of a miracle even in 1978. Kevin Heffernan and Tony Hanahoe went over to Manchester and not only got to sit down with United manager Dave Sexton to make their case for bringing Moran home for the All-Ireland final, they actually convinced him it was a workable idea. Which maybe tells you as much about United at the time as anything else.

“We were invited up to meet the manager Dave Sexton,” says Hanahoe in the film. “He had questions like, ‘What is the nature of the game?’ and ‘Would he be in any danger?’ And we said, ‘No, no, no, no. No danger, no.’ And how many people will be at this match? ‘Eighty thousand.’ And we could see him thinking, ‘Big attendance for a friendly…’”

As it happened, Dublin lost, Moran got crocked and it was the last time they went looking for him during the soccer season. “He went back with five stitches in his eyebrow, a torn hamstring and grey in the face,” laughs Hanahoe. “We decided there was no point making another request.”

Even without the madcap Venn Diagram, Moran’s career would still be barely believable. He went from the Dubs to United to Sporting Gijon. He was a GAA All Star and an FAI Player of the Year. He played every game in qualifying for Euro 88 and Italia 90 and every game in Germany and Italy when Ireland got there.

He took enormous punishment – some of the head injuries are pretty uncomfortable to watch in 2023 – and dished out plenty of it too. He looked like he was made of granite. Always there, immovable and impenetrable.

Some life. Some career. There’ll never be another like it.

Codebreaker is on RTÉ One on Monday at 9.35pm