Long-distance dreams

It seems an odd one at first.

The idea of Liam McHale coming down from Mayo three times a week. Stopping off in Ballindine first for a cup of coffee in his old buddy Seamus Gallagher’s shop and garage. Then taking a further pit stop in Clarenbridge, letting his fellow selector James Foran take the wheel for the rest of the way into Ennis because his own back can only take so much of the driving.

But then, when you think some more, there’s a logic to it. Twenty years earlier it was also to Mayo that Clare football turned. They had been the whipping boys of Munster before John Maughan whipped them into shape and a unit that in the summer of 1992 would humble the mighty Jack O’Shea into retirement and with it change forever the way GAA teams prepared and viewed themselves.

Long before Obama declared ‘Yes We Can’ or even before Loughnane would proclaim ‘Yes We Will’, Maughan and Clare had proved that no obstacles, not even Kerry, could stand in the way of the power of men hell-bent on wanting change.

So when Micheál McDermott took over as Clare manager a couple of years ago, with the county again at the bottom of the food chain in Munster, again he looked to Mayo for some direction. He called Maughan, letting him know he was on the lookout for both a coach who would technically improve his players and one who the players might already know of and respect.

Maughan recommended McHale. The pair of them had worked together in the mid-2000s with Mayo, bringing an unfancied team all the way to an All-Ireland final. A few years before, McHale had also been a coach to Kevin McStay’s U21 team that was only denied an All-Ireland title by an exceptional Tyrone side that prevailed by just three points.

Even when McHale was a player himself in the ’90s and Mayo were regularly winning Connacht titles and contesting All-Ireland finals, Maughan would consult him for ideas about what drills or even style of play and game plan the team could use. McHale was always more than just another player.

He was an international basketball player, probably the best basketball player this country has produced, though Irish basketball or no one within it can really claim to have produced McHale. He pretty much taught and developed himself, spending hours every day on the outdoor courts of his home town Ballina and even into his late 20s would studiously watch videos of NBA games he’d tape on Channel Four and move around his living room, breaking down and imitating and finally mastering moves from the likes of Larry Bird and Hakeem Olajuwon.

When Ballina became the first provincial club in over a decade to break the mighty stranglehold the Cork and Dublin clubs had on the sport and its major honours, McHale wasn’t just their general on game day but during practice too, often devising with coach Terry Kennedy the drills and the game plan that would help them fell the likes of the mighty Burgerland Neptune. So for nearly 20 years before he ever got the call from McDermott, McHale had been a coach.

In a way it has been something of a culture shock, him coming from a county regularly contesting and winning provincial titles to one that hadn’t been in a Munster final since 2000, but throughout his three years he has been impressed by the dedication of the Clare footballers.

“These are very honest, enthusiastic fellas. If they stick together, which I think they will, there’s a bright future ahead for them. We obviously don’t have the same strength in depth as the Division 1 and 2 teams but we have a lot of really talented footballers and all the lads are very keen to be successful. There’s never been an issue as regards them sticking to their gym programmes or their diets or anything like that.”

McHale’s job has been to improve them technically. For him it should be the primary role of any set-up.

“It’s all about fundamentals. Everyone is trying to catch up to Cork, Kerry and Dublin but a lot of them are trying to do it the wrong way. They’re trying to play these blanket defences, they have their players lifting weights and running hills, sending them emails as to what to have for breakfast.

“All that is important but it’s not as important as having 15 fundamentally-solid players on the field. You look at Bernard Brogan — he can kick off both feet. Gooch, Stephen O’Neill, now Daniel Goulding, the same.

“To me there’s a real opportunity opening up for teams. The likes of Kerry and Tyrone were among the best teams to ever play the game but they’re now on the slide, they’re beaten up, they have to be, and it’s going to take them a long time to replace the likes of Paul Galvin and Stephen O’Neill when they go. But too many teams are spending too much time in the gym bursting out of their jerseys with arms like the All Blacks, and they’re going to fall short.

“Maybe it’s me coming from a basketball background. If you can’t dribble with both hands, if you can’t lay-up with both hands, you have no business playing at any respectable level. Football should be no different. If you’re a half-back, you need to know how you can position yourself to win the breaking ball, you need to be able to hand-pass and kick off both feet.

“So if one of our fellas get a shot blocked down because he kicked with his right, I’ll let him know about it, that if he could have shot with his left, his body would have been between the man and the ball and no way could his man have blocked him.

“As a coach it’s about being observant and being honest. Gary Brennan and David Tubridy are probably two footballers better than I ever was but I’ve had words with them when they’ve taken the wrong or soft option.

“You don’t say to a fella when he’s blocked down using the wrong foot, ‘Hard luck, you were unlucky there, come again’. That’s not coaching, that’s a cop out. You need to ask him, ‘Why were you blocked down there?’ If you don’t correct them you won’t improve them.”

That’s not really the culture a generation of players have been raised in. Managers are under pressure to win this coming season, this coming game, so they give the player a blanket defence to adhere to rather than some pointers on how to become a better kicker of the ball. Croke Park is trying to change that mindset with its underage programmes and GAA Go Games but McHale feels there’s even more they, county boards and clubs could be doing to produce more skilful, all-round players.

“The frightening thing for me is the number of teams you see playing sweepers at U14 and U16 level. I’ll go up to the [Ballina] Stephenites to see games in those grades and whereas back in our time the score would be 4-13 to 2-14 or something, now more and more you’re seeing scores like 0-8 to 0-6. I don’t think defensive systems like that should be allowed underage, the way in basketball at younger grades you’re not allowed to play zone defence or put on a full-court press.

“I’d also be all for some rule at underage that you’re only allowed one hop and one solo and then you have to move it on. You see all the time a big kid in midfield, he wins the kick-out, solos the length of the field and puts it over the bar.

“Then the ball is kicked out again and the same thing happens all over again. All the while there’s a lovely little-corner forward inside who isn’t getting the ball. If you were to even bring in that one rule underage it would make a huge difference: you’d be producing big midfielders who know how to pass the ball and also corner-forwards who are used to getting that little bounce pass in front of them, making a jink and kicking it over the bar.”

As for what tweaks could be made at adult level, there’s a few he’d like to see Eugene McGee’s football review group consider. Like nearly everyone, he’d like to see the clean pick-up off the ground. And he’d recommend some restriction on the number of men who can tackle an opponent at any one time.

Too often the problem isn’t that the game resembles a game of his beloved basketball, as so many critics regularly complain, but more a bad game of rugby.

“I would not allow anything more than a double team in the tackle. If three guys go in to tackle, it’s a whistle because at the moment there are too many rucks all over the place.”

Whatever about the sport itself, he’s in good shape and form himself. We meet in the West County Hotel in Ennis a couple of hours before one of Clare’s final preparations ahead of the Munster final and, even at 47, he looks like he’s just stepped off the basketball floor or even the surfboard, with his long shorts, tanned skin and ever-present smile.

He ran a pub in Ballina for five years but when the lease was expiring he let it go. “We had four very good years but then overnight it went from having kids with their crispy €50 notes and vodka and red bull to crumpled-up fivers and a vodka with a dash of white.

“It was time to move on. I never liked it to be honest. I got plenty of advice from people I respect not to do it and that the late nights would mess up my whole life and though I was hell-bent on doing it at the time, they were right. I’d have to say it was a mistake.”

He’s moved on both off and on the field. These days he’s at peace with the fact he never won that elusive All-Ireland medal, though he’ll admit: “If Ballina [basketball] hadn’t won those couple of National Cups and Superleague title I’d be a basket case.”

Losing the 2004 All-Ireland final as a coach hurt but, in hindsight, he maintains Mayo overachieved that summer. At the start of the season some people thought they might lose to New York. Everyone thought they’d lose to Galway. They ended up beating All-Ireland champions Tyrone before losing to a superior Kerry team. So, sure, Mayo themselves should have been better in that final but there’s no getting away from the fact that Kerry were simply better.

The following March, Ballina won the All-Ireland club, with McHale in the stands, having retired only the previous season. It was cruel that a man who had soldiered over 20 years with the team and nearly as long in pursuit of a Celtic Cross should miss out on such an hour of glory but he just chalks it down as one of those things.

“In the lead up to the final there were people around the town saying we need to get Liam back but coming on with a big bald head on me for five minutes at the end of a game wasn’t my style.

“I had a good run at it. I would love to have been there but I would have needed to have been there playing, among the first three subs at least.”

He still plays basketball for Ballina. The glory days are long gone, they don’t even play in the Superleague anymore. Instead they’re also-rans in Division 1, traipsing around the country and being beaten in gyms like Portlaoise and Kilkenny, this bunch of teenagers with this old legend with his beaten-up old body in the midst of them, still mentoring them, still loving it.

“People say to me I’m crazy, still playing at 47, but we have six or seven good young players that have made a huge improvement in just a year and if I was to go, the whole thing could go. And I still love the game, I still love playing. I’m not looking forward to the day I can’t play anymore.

“As I keep telling [his wife, a sister of Kevin McStay] Sinead, what else is there to do in Ballina from October to March?”

This summer there’s plenty to do with Clare. There’s been a lot of work put into them over the last three seasons.

Twice they were on the verge of promotion from Division 4 only to lose their last game but he feels some form of breakthrough, imminent.

“Losing to Wicklow in April was a huge disappointment for the lads, not just to miss out on promotion but to play Fermanagh in Croke Park in the divisional final. But it was easy enough to get them refocused because they knew that if they won their next game they were in a Munster final.

“There’s a new sense of belief after the Limerick game. There’s a different bounce in their step.

“Obviously Cork are another level again. To have any chance there are certain things we need to do well.

“If we get three goal chances we need to take the three of them. We can’t kick more than 10 wides. But there’s little pressure on us; if we go out and play well and still fall short by three or four points, there’s nothing you can do about it except go into the back door with confidence.

“The way we look at it, it’s a huge opportunity for our lads to show how good they are. I really believe that they’re going to go out and play well.”

And if they don’t, they’ll do what McHale has his whole life. Rebound. Play on.

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