League of Ireland Legends - Mick Leech: 'You won't like him, all he does is score goals'

In the first of a new series on League of Ireland Legends, the great striker MICK LEECH recalls days of glory and controversy with Shamrock Rovers, a memorable encounter with Norman Hunter and how he almost scored for Ireland against Jose Mourinho's Da.
League of Ireland Legends - Mick Leech: 'You won't like him, all he does is score goals'

In the first of a new series on League of Ireland Legends, the great striker MICK LEECH recalls days of glory and controversy with Shamrock Rovers, a memorable encounter with Norman Hunter and how he almost scored for Ireland against Jose Mourinho's Da.

18 November 1980; Mick Leech, Shamrock Rovers, Soccer. Picture credit; Ray McManus/SPORTSFILE.
18 November 1980; Mick Leech, Shamrock Rovers, Soccer. Picture credit; Ray McManus/SPORTSFILE.

The recent passing of Norman Hunter had a personal poignancy for Mick Leech, the celebrated Shamrock Rovers striker of the late 1960s and early 70s.

In his home in Templelogue, Mick still has a jersey which belonged to the great Leeds and England defender, a treasured souvenir of a game between the League of Ireland and the English League almost 50 years ago.

Such inter-league fixtures where high quality, competitive affairs in those days, as reflected in the narrow scoreline in that match in 1971 which a saw a stellar English side – including such household names as Hunter, Roy McFarland, Colin Bell, Franny Lee, Mike Summerbee, Peter Osgood and John Radford – win 2-1, the Irish reply coming from Waterford’s Johnny Matthews when he beat Gordon Banks from the penalty spot after Leech had been taken down in the box.

Overall, how had the striker fared against the defender dubbed ‘Bites Yer Legs’?

“I found him very fair,” Mick remembers. “You’d expect a kick off him but no less than you’d expect a kick if you were going down to Cork (laughs). That’s the way the game was in those days. It would be hard and tough but it wouldn’t be break-your-leg stuff. I know Norman Hunter had a reputation but, in all fairness, he was a great footballer.

“And on that occasion, as we were coming off the pitch, I was thinking that I’d love to get his jersey but I was too embarrassed to ask. And the next thing I knew.he was taking it off and saying to me, ‘Will you swap, Mick?’ And I have to say I was really chuffed. My respect for him was only enormous after that.”

It’s not hard to imagine that, footballer to footballer, the respect would have been mutual. Leech, who looked like George Best and scored goals like Jimmy Greaves, was never out of place in even the most exalted company.

In 1972, he was picked to play for Ireland in an invitational mini-World Cup tournament in Brazil, the Liam Tuohy-managed side acquitting itself well in a group which saw them lose to Chile but beat Iran and Ecaudor before bowing out 2-1 to Portugal.

Mick scored his second goal of the tournament in that game – and was subsequently named in a ‘team of the group’ alongside Eusebio – but it would be a full forty years before he would learn that there had been another world-famous football name on the pitch in Recife that day.

Mick was holidaying in Portugal when a local barman produced a surprise for the visiting Dubliner: a newspaper interview with Jose Mourinho in which he revealed that his father’s only cap for Portugal had come as a second half substitute goalkeeper against Ireland in Brazil in 1972.

So can Mick Leech claim to have scored against Mourinho's Da?

“No, I can’t because I got the goal right on the stroke of half-time,” he laughs. “I didn’t want to destroy his reputation so I scored before he came on.”

Having inherited his love of the game from his own “Pat’s fanatic” father, Mick Leech began to forge his reputation as a League of Ireland legend in the 1967 FAI Cup campaign, after Paddy Ambrose had seen the 19-year-old striker in action the year before and recommended him to Rovers boss Tuohy with the immortal words: “You won’t like him. All he does is score goals.”

Leech duly lived up to billing when he made his cup debut for the Hoops in the ’67 semi-final, scoring twice in a 3-0 win over Dundalk. He then repeated the trick in the final – the first ever to be broadcast live on RTE – against his boyhood heroes, as Rovers beat Pat’s 3-2 to secure their fourth cup triumph on the bounce.

The final the following year has come to be regarded as an all-time classic, the 1968 meeting of league kingpins Waterford and cup specialists Rovers attracting an official attendance of 39,128 although - with gates broken down and thousands more squeezing in – it has been estimated that there could have been as many as 45,000 inside Dalymount Park to see Hoops confound the odds by winning 3-0.

“That was an exceptional Waterford team,” Leech remembers, “and we were a young, transitional side. They were the outstanding favourites and in the first half they played us off the pitch. But you get in at half-time, still nil-all, and so you’re saying to yourself, ‘we still have a chance’. We also sensed the pressure was coming on Waterford. It was their holy grail to win the Cup and you could see the tension coming into their play.”

Former Republic of Ireland International, Shamrock Rovers and former winner of the Soccer Writers Association of Ireland Personality of the year award Mick Leech, pictured before the Aviva Soccer Writers Association banquet to be held at the Shelbourne Hotel, Dublin. Picture credit: David Maher / SPORTSFILE
Former Republic of Ireland International, Shamrock Rovers and former winner of the Soccer Writers Association of Ireland Personality of the year award Mick Leech, pictured before the Aviva Soccer Writers Association banquet to be held at the Shelbourne Hotel, Dublin. Picture credit: David Maher / SPORTSFILE

Rovers proceeded to take full advantage after the break, Leech putting the matter beyond all doubt a minute from the end when, in trademark fashion, he scored his second of the game by rounding Waterford ‘keeper Peter Thomas before sliding the ball home. But it was a moment of glory which also left Mick with a bit of explaining to do.

“Yeah, that was the one where I touched Thommo on the head,” he says, almost with a sigh. “When I was walking back after scoring, he was still lying on the ground and – because I had great respect for him and for Waterford - I just patted him on the head and said ‘Hard luck, Thommo, maybe next year will be your year’. Obviously, people couldn’t hear what I actually said, they just saw me patting his head, and they thought I was being pig-headed. But it wasn’t like that at all.”

The following year, 1969, Rovers completed their historic six-in-row with a replay victory over Cork Celtic, after Leech, attempting to return from six weeks out with a knee injury, had struggled on a bone-hard Dalymount pitch in the first game. A 1-1 draw meant a replay the following Wednesday at the same venue and, as luck would have it, Dalymount was this time soaked with rain. That made for a much more forgiving surface for Leech but an altogether more unforgiving experience for Cork Celtic, as the unstoppable striker scored twice in a 4-1 win to set an FAI Cup Final record for Rovers which stands to this day.

Indeed, so routine had cup glory become for the Hoops at that stage that, as Mick remembers it, “when it was all over, we all walked out and just went our separate ways - we’d done the job and we’d won the cup again. And that gave rise to the famous story about the Cork Celtic forward Donal Leahy, who was a great player but had never won the cup, coming into our dressing room after we’d all gone and finding that the trophy was still there. So he took it over to the North Star Hotel where they were staying and that’s how Cork Celtic celebrated – or drowned their sorrows - with the cup that night.”

His two goals in that replay brought Leech’s total for that season to 56 – a staggering haul, made all the more remarkable because he’d been out for so long with injury.But for all that he has since come to be regarded as one of the most lethal marksmen this country has ever produced, Mick – now aged 71 and still a committed supporter of the league - never did get to taste title success with Rovers.

The closest he came was in 1971 when the Hoops and Cork Hibs ended up level at the top of the table and contested a title play-off at Dalymount. As per usual, Leech found the net on the day but it was Hibs who emerged triumphant, the great Miah Dennehy scoring twice in a 3-1 win.

What was not widely known at the time, however, was just how close Rovers had come to not taking the pitch at all. At issue was a stand-off between the players and the club’s owners, the Cunninghams, over payment of additional wages for the extension to the season required to accommodate the play-off game.

“There was also a bonus due for winning the league,” Mick Leech remembers, “and they were saying that they’d pay us the bonus – about £30 - but not the wages. In the end, we got them to agree to pay us the wages and reduce the bonus by half. But 15 minutes before the kick-off, not one of us had stripped off, and there were 30,000 people in the ground waiting to see the match.

“Now, it’s not to take away from Cork Hibs, they were an exceptionally good team, but in the frame of mind we were in I don’t know if we were really mentally up for it that day. And, really, I think that was also the beginning of the end of an era for Shamrock Rovers.”

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