The Big GAA Interview: Liam McHale
Ahead of the first week of the Championship JOE spoke to Mayo football legend, Clare selector and basketball player Liam McHale.
By Mark O'Toole
Everyone knows stuff about Liam McHale.
Everyone knows about his athleticism, his skill and his dominant aerial-play, which controlled the midfield and forward line for Mayo throughout the '90s.
Everyone knows about the infamous 1996 replay against Meath; everything that needed to be written or said about that match has already been written or said.
Everyone knows about the basketball, about McHale playing Superleague for Ballina - whom he helped turn into one of the biggest forces in the Irish game - and which many believe played a key role in the fine-tuning of commendable Gaelic football skills.
We’ll leave it to Kelvin Troy to tell us something everyone doesn’t know: “Liam McHale could have made it Stateside, he was that good.”
So who's Kelvin Troy, you ask? Well he was a draft pick for the NBA in 1981 and part of the influx of American players who came to Ireland in the '80s. He should know…
If you are not going to take Kelvin’s word for it alone, look at the stats: he averaged above twenty-points a game.
The famous match in 1991 between Ballina and Neptune when Ballina finally lifted the National Cup was billed as a clash between the two best Irish basketball players ever, McHale and Neptune’s Tom O’Sullivan.
A Division 1 team from Philadelphia came over to Ireland to try and get me to sign on the dotted line. At that stage though, I had seen what Croke Park was like
In that match played in Neptune’s home stadium, McHale restricted O’Sullivan to four points while grabbing 24 himself.
Others recall a match against Corinthians Basketball club where McHale notched up a remarkable 48 points. This was a feat that just wasn’t done by an Irish player.
If those numbers and Kelvin Troy can’t convince you, ask sportswriter Kieran Shannon, author of Hanging from the Rafters, the critically-acclaimed definitive tome on Irish basketball.
“He was the best Irish player of the eighties and nineties and would have been a success had he taken up the offers he received to go play college basketball in the states.
"He was six foot five and could play like a point guard. It’s a contradiction that his first love of basketball may have suffered due to his commitment to football."
Mayo people have been accused of pessimism and angst in relation to sport, but for McHale's part he is not filled with regret or any sense of “what could have been.”
“If I it hadn’t have been for the football, I probably would have gone over to the states," he told JOE this week. "Some college coaches from Division 1 had seen me play for the Irish team and one of them would have pursued me very aggressively.
"He was from a Division 1 team from Philadelphia and came over to Ireland to try and get me to sign on the dotted line. At that stage though, I had seen what Croke Park was like and I made up my mind to play both sports in this country. Once that decision was made it was over with. There were no regrets.”
It will be injury that finishes me in the end. I just can’t stop… I love it too much
McHale was inducted into sport the same way most Irish males are: through his elder siblings.
“I was brought up playing basketball more than football, obviously my brothers were playing it too,” he says referring to elder brothers Sean and Anthony who were also part of that great Ballina side in 1991.
“In fact I started boxing first because my brothers were boxing. I really enjoyed it. But I was tipping away playing football with Ballina Stephenites, my mates and then a little bit in college, but the game I played more and studied in detail was basketball until I was about 19 or 20.”
McHale is still a competitor: the love for sport doesn’t go away, but even he needs to row back from it at times.
“I loved boxing, it’s a great game, a great discipline – I still jump rope to this day and I hit a punch bag whenever I can. You have to be very sharp and I had fast hands, I think that came from the basketball and the boxing.
"In fact I had wanted to go back and box after I retired from football, but I was told you couldn’t box at amateur level over the age of 35. So I had to put it to bed. I think my wife was very happy to hear that.”
At 47 Liam still plays basketball for Ballina and it’s not something he sees himself giving up too easily, despite suffering from back injuries that mean some days he struggles to walk.
“I just love competing and playing against young lads and seeing how I can get on against them. Obviously my game has changed, but I still love playing games and competing and I will keep playing until I lose that competitive edge, despite people asking why I keep playing when my back is sore and my ankles are sore. I’ll keep it going for another three or four years, but it will be injury that finishes me in the end. I just can’t stop… I love it too much. ”
Another long held ambition that McHale had was to win an All-Ireland title with Ballina Stephenites. He retired from club football the year before they crossed that substantial line in 2005. A lot of players on that side credit McHale for being a big influence in getting them to that point in the first place.
But still, missing out must be a regret?
“No, no, not really," he says. "I think I was 38 or 39 and we had won the county title the year before and I had made a decision then to pack in the football and concentrate on the basketball and I think everyone then appreciated at that stage of my life I couldn’t attempt to play both sports.
"I was in the Hogan Stand and was delighted to see them win especially the lads like David Brady who lost in the final against Crossmaglen in 1999. A lot of the younger lads I would have coached or played with so it was a great couple of days for the club and like a big reunion for us between the younger and the older lads.
"I’d be the type of player that wouldn’t like to get on the pitch for the last 10 or 15 minutes. I would have got a medal, but I wouldn’t have felt I deserved it. I was in good nick and shape having played basketball and there was some talk in the county of me coming back and strengthening the team for the final, but that never, ever crossed my mind. I wouldn’t have felt like I contributed to the success of the team without having contributed some valuable minutes in the matches before that. The medal wouldn’t have meant anything. You make these decisions and you have to stand by them, there were no regrets.”
JOE was in Mayo earlier this month prior to their League final defeat to Cork, when a feeling that may have taken hold around the country - that this Mayo side had toughened up, had an extra edge about them - wasn’t evident in the county itself. McHale is happy that we found a certain realism, or even pessimism, on the streets of Ballinrobe and Westport.
“You see we have a very good team, it’s one the top five teams in the country. But there are three teams that are ahead of every other in the country - Cork, Kerry and Dublin. After that you bring Kildare, you bring in Mayo, Donegal and Galway, teams like that...
"It’s just like 2004 and 2006, if you don’t get everything right on the day – on the sideline and on the pitch, you’ll probably get beaten.
"I’m glad you found that people were a little more pessimistic and a little more laid back about the whole thing because when you are that optimistic and that gung-ho about a big game it probably filters through to the player’s psyche and that’s not a good thing.”
McHale is now a selector for the Clare footballers, and he feels there are parallels between his Mayo side of the '90s and the Clare hurlers of the same period, who as Anthony Daly famously put it, “upset the applecart” of traditional counties to become one of the best sides in memory.
Hubris and self-belief helped that Clare side across the line, helped them get the better of sides with greater resources to draw on. And that's something that, possibly by the narrowest of margins, was missing from the Mayo of McHale and Sheridan and McManamon.
“In 1996 and 1997 we had a team good enough to win the All-Ireland," says McHale. "We failed twice. If we did win those two finals, we probably would have been remembered like that Clare team.
"We barely failed and that Clare team won by the smallest of margins. I would never try to bring luck into it, but the fact of the matter is they won, they made the breakthrough, we didn’t and the rest is history.
"If you keep knocking on the door you’ll eventually make the breakthrough. If Mayo keep doing it I think they can win an All-Ireland again and I’d like to think we’ll see [the] Clare [footballers] win a Munster title and going on to play Croke Park with distinction again.”
While that could hardly be described as feasible this year, given the pre-eminence of Cork and Kerry, Clare face the winners of Limerick and Waterford on June 9 on the weaker side of the draw. Is that something that's on the mind of the Clare management - that if they are going to do anything, this is the side of the draw they do it in?
“Yes of course, but Waterford and Limerick are going to be thinking that too. The three teams are saying that. Both those teams are playing this weekend and we have to wait until the 9th, so one of those teams will have a match under their belts and a win under their belts. Having said that Clare are capable of winning that game and these boys are looking forward to a Munster final that they haven’t played in before in their careers.
"Then they would be playing Cork or Kerry I’d imagine, without being disrespectful to anyone. If you can go out and play well you get another bite of the cherry. Not that they couldn’t win but Cork or Kerry would be red-hot favourites.
"That carrot is dangling in front of them now so it’s up to them to go out and get their bodies and more importantly their minds right, that’s the most important thing because though they are good footballers, as you alluded to earlier they may not have the same values or belief that some of the players from bigger counties might have.
"So they really need to push as far as they can push it and believe they can get a result because that one match could be a breakthrough for this group of footballers.”
Liam never really looks back and thinks what could have happened in the bright light, pom-pom whirl world of American basketball but outside of his interest in the fortunes of Mayo, Clare and Ballina he keeps up with the fortunes of his side the Boston Celtics in play-offs of the NBA.
This year he has his eyes on the much-fancied Oklahoma Thunder side as one of their roster is the son of an old rival and friend in Irish basketball, six foot eleven centre Kendrick Perkins.
“I know his father Kenny very well, he’s living over in Australia now. He was like his son six foot nine or ten and absolute brute of a man. He came from Lamar University, they called him the Lamar Leaper. He was a very nice man and played for Vincent’s. He was a class guy and a fantastic player and now he’s living the good life in Australia watching his son who has a ring.”
McHale thinks he can get another ring this year too with the Oklahoma Thunder.
“I think it is Oklahoma’s time to do it. They have the best front line, they have Durant, and they have Daequan, who’s the best shot-stopper in the league. I think the champions will come out of the West and it will be Oklahoma, but if’s not the Boston Celtics I don’t care who wins it as long as it’s not Miami and LeBron!”
So it’s not going to be the Galacticos of Miami Heat’s year to do it?
“I hope not, I hope to God – I can’t stand LeBron! I don’t get much sleep this time of year because I’m up all night watching it, again my wife Sinead would be killing me asking will I ever get to bed,” he laughs.
He continued, on LeBron James: “He’s very soft, very soft! They won’t win it. I’d love to get on that NBA Tonight show with Charles Barkley and Shaq and the boys because no one is saying it! He’s soft, I’ve seen it against Dallas, when push comes to shove he backs down, the same with your man Chris Bosh. They will kill you when things are going for them, but when they don’t they go missing. They won’t win titles with soft hearts.”
It’s a lesson that Mayo and Clare will need to know this summer.
But that's something that everyone knows.