In our League of Ireland Legends series,reflects on the art of goal-scoring and recalls Waterford’s fabled back-from-the-dead title triumph at Flower Lodge in 1972.
Waterford legend Alfie Hale’s long career was packed with goals and book-ended by them too - he scored twice on his debut as a 17-year-old for the Blues in a 3-1 win against Bohemians in 1957, and in 1981, at the age of 41, grabbed his last goal, as the player-manager of Thurles Town, to earn the distinction of scoring in four different decades in the League of Ireland.
In all, he racked up 153 goals in the league and another 64 in league football in England, where he played for Aston Villa, Doncaster Rovers and Newport County between 1960 and 1966, when he returned to then champions Waterford.
Hale, who was also capped 14 times for Ireland, would help his hometown club win five further league titles – including their celebrated three-in-a-row in ’68, ’69 and ’70 - before adding a sixth of his own in 1974 after a move to Cork Celtic.
In ‘The Book of Irish Goalscorers’, the authors – Sean Ryan and Stephen Burke – suggest that, for Alfie Hale, scoring goals “was like riding a bike, once learned never forgotten”.
“I didn’t come up with that,” the man himself is anxious to clarify, “although people did say to me that I made it look easy. But having said that, and without sounding boastful, I didn’t find goal-scoring difficult at all.
Whether that was an instinct, something I was born with, I don’t know, but when you try to analyse goalscoring I think you find you do need a certain temperament for it.
“And the biggest thing that you need is composure in the penalty area, when there’s last-ditch tackles flying in and everyone is flailing around but especially when you’re one-on-one with the goalkeeper.
"It would be arrogant to say I found it easy but it would be false modesty to say that I felt the pressure in those situations. I never did. And I think fellas like Mick Leech and Turlough O’Connor would have felt likewise.”
Coming from a famous Waterford football family, it’s no surprise that Hale was a natural with the ball at his feet. But, as is the case with all great players, being able to give his talent full expression required a commitment to relentless self-improvement.
"While playing in England, Alfie was struck by the ‘hang time’ Denis Law could generate when climbing to head a ball, and came up with a novel system for maximising the potential of own five feet seven inches in the air.
“I’ve never seen anyone else take it up but I started heading a balloon,” he says.
“It sounds comical but it improved my neck muscles and my control.
Then back in Waterford, when I was working in the Lyon’s Tea depot, in the hour or so I had between finishing work and going training, I’d hang a tea bag or a balloon on a rope from a crossbeam, raising it higher every time I made full contact with my forehead.
"For an average-sized guy, I thought the climb that Law had was tremendous and I was trying to imitate that. And it definitely helped.”
It was with a header that Alfie would have the final say in the most dramatic of Waterford’s title wins, the justly celebrated late, late comeback at Flower Lodge in 1972.
Witnessed by a crowd of some 28,000, Waterford, requiring a draw to claim the title, found themselves 2-0 goals down with only 11 minutes remaining against a Cork Hibs team who needed a win to force a play-off. Worse for the visitors, they were down to ten men.
Or “nine and a half”, as Alfie insists, since the Blues had lost two men to injury in the first half and, Vinny Maguire, as the sole sub permitted in those days, had been pressed into action from the bench despite struggling with a cartilage problem.
Indeed, things were looking so bleak for the Blues that even skipper Hale had grown resigned to the seemingly inevitable.
“I remember that at 2-0, Hibs were so much on top that Dave Wigginton and Miah Dennehy got a ball between them and they tried to take the mickey out of Peter Thomas and walk the ball around him to make it three-nothing. But Wiggy got himself offside.
“I was on my own upfront and I said to Dave Bacuzzi and Noel O’Mahony, ‘you could regret that’. But I was really only joking at that stage because I thought the game was gone.”
It wasn’t. In a staggering climax, first Carl Humphries pulled one back and then Johnny Matthews equalised with a penalty. 2-2 was enough to give Waterford the title - but Alfie Hale wasn’t done yet.
“We won a free-kick on the right-hand side of the box and John O’Neill lined it up.
"The strange thing is that the two of us never practiced free-kicks together in all those years but he had a great eye for looking up to see me make a move or give him a signal. It was a kind of chemistry between us.
“He told me afterward that just to run down the clock he’d thought about belting the ball over the heads of the crowd behind the goal.
"But half-way into his run-up he suddenly saw me running off Noel O’Mahony and he stuck it right in front of me, where I loved to see it, and I headed it past Joe O’Grady.”
Even as he expresses sadness at the recent death of Dave Bacuzzi, Alfie is reminded of a curious story from the preamble to that famous game.
With both clubs going for the double – they were set to meet again in the FAI Cup Final the following week – the Hibs player-manager proposed to Blues boss Shay Brennan that the two sets of players should mark the occasion for the huge crowd at the Lodge by sharing a lap of honour before kick-off.
The Waterford players declined. “You only do a lap of honour when you win something,” Alfie recalls thinking at the time.
“Hibs did their lap of honour anyway and the place went crazy,” he continues. “It was like thunderclaps coming down on top of you. And at that point, I was saying to myself, ‘I think we made a boo-boo here’.
“When the game ended the way it did, they were obviously devastated. We went to the Waterford fans, half of whom had headed for home with 20 minutes left thinking the game was over, and we all threw our shirts to the ones who were still there.
Then we did our lap of honour. And in fairness to the Cork people, they were stunned, but they gave us a great round of applause.
A week later in the Cup final, Hibs would get their revenge, a Miah Dennehy hat-trick putting paid to their rivals' double dream.
A cup medal would continue to elude Alfie Hale’s Waterford but you’ll find few who will argue with his contention that “our consistency in the league showed that, probably in most people’s eyes, we were the best team of that era.”
Hale and, yes, hearty at 80 years of age – he’d been back out on the golf course before we spoke this week – Alfie is uncomfortable with being accorded legend status. “I was just a medium fish in a small pool,” he says.
Safe to say, he’s in a minority of one with that verdict. In what was a golden age for League of Ireland football, few shone brighter than the Waterford man with the goal-den touch.