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Dublin: 18 °C Wednesday 5 August, 2020
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'The senior guys, they didn't like me, they didn't want an Irish guy coming over'

Waterford legend Alfie Hale reflects on his remarkable career in Irish and British football.

Hale is the only League of Ireland player to score in four separate decades.
Hale is the only League of Ireland player to score in four separate decades.

AT 80, ALFIE Hale has seen it all.

Björn Borg, Roy Keane, Alf Ramsey, Angelo Dundee, Denis Law and Arthur Ashe (who he calls “the most remarkable man I ever mat”) are just some of the names mentioned in a two-hour-plus conversation over two days.

He has pictures with most of them and he had them hanging up at the pub he owns.

“People want their photographs taken and they say: ‘Will you put my photograph up there with you?’ And it looks like I’m putting me up. So I’ve taken most of them down. I left a lovely photograph with Kevin Keegan up there and one with Pele, they’re my favourites.”

A goal for Thurles Town in May 1981 meant he became both the oldest footballer ever to score in the League of Ireland and the only player to find the net in four separate decades.

He is currently 10th on the list of all-time leading League of Ireland goalscorers with 153 goals and it could have been more had he not departed and spent six years playing in England.

In addition to 27 years as a player and 30 as a manager, Hale also established himself as a prominent businessman in Waterford. He opened a sports shop and owns a chain of pubs.

Hale remains a keen golfer and up until last season, was still attending Waterford games on a regular basis, but often finds Friday nights too cold and suspects his match-going days may be coming to an end.

“At last, I think I’m giving in to my age,” he tells The42.

***

To say Hale comes from a footballing family would be putting it mildly.

His three brothers, George, Dixie and Harry, all represented Ireland at some level. Each of them played for Waterford at some point too, as did Hale’s father (also called Alfie) and his three brothers. His two sons, Darryl and Dean, continued the family tradition of representing Waterford, while Hale ended up managing his nephew Richie at Kilkenny City.

After enjoying increasing success at schoolboy level, Hale joined Waterford and made his debut at 17. His impact was immediate, scoring on his debut at Kilcohan Park and becoming part of a team that featured Dixie and George, who made sure to protect the youngster in what could be a brutal league at the time.

In total, Hale scored five goals in his first two games for the club, which were less than 48 hours apart.

I was only a boy really,” he recalls. “I saw photographs after of the team and Waterford used to wear beautiful satin blue and white shorts. I’m sitting there and I look like a schoolboy of about 12 with men. But I didn’t feel it at the time and I quite enjoyed it.”

Hale credits Alex Stevenson — the ex-Everton and Rangers player who was also a former Irish international serving as Waterford manager at the time — with playing a big part in his development, teaching him how to “avoid tackles” among other skills.

hale2 Hale and Jimmy O'Neill with their Irish Youth Caps for a game with West Germany in 1957.

Having established himself as an important player and prolific goalscorer though, Hale endured the first major setback of his career. Just a few days before the 1959 FAI Cup final, which Waterford would ultimately lose to St Patrick’s Athletic after a replay, the young forward tore ligaments in his knee.

By the time Hale returned, the legendary former Ireland international Paddy Coad was in charge of the club as player-manager, with the youngster playing alongside his veteran counterpart in attack. It wasn’t long, however, before he was signed by Aston Villa, with £5,000 in compensation divided between Waterford and his schoolboy club, St Joseph’s.

Managed by former Everton and Arsenal star Joe Mercer, Hale didn’t actually want to go to Villa.

“I didn’t like the culture of English football. I’d say it wasn’t their fault, it’s my fault.

Having said that, Aston Villa didn’t help it at all, because I joined a club that had about 40 professionals. 20 were 28-32, they had just been promoted back to the top division. I think they had 20 more youngsters, nine schoolboy internationals, representing England and Scotland.

“[Joe Mercer] was a terrific guy and knew his football. But he was never there, which wasn’t unusual. Most of the top managers would be seen on the line smoking a pipe with a trilby hat on and a big overcoat analysing what’s going on. But from Monday to Friday, you wouldn’t see them.

“I didn’t want to be there. I didn’t want the money. I had a job at Waterford and I was enjoying it. I was part of the showband situation of the ’60s. I loved and was dating a local girl I’ve since married, and we’ve been together 58 years.

“I was told by Waterford that I needed to go, because they needed the money. Everybody had a hand in pushing me forward to take this opportunity. 

“When I went there, I didn’t like the big city, I didn’t like all the smoke, I was reared next door to Tramore, reared next door to the hurling pitch. Outdoors was all my life. They brought over my soon-to-be-wife the year afterwards to settle me in. She stayed in a house half a mile away and we got together — it didn’t make any difference and I didn’t want to play. 

“There was only one lad there that I could really talk to — Peter McParland, the Northern Irish international and a Scottish international, Jimmy MacEwan, who was very good to me. The players who I played with during the week wouldn’t talk to me. One guy used to give me a real doing about being a Catholic, the Pope and whatever. 

“I used to be seen as a Holy Joe. I was no different from anybody else. I used to look for mass, if there was a special holiday obligation or whatever. I’d be looking for a church to go to mass and it’d be: ‘Who’s that f***ing eejit and what’s he doing?’

“I was in the same dressing room as the senior pros and I asked to be put with the juniors. The junior lads I would talk to, I was no threat to [them]. The senior guys, they didn’t like me, they didn’t want an Irish guy coming over.

“I spoke to people like John Giles and he’d say ‘that would never happen at Leeds United with Don Revie and it wouldn’t happen at most clubs’.

“All the schoolboy internationals for England played once or twice for Villa, never made it in any division in football after they left. They were brilliant lads and the treatment they got there was unbelievably bad. 

“They lived outside Birmingham as well. As soon as the game was over, they were gone and I’m just sitting on my own. So there was never a great chance of socially matching up. The only guy I could do that with was [former Arsenal manager] George Graham. George was from Scotland and he wanted to be back home with his mam. I used to try looking after him and tried to look after myself [as well].

“It came down to the coaching staff. They were the biggest bullies of the young lads. There was one guy in particular, he was a Scot and he didn’t like his own Scots. And he certainly didn’t like the Irish, he made that very plain. But in this day and age, it wouldn’t be tolerated at all. But we just put up with it.

“I never enjoyed it and the few games I played with the Villa, it gave me no kick at all. I never wanted to push on.

On my time at Aston Villa, as far as statistics are concerned, I was a failure. In my head now, I know I was good enough. On my FA Cup debut, which was important, a big competition, I scored.

“On my league debut, I scored. I didn’t find any problem playing at first-team level, but I just didn’t want to [stay].

“The day I arrived back in Waterford, I said: ‘This is it, I’m back in the real world.’”

He continues: “Johnny Fullam was a great pal of mine at Shamrock Rovers. I went up to see him, because he wasn’t well in the hospital, about three weeks before he died [in 2015].

“Johnny came home from Preston North End, because he literally used to get physically sick from being homesick. He had a terrific career at Shamrock Rovers. He said to me: ‘Having been through it like we were, if you had a chance again, would you go back in these times with the money that’s available?’ I thought about it for a minute and said: ‘No, I wouldn’t’. 

But he said ‘I never settled over there’. There are so many like that. And I’m delighted for people like John O’Shea, who could go over and make a career of it and turn out brilliantly. I’ve nothing but great awe for him and what he achieved. But me is me and that’s where I am.

“People say: ‘Were you mentally strong enough?’ Mentally strong enough? I could take on anything with 100,000 people watching. It didn’t bother me one bit. So it had nothing to do with that. What it had to do with was basically, I just didn’t have anybody to connect to over there.

“In spite of all that, most of the people in the ’50s and ’60s went to England, because they couldn’t get work in Ireland. It’s not because they wanted to go there.”

soccer-charlton-athletic-v-manchester-united Man United legend Johnny Carey managed Hale for Ireland. Source: S&G and Barratts/EMPICS Sport

There are still some great memories from around this time, however. He won his first international cap playing outside right in a 3-2 loss in Dalymount Park against Austria in 1962, during former Manchester United great Johnny Carey’s time as Ireland manager. Hale would continue appearing sporadically for his country thereafter, with his final international game coming off the bench in a 1-0 win at home to Poland in 1973.

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Over the course of 14 caps, he scored two goals, with his career spanning a period from the days of the infamous selection committee, before managers such as Liam Tuohy and John Giles gained greater control over the running of the team and there was “a bit more respectability about it”. 

With Waterford struggling financially and returning home not a viable option, Hale joined fourth-tier Doncaster Rovers in 1962. While he didn’t enjoy the experience, he still managed a tally of 42 goals in 119 league appearances.

“[Years later] I met Kevin Keegan when he came to Dublin and Kevin remembered me playing. He was saying I was his favourite player at Rovers — he used to go and see me. He was born only a few miles up the road. Doncaster had turned him down for trials.”

After three years at Doncaster, in addition to a season with Wales-based Newport County, in which he managed 21 goals in 34 appearances, Hale returned to Waterford in 1966.

Waterford won the league. They brought in a lad from Dublin who was a multi-millionaire and paid exactly the same money as Aston Villa paid Waterford for me,” he explains.

Playing alongside the similarly talented and prolific Englishman Johnny Matthews, Hale became part of one of the great League of Ireland sides, scoring over 100 goals for a team that won six league titles in seven years (though he was only part of the side for five of the triumphs).

“When I came home, they said: ‘Why are you coming home?’ I said: ‘I’m coming home to play for my father. I want him to see me.’ It gave me the greatest encouragement and incentive to play football.

“I worked as a salesman on the road for years and I enjoyed doing that more so because I had the football to look forward to. One bounced off the other.”

Hale consequently enjoyed many memorable days playing alongside the likes of Al Casey, John O’Neill, Jimmy McGeough, Mick Lynch and Peter Thomas among others. 

The scope of that team’s achievement was made more remarkable by the fact that Waterford had never won the league title before that triumph, nor have they managed it since.

In addition to their remarkable collection of silverware, there were some unforgettable two-legged European Cup games, coming up against sides of the calibre of Manchester United and Celtic, losing 10-2 on aggregate in these respective ties.

wat Hale was part of the great Waterford side of the late '60s and early '70s.

Following their last league triumph in 1973, Waterford’s fortunes began to decline. After fifth and sixth-place finishes in the next two seasons, Hale parted ways with his beloved hometown club. 

The veteran star would subsequently take in stints at Cork Celtic, St Patrick’s Athletic, Limerick, Thurles Town and one last hurrah back at Waterford. His appearances at most of these teams were sporadic, however, and he was serving as player-manager with Cork Celtic, Thurles and Waterford.

Hale enjoyed some success as a manager, winning the League of Ireland with Cork Celtic in 1974 and spending a lengthy period in charge at Waterford between 1982 and 1988. He then returned to manage the club between 1991 and 1993, and also had stints as boss of Cobh Ramblers, where he signed future Manchester United star Roy Keane and gave him his debut, and Kilkenny City — the final League of Ireland club he coached between 1995 and 1999. Thereafter, he spent time helping out at local side St Joseph’s, before stepping away from an active involvement in football at around the age of 61.

If I’ve achieved anything as a manager, I have given League of Ireland debuts to at least 40-50 young Waterford lads. To me, it’s so sad — I think some of those were every bit as good as we were, but they never had the experienced players to help them and they never had the backing and somebody who believed in them. If you don’t have somebody who believes in you, you have no chance in this game. I found that out myself.

“What talents they were, but because they all played as youngsters together, they got wiped off the floor.

“They were great guys. And I get letters from America and Australia today to say: ‘Alfie, I mightn’t have done much in my [football] career, but you shaped my future.’ It’s a lovely compliment.”

***

Hale can reflect on a remarkable legacy.

“There’s a history of stuff there,” he says. “I’ve had a great life, nothing to be sorry for.”

While he has many role models to thank for his success in the game, the influence of his father in particular looms large.

“I adored him,” he says. “He was my hero in every sense, as a man, as a gentleman more than as just a football man. He played for Shamrock Rovers and Waterford, and he had little innings at Bristol City.

“But would you believe it, he never spoke to me about football, except one occasion. He came in from the pub one night. I was 17 and playing with Waterford. I didn’t have a particularly good game that day. I was sitting down listening to the radio in the house and my mother [Alice] was out in the kitchen doing something. He said to me: ‘Are you fit?’ I said: ‘I am, yeah.’ He said: ‘You didn’t look it today.’”

john-giles Hale is friendly with Ireland and Leeds legend John Giles. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Over the years, Hale developed a great friendship with John Giles. The two would travel over to Irish internationals from England together, and their somewhat like-minded fathers were a frequent topic of conversation.

“He went [to Manchester United] with his father at 14. Matt Busy met him and brought him up to The Cliff training ground. He said ‘come up, I want you to see some of the players in action’. He went up and was looking at Duncan Edwards, Bobby Charlton, Dennis Viollet, Roger Byrne and some of the greatest players that have ever played. Dickie Giles says: ‘Well son, what do you think?’ He said: ‘Dad, I don’t think I’ll be as good as these guys, I won’t be able to play.’ His father said to him: ‘What? You’re f***ing better than any of those guys out there and don’t you ever think anything else.’

“I went to Villa at nearly 20. I had the maturity of about a 12-year-old. They asked my father to come up with me. My father had never spoken to me about football in my life. But this was the first time he was going to fly. He said: ‘I’ll never travel [any other way] again anywhere.’

Joe Mercer said ‘show your dad around the stadium’. I showed him around. I was wondering about what’s going on in Tramore or whatever. My father was taking it all in. Aston Villa were one of the most famous clubs in England at the time, ahead of United and the rest of them in terms of tradition. He said: ‘What do you think?’ I said: ‘I don’t like it and I didn’t want to come over here in the first place. I don’t want to be here. I’d rather be at home.’

“He said to me: ‘You cannot let this pass you, you’ll look a fool when you go home to Waterford.’ The club you’re leaving, St Joseph’s, everybody’s depending on you to represent Waterford well.’ He said: ‘This opportunity won’t come again.’ I said: ‘I don’t want it really’. 

“‘And what did he do?’ Gilesy asked. He took off his tie, opened the collar of his shirt and took out a scapular — it’s a little thing that’s blessed by the bishops and the popes and all that. You wear it for safety. He put it around my neck and said: ‘You’ll be alright. Go on.’ And I went in and signed for Aston Villa.

“The attitude of John Giles’ father and my father, they weren’t so far apart, they both wanted the same thing for their son.

“But I’d a great love for my father, because he had a great reputation in Waterford. People often said to me he mightn’t have left you any money, but he left some legacy in this town. I felt if anything, I’d like to do what my father did and just be a good guy, do the best that you can.”

alfie-hale At 80 years of age, Hale remains an avid football fan and has been a regular attendee at Waterford games in recent years. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

The fact that Hale’s father seldom spoke to him about soccer may seem unusual by modern standards — the stereotypical image of the contemporary Irish footballing parent is the figure intensely berating his son, the referee and others from the sideline. However, he says his dad’s behaviour was not unusual for that period. 

“It’s just the era of them coming out of the Second World War, he had nine children, he had three other sons. All of us were busy playing football on the road and everything else. The men just didn’t talk to the children. At seven o’clock in the morning, he’d cycle to the local meat factory, which was about five miles away. Every evening, at seven o’clock, he’d come home shattered and be up again the next morning, cycle again, winter and summer. They didn’t have time to nourish you in any respect outside of eating. Then you got a job at 14 or 16, and helped out your mother, and that was it.

“When I came home from England, I would go and see my mother every Monday.

She used to sit in a little kitchen and [my father] used to sit in the armchair in the parlour. I’d come out and say: ‘Howya, pop?’ He’d just nod and never talk to you. I said to her: ‘Well, how did I do yesterday?’ She said, pointing at Dad: ‘He said you were good.’ My mother carried all the messages. And if I had to get a message to my father, I’d give it to my father.

“He died at 86, and between 75, when my mother died, and 86, I got closer to him. But football had nothing to do with it then — it was just a father-son relationship. The funny thing about it, as good a footballer as he was, he loved boxing and he adored racing, and Lester Piggott was his patron saint.

“When he retired after 46 years, they gave him some kind of a pension. He took it home. I remember he was sitting in the chair and he said to my mother: ‘I’m retiring today, there’s half my pension.’ He brought the other half down to the local bookmaker in the town centre and paid off his debts. And that was it.

“But my mother said he got great excitement and enjoyment out of watching me and my brothers play — he loved it. But he just never told us.”

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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