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Legends: Liam McHale

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

This Saturday, former Mayo midfielder Liam McHale will return to Croke Park for the All-Ireland Legends Tour to look back on his four All-Ireland final day experiences.

The day before his county's much anticipated All-Ireland final clash with Donegal on Sunday, when they will bid to end a 61-year wait for the Sam Maguire Cup, Liam will look back on his dramatic experiences of football's biggest day in 1989, 1996 (including the replay) and 1997 respectively.

Click here for information on how to book for Liam's Legends Tour.

Below is an exclusive interview conducted with Liam ahead of this bumper weekend for Mayo GAA fans, where he looks back on some of the key moments and themes of his career.


I'm delighted to be asked. I'm a little bit nervous, especially with the fact that, even though I've played in Croke Park many times, and I've seen pictures of myself up there, I never won an All-Ireland so I'd be a little bit apprehensive about that. The fact that with Mayo, we played in four and didn't win any of kind of makes me a little bit embarrassed in a way. But at the same time I'm delighted to be asked.

I played in the 1989, 1996 (2) and 1997 All-Ireland finals, and a club All-Ireland final in 1998 and was beaten in them all. Croke Park is one of the finest stadiums in Europe but it hasn't been a happy hunting ground for us over the years, but we're quite optimistic now that this Sunday could be a special day for us in Mayo.


I first came into the Mayo panel for the replay in 1985 against Dublin. Liam O'Neill saw me playing in a club match and asked me to come in between those two games. But I didn't get a game that year. I started the league campaign then in 1986.

But I was more or less a basketball player. I wasn't paying as much attention to Mayo or to the football, as most aspiring Gaelic footballers would be. I was playing with the club, it was kind of like: "Liam, we're stuck. Will you come and play?" I won underage medals with the Stephenites, but my first game was basketball. So when I came into the panel I didn't really know Willie Joe Padden or TJ Kilgallon or Dermot Flanagan, the household names.

I wouldn't have been as familiar with them as maybe other young lads coming in so it was a little bit different for me in that respect. But I must say, at that time there were American basketball coaches coming over from the States to see me play and wanted me to sign and play college ball in the States, so I was kind of scouted to go.

But I kind of fell in love with the football and enjoyed playing with the boys, they were and still are very nice guys. They made me feel very welcome. At the start I felt a little bit like a stranger because of my basketball background, but I turned down them scholarships in the States, to play football with Mayo. I enjoyed it that much, once I got into it.


My brothers would only have played Gaelic football recreationally, like me as well. We won the county minor title and I got Man of the Match in the county final, and Austin Garvan, who was the manager of the Mayo team at the time, asked me to play for the Mayo minors and I said: "Austin, I don't mean to be disrespectful but I have absolutely no interest in playing for the Mayo minors." He couldn't believe that, and I kind of feel a little bit bad about that now.

But at the time I didn't have any interest, and I never played minor. But then about two months later, John O'Mahony asked me to join the U21 panel. I was still a minor at the time. And for some reason, on that day, I said "Yeah, when is training?" He said "Tuesday night" and I said, "Well I'll be there."

That was the start of the intercounty scene then. I played my first full game for Mayo in Ennis, an U21 All-Ireland final. I was 18, I played four years U21 in the end. We played Cork, they beat us by two points in the All-Ireland final. Niall Cahillane was playing, they were a very good team.


I never gave up the basketball or curtailed it. I kept playing and obviously we won two cups and a league at the highest level throughout the good times of Mayo football. I was a bit like Kieran Donaghy in that regard. In 1996, 1997 and 1998 ourselves and Neptune were the two best basketball teams in the country. And yet, we were getting into All-Ireland finals as well with Mayo so the mid 1990s was a very busy time for the club. The Stephenites got into an All-Ireland final in 1998 as well. We were a good club side. The Mayo team were banging on the door trying to win an All-Ireland, and the basketball team I played on had won two cups.

We won a cup in 1991 and in 1996, and we won the league in between. So the early to mid 1990s was an absolutely hectic time for me - a great time - but a hectic time as well. I was very fortunute. I played for managers who respected basketball and who respected the level we were playing at and the fitness levels required. John Maughan for example was a serious task master, and he would have been at 90% of our our home games.

He'd come to Ballina every Saturday night to see us playing and to see the Americans playing, to see the level we were at. He'd talk to me after the game, I'd have something to eat and would go home and be in Castlebar or be in Fermanagh or be in Donegal or wherever I needed to be the next day to play football for Mayo.

It was hard-going. Travelling was the worst thing. I remember playing a cup game in Waterford and we were playing Fermanagh the next evening. I remember there was a car outside the gym in Waterford waiting for me. All my teammates were heading off celebrating and going for a few beers, and I'm heading into a car for a five hour journey. Get to Fermanagh at four o'clock in the morning, sandwiches and juice waiting for me. You then go to bed, up at nine o'clock and have breakfast with the boys. That's pretty hectic. But I must say, I enjoyed it. That's what I enjoyed doing.


I got on the Irish senior team very early. I was on the Irish senior basketball team at 17 or 18 years of age and I toured the States with the Irish team and a lot of American coaches seen me playing. One of them actually came over to Ireland for a week to try and get me to sign for Drexel University, a Division I school in Philadelphia. The ambition there was to possibly go over and play ball in the States, and then see what would happen after that.

Then years later, when I was about 30, the Bosman ruling came in and there were teams in Europe that wanted me to sign. I was playing for Mayo, it was the mid 1990s and we were very close to winning an All-Ireland. When you get to 33, 34 and you're still playing for your county, all you're doing is to try and win an All-Ireland. There's not an awful lot of fun in it then. The athleticism thing had gone through the roof in the mid 1990s, there was a lot of power lifting going on. And when you're 33 or 34, and you're playing two games at the highest level all your life, it's a struggle.

It was a lot of hard work, and it wasn't as enjoyable as it was earlier in my career. But the fact of the matter was we had a good underage team. John Casey was there, David Brady, Ciaran McDonald. Add that to myself, Anthony Finnerty, Pat Holmes, Dermot Flanagan and so on, you think to yourself "If I keep myself in shape here, we'll get another crack at an All-Ireland and maybe we'll win one."


The funny thing is, we had chances to win that final, every final in fact. I kicked a high centre into Noel Durkin, Noel Durkin turned, gave it into Anthony Finnerty, he turned and stuck it in the back of the net with about 25 minutes to go. Then we kicked four wides after that. We dominated Cork for seven or eight minutes and could have put them away. They were after losing the last two All-Ireland finals. And at that particular moment, they were a little bit fragile. We missed a chance.

We had got a little bit frantic when we got the goal. And Cork settled down. We just watched the last few minutes fizzle out on us. Even though that was a great Cork team, we had a great opportunity to win that game with 10 minutes to go. I think the fact that they had been in the last two All-Irelands and the fact that they had so much firepower up front, I suppose it just won the day for them in the end.

I've seen it since once or twice, and you'd cringe when you see it, you say "Oh my God, look at all those chances we had."


It was the same in 1996. In the drawn game we were six up. I got the ball, I was turning onto my left, I hit it about 35 yards out and it hit the post. And I was never as happy to see the ball hit the post in my life because it came straight to James Horan.

We were six up and I said to myself: "James is going to bury this in the back of the net." I'm sure he said he'd go for safety. He went to tap it over the bar to put us seven up, that was definitely his decision making at the time. But he hit the far post, and they went down and scored.

All of a sudden then, they won the next kickout and all of a sudden we're only four up and there's a bit of a problem. What happens happens, and then at the very end the ball bounces over the bar and the game is a draw.


We had a real opportunity that day as well. Sometimes you wonder would we have been better off being beaten by five or six points and not have a hope of winning the game. Because the regrets are even bigger when you're right there and you get these chances to win a game and it just doesn't work out on the day. And you just say "My God." You have to then start all over again and see if you have that hunger in your belly for another go.


When I got sent off, I couldn't believe it. I thought to myself, there's 20 guys at in, like in a brawl outside Supermacs. Twenty guys at it and he picks me and Colm Coyle. I just was in a state of shock, I could not believe it. Then I was sitting down, I drank some water, and I tried to gather myself together to try and help the boys out. I thought there's no point in me sitting there on the cooling box like a stuffed dummy.

There was a football match to be played and I had to try and be a positive influence at half-time in the dressing room and stuff like that. It's easy to sulk and feel sorry for yourself, and think only about yourself, but the game had to go on. In fairness, the lads were absolutely brilliant that day, in the game and in extra-time itself.

But obviously me getting sent off was a disaster. I firmly believe if they sent Jimmy McGuinness or John McDermott off with me, as in, if they had sent a Meath midfielder off with me, we probably would have won the game because we had to take off Ray Dempsey and get a midfielder in. I think they just brought Trevor Giles back to the half-back line. At that stage, we had only two subs left because it was only three subs at the time. And that game went to extra time. So that was a crucial blow for us.


I'd do the same thing if the game was tomorrow. You're one of the leaders on the team, a row breaks out. Fellas are getting haymakers, real punches in the head and stuff like that. If you're any sort of a man at all, you couldn't possibly stand up and watch that. You have to get in there. I remember John Casey had a lot of swelling around the side of his head. A good few of our lads were hurt after that game, there was some serious punches being thrown. There was nothing else I could do. I'd do the same again. You just have to go in there. I went in there to break it up, and once you get two or three haymakers to the face, you kind of say, I'm going to get hurt here if I don't start swinging. So that's exactly what happened.


We started off very badly in the 1997 final. I think we were five or six down early on. I was playing in full-forward, and then I was moved back to midfield in the second half and we got back in the game. We got a penalty, Ciaran McDonald stuck it away and I think we got within a point. And then Maurice Fitzgerald took over. He scored two or three massive points and they ended up winning by three. We only played for 15 minutes in that game really.

It was kind of like the Cork game in 1989. It was 11 years since Kerry had won one, and they kind of got unsure of themselves and they started panicking a little bit. But we didn't have what was needed to get that two or three point lead that was necessary to put them under pressure. And Maurice then stood up in the last few minutes and took the game by the scruff of the neck.


I remember Peter Forde asking me, a colleague of mine, a man who's big into the coaching like myself, and he said: "How can you win with that basketball team that you have, with such limited resources and such limited players? How do you seem so strong mentally in tight situations?"

One answer I could give him was: "Peter, it seems to me to be a lot easier to get eight or nine or 10 guys on the same page than it is 30." When you're playing, you're not concerned about anyone else. You're only concerned about yourself. You don't look at how the other guys are thinking, but I'm sure that we went to those fact, I would be 100 per cent sure that we went to those All-Irelands with not everyone being confident that they could win.

And if one guy is scared, you're probably not going to win, because the margins are that tight. That was the only answer I could give Peter. That it's very difficult to get 30 guys really believing that they can win these massive ball games. That was our problem. I can't point at anyone, but they know.

The biggest thing for me was to be able to walk off the pitch and have my head held high. And down deep, to know that I gave it everything I could for my team and for my teammates. I tried to do that, and then there's no point in going round sulking about it. You gave it your best shot and now it's time to spend a bit of time with your wife or your girlfriend or your friends and have a bit of fun. I always try to have that sort of a situation where, once it's over, it's over.

Sure, there's lads that were on the team that were with us that time that didn't believe, that weren't 100 per cent confident. And if you have that, it's going to cost you. I think that's what happened to us in the end. We had 15 fellas on the pitch at the end of the game that just didn't all believe that we were good enough to win.


We dominated Crossmaglen. Crossmaglen couldn't even celebrate after that win because, as they were such a good side, they wanted to win the All-Ireland with a little bit to spare. They certainly didn't want to be dominated like we dominated them. I think they beat us 0-11 to 0-10. We kicked 19 wides, and they took the lead for the first time going into injury time. We just hit the post, hit the crossbar, kicked balls marginally wide, just couldn't do it.

We went 0-6 to 0-1 up in the first 20 minutes, and then were four up at half-time. With their experience, they just kept grinding away. We kept kicking wides and the more wides we kicked the worse it got for our forwards. We ended up losing by a point. It would have been great if we had got a draw that day and got them in a replay. But it wasn't to be.


My last game for Mayo would have been when I came on as a sub in 1999 against Cork. Cork beat us by six points in that semi-final. That was the end. I came back the following year to go again. I was in fairly good shape and the body was holding up. Pat Holmes had taken over as manager, and Holmesy is a great mate of mine. We had played U21 and senior together and this was the first manager who came to me and said, listen you're too old to play basketball and football, we want you to make a decision.

So I said to Holmesy, I wish you the best of luck with the management and that was it, I was gone then at that stage. I had no problem with him saying it, I was probably 34 or 35 at the time and I'm sure he had sat down with his management team and discussed this issue and in fairness, he came up to me and it wasn't anything devious. He just told me how he felt, the concerns that they had and I said, I'm not going to give up the basketball. So that was the end of it.

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The Liam McHale All-Ireland Legends Tour is on this Saturday, September 22, at 12.30pm at Croke Park.

Booking is essential as places are limited. Click here for more information.

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