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02 May

LiveGaelic Legends – Liam McHale

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Posted by Connor Murphy in LiveGaelic Legends | May 2013

In this week’s LiveGaelic Legends interview I talk to Mayo midfield monolith Liam McHale.

An All Star in 1996 and a mainstay of the Mayo team for thirteen years, Liam was also classed as one of Ireland’s top basketball players.

Throughout the late ’80s and ’90s Liam played in the top echelons of both Irish basketball and Gaelic football, tasting national success in basketball with Ballina and anguish with Mayo.

Liam talks to me about All Ireland heartbreak, that red card in ‘96 and what Mayo need to do to end their 61 year wait for Sam.

LiveGaelic Legends – Liam McHale – Mayo

Basketball was your first love, do you think that coming from that background affected your style of play in terms of an advantage, or even disadvantage?
A lot of people would have said it hurt me, but I think that in recent years it has proved that it’s a very complimentary sport for inter-county footballers. A lot of the best players in the country now have a basketball background, the Kieran Donaghy’s, the John Galvan’s, especially the midfielders, the Ronan McGarrity’s, there are plenty at the minute. They seem to be better athletes, very agile, very evasive, they don’t get the shot blocked down too often, very good hand passer of the ball, they realise how important possession is.

People said I would have been a better footballer if I hadn’t played basketball, but I would be the first disagree with that. You have guys like Colm Cooper, that would have played a fair bit of recreational basketball because they were well aware of how it could help you.

You didn’t play minor football for Mayo, do you think that you missed out a rite of passage, or do you think that it really makes much of a difference in a players progression?
I didn’t take football seriously really until nineteen. I come from a big club and we would have won a lot, we would have won underage titles and I guess I enjoyed that, but I always, in those days, put basketball first.

I was seen playing in the minor county final, I got man of the match and scored about five points and a guy called Austin Garvin asked me to play with the minors at the time, but I had no interest. A couple months later John O’Mahony asked me to play in the under 21 panel and for some reason two months later I came in. I was a minor playing under 21 football and I ended up playing four years at under 21.

Around that stage I started to get to enjoy it and started putting a bit more time into it.

23591_thumbDuring the ’90s you played for one of the best basketball teams in the country, a Mayo team that was knocking on the door for All Ireland success, and a Stephenite team that reached an All Ireland Club final in 99, did that workload put a strain on you physically and mentally?
No I enjoyed it, I would have preferred if my whole career was that kind of way. In ’96 we won the National Cup in basketball and lost the All Ireland Final, in ’97 we lost a league final in basketball and lost the All Ireland to Kerry, in ’98 we lost the All Ireland Club final to Crossmaglen.

My basketball career lasted a very long time, and my football career lasted for just about thirteen years and to be honest with you I would have preferred to have years like that every year.

1989 was Mayo’s first All Ireland Final in 38 years. Does a figure like that hang over players when you are preparing for that kind of game?
We hadn’t won the All Ireland since ’51 and I guess it was a bit of a novelty to be in an All Ireland. It was very hard to keep a lid on it and keep it as low key as possible, but that was a very experienced team I was playing on.

You had the likes of Peter Ford, Willie Joe Padden, T.J Kilgallon – guys like that. It was myself, Michael Fitzmaurice and Noel Durkin who were the really young guys in the team. That was a great Cork team that had lost two All Irelands to Meath. I just think that we played very well, but they just had a little bit more firepower than us.

I remember people saying it was a great game of football and one of the best All Irelands ever seen, but I guess that’s no good to us.

Following ’89 Mayo underperformed and began to drop down divisions. John Maughan took over in ’96, what did he bring to spark the revival of Mayo football?
We were playing a couple of divisions below where we would like to be and things had really fallen to a low ebb. John came in and got us in shape for the first time in good few years, I mean thirty guys in shape, he added a fitness and a mental and physical toughness to us that made us very hard to beat.

Once we had that and once we realised that he had instilled that in us both physically and mentally we began to play on it and became a very physical, strong and determined outfit under him.

He took over at a very low ebb and made us into one of the best teams in the country. I suppose he gets a fair bit of criticism over losing the ‘96 and ’97 All Ireland final, but in fairness it was the players on the pitch. In both games we had opportunities, even in the Kerry game. We had opportunities to win those games and we didn’t take them and I suppose the rest is history.

In the ’96 final against Meath, Mayo lost a six point lead and the game ended in a draw, there are many players that can comment on winning or losing an All Ireland Final, but what did it feel like to draw one?
It’s the weirdest feeling ever, especially when you are six points up. I think most people agree when we realised we were six points up and there was only ten minutes left we should have tried to get that seventh or maybe eight point to put the game away and then we got very tentative and Meath sensed that and drove on and got the draw.

A lot of people would have said at the time that Mayo missed the boat and they won’t play as well again, but we did play as well again in the replay and performed with great heart and great character because that was what John had put into us, but we fell short again. People may say we were unlucky to lose in overtime, but we had chances to close the game and we didn’t take them.

McHale_sent_off1996In the replay you were sent off following that famous brawl, did you feel hard done by when you realised that you had been sent off?
Well when you have fifteen or twenty guys in a row you find it very hard to pick out two. My biggest gripe all along was that if I was sent off and one of the Meath midfielders was sent off, the game would have slowed naturally, but Colm Coyle the wing back was sent off and I was sent off. So I think they dropped Trevor Giles to wing back and we had to take off Ray Dempsey who had scored 1-02 in the first game to bring on Pat Flanagan the midfielder.

Back in those days you were only allowed to make three subs, so five minutes in we were down our most experienced player and we had to take off our top scorer from the first game to bring in a midfielder. It hurt us for a variety of reasons, but I believe that the way we played that if McDermott or McGuinness had been sent off with me we probably would have gone on to win the game.

In ’97 you played a Kerry team that was going through a decade long dry spell, what are you memories of that game?
That was probably our worst loss of the whole lot. They had some very good players and obviously the number one player was Maurice Fitzgerald, and probably the best player I ever played against, but they weren’t as Kerry teams before them and they certainly weren’t as strong as the Kerry teams after them. It was probably our best opportunity, but unfortunately we played very poorly, we were very flat in the second half and I think that the two years previous and the hard work we had done to get where we were had taken its toll at that stage.

While we gave it a bit of a lash and again we had a couple of chances, we had a goal chance, we kicked some really bad wides, five or six in the second half. We didn’t play well enough for long enough, we only played well for about twenty five minutes and that was in the second half, we were really poor in the first. Even against a Kerry team that wasn’t one of the greatest Kerry teams, you are not going to win All Ireland finals playing that way. It was a big opportunity, we matched up all of them in a lot of position except for maybe two or three. It was one game that we probably did throw away.

A lot of Mayo fans I know have a tendency to be quite self deprecating when it comes to the Mayo senior teams chances to perform, and there are even stories of curses put on the ’51 team. Do you think that Mayo supporters and players allow that to get into their heads and that maybe that is why they haven’t performed as well as they should have done?
I felt it and I’m gone a long long time, you definitely felt it. There is a weight on your shoulders if you are an inter-county Mayo footballer and it can weigh quite heavily on you let it. We’re a proud county and I think we play a nice brand of football and for the most part we are there or thereabouts. We have been in the top five now for a long time.

I have a different perspective on it. I think in the past we have over achieved. In 2004 I was coaching the team with John Maughan and people said that New York would beat us in the first round of the Championship. We had Allen Dillon and Trevor Mortimer and a few very young lads and there was big talk coming from New York that year, but we hammered New York and then we beat Galway by five or six points, then we beat Roscommon, Tyrone and Fermanagh. People never gave us a chance, we over achieved that year there is no question about it.

We met a Kerry team that beat us by five or six points that day, but I thought we played as well as we possibly could. If you look at the match up in the 2006 and 2004 game anybody who knows anything about Gaelic football will know it would have been very difficult for us to match up to that team, especially our backs against their forwards. They had five or six of the best forwards in the country at the time. While the 2004 team and the 2006 team got badly criticised, I think we did very well to get to a final and unfortunately for us met a team that we found it very difficult to match up to.

b102b_McHale_throw_in1996Talking to Oisin McConville recently he said that when Armagh won the All Ireland in 2002, he felt that it would be easier for another Armagh team to win an All Ireland final again. Do you think that if Mayo were to win an All Ireland final in the next couple years they would be able to push on a win a few more?
Two things happen when you win something big. First of all you have a massive belief in yourself because you have reached the highest point in your career and I found in the basketball you see yourself in a certain way, you have massive boost to your confidence you have a different stride to yourself.

When you are All Ireland Champion other people and other teams look at you in a different way. I found that when we won our first National Title, in basketball, that we won so many games playing poorly when in the last five minutes we were eight points down and we found a way to win it and that was just because of our inner belief and the fact that certain teams were afraid to beat us.

I would agree with you if we could break our duck and win an All Ireland I could see no reason why not, because we do produce squads that have strength in depth and we have as many good players as any of the big counties would have. If we could break it I could see us winning a couple of All Irelands in not too long of a distance in time.

Check back tomorrow for the second part of this LiveGaelic Legends interview with Mayo legend Liam McHale.

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