The Mourne’s supreme athlete

mickey Linden’s sporting career was as long as it was illustrious but two All-Ireland titles and three Ulster crowns don’t tell half the story about a man who, along with Peter Canavan, was probably the most electrifying inside forward in the country during the 1990s.

The Mourne’s supreme athlete

Even up to last summer he was still at it: sprinting and skipping onto that ball, swerving and shooting it over his shoulder and over the bar, skinning you.

It had been well over a year since he’d last played but when his son Cormac told him the thirds were struggling for numbers for their championship game against Darragh Cross, Mickey Linden brought the gear bag, just in case. When he arrived at the field, the team manager was glad to see him. Benny Coulter may have been the biggest name on the Down county panel but would have considered himself a club man first, and so if taking the thirds was a way to give the club a hand, he was glad to do it; now he needed his old mentor and schoolboy idol to help them out as well, be a sub. Sure wasn’t he in some nick, wearing a smaller jean size than he did when he played for Down? So, at 50, Mickey Linden went in and laced them up again.

He’d long had a way of defying his age. He was still playing county football at 40 and finishing in the top five in all the runs in training. At 45 he was still starting and winning senior county championship finals for Mayobridge alongside Coulter. Now he’d probably be playing on the same field and team as his son who was born the same year that he won Player of the Year and everything else that was going at the time.

A few minutes into the second half and nothing between the sides, Linden was on the line when he got the shout from Coulter: Mickey, you’re in. Suddenly it was 1994 all over again.

Just as he tormented the best defenders in Ireland that summer — Fay Devlin, Gary Coleman, Niall Cahalane, Paul Curran, Paul Clarke, All Stars all — now it was some unknown youngsters half his age that were getting the runaround.

Linden would kick four points from play to help his side to a 2-11 to 1-8 win and a spot in the quarter-finals. He would start that day and he would again score and they again would win. It was the same story in the semi-final. Unfortunately he had a bit of a hamstring injury going into the final. He came on after half-time but probably shouldn’t have, he says, and the team would lose, but all the same it had been a nice little adventure, playing with Cormac, for Benny.

He finally hung up the boots for good over the winter — “I’ve decided that’s it; I played when I was 50 so that’s good enough,” he laughs softly — only to take back down the running shoes. For pretty much the previous five years Linden had been the fastest man in Ireland in his age group.

In 2014 he wanted to see just how he measured up to the rest of the world. The world masters athletics indoor championships were on in Budapest in March and he was going.

In a way, athletics only came into his life in recent years and in another, it has always been part of his life. When he was 12 or so he made it to Butlins in the Community Games long jump but that was about it for formal competition as a kid. But he used always run home from school so he could get to play football as quickly as possible, and when he looks back on how he played football, a lot of that was about running too.

Being a corner forward in the 1980s and 1990s, you encountered a different kind of cynical football as to how it’s known now. Back then, cynicism was pure thuggery.

“There was a lot of stuff going on off the ball,” says Linden. “Boys thumping you into the ribs, pulling and dragging, lots of elbows. As a young fella starting your county career it would definitely have affected me. But the way I came to deal with it was to just physically get a lot fitter. I’d just have it in my head ‘I’m going to run here from the start of the game to the finish of the game’. Constantly stay on the move. A back will tell you, that’s the worst kind of boy to be marking. And I got myself into the sort of shape that I could do that.”

Linden was still in good enough shape six or so years ago when someone remarked to him that he should try masters athletics. He was at an Ulster Gaelic Writers Association awards function in Donegal at the same table as Patsy Forbes. Forbes had played for Tyrone back in the 60s but was still highly active in masters athletics, where there were different events according to your age; now that he was winding up playing senior club football with Mayobridge, it was something Linden could check out.

So he did, taking part in a 100m sprint in the Mary Peters track in Belfast shortly after and winning it. Then he won a Leinster meet. By the end of that summer of 2009, Linden was the national over 45s 100m and long jump champion and a silver medallist in the 200m.

Linden’s enjoyed some stiff if friendly competition from the likes of Richard McArthur since, but any year he’s entered the 100m, he’s invariably won. His primary event though is the 60m indoor. He’s missed the occasional outdoor nationals because the season has overlapped with his football coaching commitments but over the winter he always gets himself ready for the indoors. This past winter he was particularly focused. For the first time he was going international.

“I’d turned 50 which I meant I was now in the 50 to 55 category, so I thought that if I’m ever going to the worlds, it had to be earlier than later.”

Linden as a footballer had always been conscientious in his preparation. His old team-mate Ross Carr has contended that Linden had just as much claim as Larry Tompkins to being the first professional Gaelic footballer. “He was doing his weights, making sure he had prepared all the right food, like chicken and fish; in bed for 10 o’clock. Everyone goes on about how driven men like Tompkins, McGeeney and ] were but I can tell you none of them were more committed or determined than Mickey Linden.”

On reflection, Linden would say he only prepared as well as he could or knew but that he didn’t always know what was best — “I can remember back in the 80s coming off the field totally shattered and it’s only later I realised that I was totally dehydrated.” Things were a lot more scientific in preparing for Budapest.

Michael Walsh, the former county player and minor All-Ireland winner, was a big help in that.

Ten years ago, Linden was coaching Walsh in Mayobridge. Now Walsh is coaching Mayobridge and is also a fitness coach. Not only did he put Linden on a strength and conditioning programme, but he’d join in for a lot of it, the two of them meeting down in the club field where together they’d put in the hard and fast yards.

At the national indoors, Linden ran the 60m in 7.86. When he looked at the various personal bests of the 55 athletes who’d entered for the world championships, he was bang in the middle. Getting out of the heat would be a real achievement, and so that became the goal.

e would pull it off, finishing second in his heat. In the semi-final, he finished fifth. It wasn’t enough to make the final but enough to rank 14th in the world. Not bad for someone who only took up formal athletics a little over five years ago.

He’d love to know what time he’d have been able to run the 100 metres in during his prime.

He never measured it; back then, he was more interested in running onto a ball played in by Greg Blaney. But as much as he enjoys the masters scene with its lively, vibrant characters, and is grateful for what athletics has given him in recent years, he’s happy with the sport he went with in his 20s and 30s and what it gave him. On one side of his fine living room are a couple of shelves where all his athletic medals and trophies lie. In another corner a series of football medals are displayed. Ask if the athletic medals are comparable and he smiles, “They don’t even come close.”

In the top left corner of that display is his All-Ireland senior medal from 1991. On the top right are the other Celtic Cross from 1994. Elsewhere there are Ulster medals from those two years, a national league medal from 1983, three Railway Cups (“Though it wasn’t a big deal then either; nice to wear the jersey and all, but I don’t know what they can do with it”), as well as seven county medals with the club.

He had to work and wait for most of them. He was 27 before he ever won an Ulster medal, 35 before he or the club ever won a county. Those two events bookmarked the 1990s when, along with Peter Canavan, he was probably the most electrifying inside forward in the country.

In the 80s he didn’t play with much confidence, largely because a good Down team didn’t either. He says it was only when James McCartan and Conor Deegan came into the side that the Down swagger came with it, especially when they prevailed in two epics against Derry in midsummer of 1991. By 1994, Linden brimmed with belief.

Ross Carr remembers a meeting in the Down dressing room in the lead-up to that year’s All-Ireland final. The team were going through how and why they were going to beat Dublin when Linden piped up, “I’m the best corner forward in Ireland. Just get me the ball.” Across the room, Paul Higgins started smiling. Finally the modest, softly-spoken Linden articulated what he and they already knew.

He would go on to prove that very point, tormenting a player of the calibre of Paul Curran who a year later would succeed Linden as Player of the Year. He would even speak years later that he would nearly have given back that All-Ireland to play the game again. Because, with the club out of the championship, there were no more games to be played that year. Winning the All-Ireland was almost anti-climatic; when or where else could he experience that fantastic feeling of playing with total confidence? You could argue that after 1994, the rest of his career with Down was an anti-climax; reaching three Ulster finals only to lose them would be as good as it would get. But that’s not why Linden played on until he was 40.

“I just loved playing for my county and I was still fit enough to do it, so I felt why shouldn’t I do it? If there was someone better to take my place, let them take it.”

In 2003, that time was approaching. Paddy O’Rourke’s first year as manager was Linden’s last year as coach and while Down would reach that year’s Ulster final Linden got virtually no playing time. At the time, Ross Carr contended that Linden would still have had something to offer then All-Ireland champions Armagh, let alone mid-ranking Down (“Mickey Linden at 40 is better than he was at 24”). Linden himself thought much the same, but O’Rourke didn’t.

“In hindsight, I probably shouldn’t have gone back. I thought I still had something to offer. Paddy wanted to bring through the younger fellas rather than try to win that particular year. I totally respect that. But it was just a bit frustrating because in training I was up there in the top two or three in the sprints and in the 300m runs I was still in the top five. So if my fitness wasn’t a problem and my ability wasn’t a problem, I was wondering why am I not playing?”

Another person could have been lost with his county days over; at the time Linden’s county career was the longest since Christy Ring’s. But Linden was fine. Straight away he took over the club team and guided them to three consecutive county titles and an Ulster club final. It jars a little still that with all their attacking talent — four county players making up their front six — and effort, they didn’t win an Ulster but he enjoyed that experience and has continued to coach ever since.

For a few years, he minded a neighbouring intermediate club called Drumgath while being a selector to Pete McGrath and the Down U21s that reached an All-Ireland final. Then he took Newry Shamrocks.

This year he’s coaching in Armagh, Killeavy, Stevie McDonnell’s club. Stevie isn’t playing but the club are doing alright.

It might seem a long way away from Croke Park or even Clones, but it suits Linden. The job at the Newry Vehicle Testing Centre involves a lot of shift work which rules out any county job but can still accommodate looking after a club team. It means not having to coach against Mayobridge either.

Killeavy are out again tomorrow which means Linden won’t get to Down’s opening championship game against Tyrone but he keeps a good eye out for the team. He was at their league win over Donegal in Newry and was impressed by their work ethic. There’s a couple of big championship games in this team, he senses, but not probably not quite an Ulster championship, something they haven’t won now since Linden’s career year of 1994.

“We have a lot of good players but for some reason they’re not big players. When you look at our team of 91 and 94, me and wee James were the two smallest. Nearly everyone else played midfield for their club. At the minute we only have very talented, small players. You only have to look at the current Dublin team to realise the physical aspect counts.”

He really admires this Dublin team and the way they play. A few years ago he feared for football and particularly sympathised with a ball player like his club man Benny Coulter, who publicly bemoaned the blanket defences that smothered him.

“To me, that was a depressing time for a forward. I could understand Benny’s frustration, absolutely, not being able to express himself and show his ability, instead having to track back and tackle, tackle, tackle and then being nearly too exhausted to have the energy to do what you’re supposed to do. If Benny had been on our team, I think everyone would have seen just how good he was. We’d definitely have won more. He’d have brought something special to that team. I think he’s the only fella since who would have been good enough to make our forward line.”

This year, Benny and the thirds have to look to another forward. Linden has hung them up for good. As for the running shoes, he’s not so sure about them, either. He put everything into Budapest. In the winter he’ll see how he’s feeling. The past few months, it’s been the walking boots he’s strapped on, being the Down representative on the Sam to the Summit charity climb raising funds for the Alan Kerins Project; yesterday he and 31 more from the other counties climbed Carrantuohill.

You ask him if he’s almost defying his age, mortality even. He again laughs softly. “Believe me, when you come 50, you’re very aware of your mortality! You just need to keep doing something, keep active.”

Keep moving, as he did all those years ago scorching all those hatchet, hapless backs.

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