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Dublin: 2 °C Tuesday 22 January, 2019

‘People think that football started in Ireland with Jack Charlton, but that’s simply not true’

Legendary League of Ireland striker Mick Leech looks back on his record-breaking career with Shamrock Rovers that included a brief period of swapping Milltown for Tinseltown.

Source: retroloi/YouTube

WHEN ONE OF the most prolific strikers to ever grace the League of Ireland says he regrets he never truly realised his potential, you cannot help but wonder what heights he could have scaled in his career.

Dubbed ‘the Jimmy Greaves of Irish football’, legendary Shamrock Rovers forward Mick Leech is still regarded as one of the greatest goalscorers to play in the domestic league.

His incredible ability to find space in the opposition’s box was only matched with his unwavering composure in front of goal that helped the Dubliner to 132 league goals – placing him inside the all-time top 20 League of Ireland top scorers charts.

Defenders who came up against the striker at the peak of his powers know why Leech was compared to one of England’s greatest-ever strikers, but it’s a comparison that doesn’t sit easily with the man himself.

“I never compared myself to anybody,” Leech tells The42 this week. “I just played football. Growing up I had no great ambition to play in the League of Ireland.

“I was a League of Ireland fan as a child, I thought if I ever got to play in it that it would be the height of my potential. I always just took things as they came.

“Looking back now, if I had been really ambitious I would have went to Home Farm when I was younger or one of the other top schoolboy clubs, but that just wasn’t in my nature.

“To tell you the truth, I could sleep in the changing room before a match. Other fellas would be doing all sorts getting themselves pumped up, but I was half asleep. In some respects, it worked against me.

“People said I wasn’t driven enough to further my career. But that was just the way I was. Don’t get me wrong I always wanted to win, but I was never tense before a match. I was never that sort of player or person.”

A jewel in the crown of the undisputed Cup kings of Irish football in the 1960s, Leech helped one of the most celebrated Rovers’ sides to half of their unprecedented six consecutive FAI Cup triumphs between 1964 and 1969.

Having grown up playing GAA with Rialto Gaels, Leech started playing schoolboy football when he was 14 with St Brigid’s and latterly lined out for Leinster Senior League side Ormeau, where he made his debut at the tender age of 15.

“I played GAA when I was younger,” Leech explains. “In those days the only soccer played at a young age was street soccer. You wouldn’t have had a club until you were 12 or 13.”

His impressive form for Ormeau earned him an international call-up for Ireland to travel to the European U18 Championships in 1965.

During the finals, Ireland finished top of their group ahead of Switzerland and Poland, but lost to Italy at the quarter-final stage.

Before Ireland returned home, there was a meeting with the Netherlands to decide who would finish in seventh and eighth place in the tournament, with an up-and-coming superstar catching the impressionable young striker’s eye.

“I think I did okay in the tournament. We played a Holland team that included the great Johan Cruyff and we beat them. Even at that time you could see he was an exceptional player, one of the best I’ve ever seen.

“The rest of team seemed quite average in comparison, but a lot of those players went on to play in the great Dutch teams of the 1970s.”

After his exploits with Ireland, Leech returned to Ormeau for a short period before Northampton Town asked the striker to travel to England for a trial. Everything seemed set for the big breakthrough.

“You have to remember Northampton were in the top division at the time,” Leech says. “I went over for two weeks on trial, after that they said I could go home but they would be in touch. But they never were.

“Eventually, when things started to go well with Rovers, somebody asked them what happened and they said that I never got back to them, but they never got in touch with me. That’s the bottom line.”

Not one to be easily fazed by this early setback, Leech carried on doing what came naturally to him; scoring goals. And further recognition wasn’t far away.

“When I got back from England I re-signed for Ormeau who were playing in the League of Ireland B Division at the time, and I scored a hat-trick against Shamrock Rovers. They must have seen something in me because I signed for them shortly after.”

Leech was forced to bide his time before he could force his way into the first-team picture, however, the goals still continued to come during his two months with the Rovers reserve side.

Those goals led to a first opportunity with the senior team on New Year’s Day 1967.

“I still clearly remember the day I made my debut against Dundalk. They were leading the league and I replaced Liam Tuohy who was acting as player-manager at the time.

“It was a really tough introduction for me. I only lasted for about an hour that day. To play in front of 20,000 people at Milltown wasn’t something I was used to, and after that I went back playing for the reserve side.

“I still got chances in the cup teams and I made my big breakthrough coincidentally against Dundalk, in the semi-final of the FAI Cup in Dalymount Park.

“The game finished 1-1 and I scored the goal for Rovers. The replay was in Tolka Park and the stadium was jammed to the rafters.

“Nobody else could get in I would say. There must have been at least 25,000 people there. We won 3-0 and I scored two. I would say that night was the start of my career for Rovers.”

St Patrick’s Athletic awaited Rovers in the 1967 final – the team Leech supported as a boy – but there were no divided loyalties on the pitch.

“All my family supported St Pat’s. I only lived five minutes from Richmond Park. I was either coming home with a cup medal or Pat’s were.

“I assume my family wanted me to win it but I think secretly they would have been happy if Pat’s had won too.

“I was a fanatical supporter of the club when I was a kid. Prior to signing with Rovers I used to follow them all around the country.

“You wouldn’t have had a more die-hard supporter than me. But your allegiances change. I got engrossed playing for Rovers.

“I remember going to Milltown as a supporter and it felt like the Mecca of football in this country. Every second weekend they had nearly 20,000 people. People think that football started in Ireland with Jack Charlton, but that’s simply not true. Dublin in the 1950s and 1960s was a hotbed of football.

“There was a real buzz playing in front of such a big crowd. Other players may not like that, and would feel the pressure, but it helped get the best out of me.

“Rovers even back then were the team everybody wanted to beat.

“If you went into work on a Monday, there would be great banter if Rovers lost. All the Shelbourne supporters, all the Pat’s supporters, all the Drumcondra supporters would be giving the Rovers supporters stick.

“In many cases, 50% of people were Rovers supporters and the other 50% supported the other teams. It was like the ABUs with Manchester United. It was ABR at the time; anybody but Rovers. It was a brilliant time to be involved in football here.”

Source: retroloi/YouTube

Somewhat inevitably it was Leech that netted the winner against the Saints – the first FAI Cup final to be broadcast live on television – as Rovers celebrated lifting the famous trophy for the fourth consecutive season with a dramatic 3-2 victory.

During the summer break at the end of the 1966-67 season, the Hoops swapped Milltown for Tinseltown as they were temporarily re-branded Boston Shamrock Rovers and invited to participate in the first and only season of the United Soccer Association – a forerunner for the North America Soccer League.

A dozen sides from Europe, Uruguay and Brazil such as Cagliari of Italy, Holland’s Den Haag and Aberdeen from Scotland were imported from overseas and designated a home city to generate interest with the locals and raise the standard of the game Stateside, with the hope of introducing more home-based players the following season.

“Dublin back in the 1960s was a bit of a dull town. It was an incredible opportunity,” Leech recalls.

“When I came home from the trip somebody asked me: ‘Did I go to Disneyland when I was over there?’

“I said: ‘For me it was like eight weeks in Disneyland!’”

Full-time football was mixed with marketing campaigns and rubbing shoulders with the rich and famous. It was a lot to take in for a fresh-faced young man from Dublin who was just finishing his teenage years.

“To go from Dublin to visit places like Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Houston, Detroit, Toronto, Seattle and Vancouver was unbelievable.

“When we went to Los Angeles to play Wolverhampton, one of our great actresses Maureen O’Hara met us at the airport.

“I actually was not aware of her at the time, but her father had been a director at Rovers and she used to follow the team.

“She invited the whole squad to her house. Even though I didn’t know her she was, I thought it would be rude not to go,” Leech says with a grin.

“For us lads from Ireland, it was a different world. We were playing Vancouver in Toronto. There were three of us in the lift of our hotel and an American lad asked us to press a button.

“‘You have strange accents’ he told us and we started talking.

“We told him we were over playing soccer and he said, ‘Oh, I’m playing some music.’

“I asked him ‘What’s your name?’ ‘Little Stevie ­Wonder,’ he said.

“We all started to laugh. He was massive. He looked like he was well over 6ft tall. He invited us to his concert but we couldn’t go because we were playing the next day. I always took an interest in his career after that.”

“The whole trip was fantastic, and we wanted to do well, but there was no pressure on us. Nobody was going to take great notice in how we were going to perform in the games over there.

“But the Americans really tried to get us to sell the game to the public. You name it, we probably did it. We were in fashion shows, demonstrating our skills in shopping centres – just doing anything we could to promote the game.

“There were hundreds of things we were asked to do. These were gimmicks we weren’t aware of before we went but it was all part of the experience.

“Having said all that, everybody had professional pride in what we did, even if we did win just two of our games and finish bottom of our group, it was still a unique experience.”

Although the trip to the United States helped realise some personal dreams for Leech, it provided a roadblock to what could have became the defining moment of his career.

“Prior to going away in 1967, we played West Ham in a friendly match in Dalymount and I scored a hat-trick. This was the era of Bobby Moore, Geoff Hurst and Martin Peters who were all now heroes in England after winning the World Cup.

“Just a couple of days before we were due to fly out to America, I was approached by a person on behalf of their manager, Ron Greenwood, wondering if I’d like to join the club.

“Of course I was interested, but I was told by Rovers I had to go on the tour of America as part of the contract they signed.

“I think they offered £25,000 but Rovers said they could not let me go until the competition we were playing in America was over.

“Ron Greenwood didn’t want to be waiting as the team were going to be back in pre-season training before we got back, so the move never materialised.

“I later found out that Rovers actually thought at the time they could get double the fee from a club over in America. But the whole soccer situation in America was up in the air, so that club pulled out after investors started to withdraw from the league.

“I would have liked to see what would have happened, but I loved playing for Rovers. I wasn’t desperate to make a move.

“But as I said throughout my career, my lack of ambition was something that went against me.”

While a potentially lucrative move across the Irish Sea was put to a halt, the goals kept flowing in the League of Ireland. And it was in the FAI Cup that Rovers continued to dominate.

Scoring twice in the 1968 semi-final and final, a prevailing image of that year’s showpiece was Leech patting the dejected Waterford goalkeeper, Peter Thomas, on the shoulder as the striker fired the Hoops to a comprehensive 3-0 win in front of a reported crowd of nearly 40,000 fans in Dalymount.

It was not just the volume of goals that Leech scored that made him an enduring favourite in Milltown, but important goals in big games that helped cement his legendary status.

“The goals just happened. I was an out-and-out goalscorer. I didn’t do too much outside of the box because I was told to stay up top and get goals. You can’t plan or set yourself up to score in the big games.

“I think in the 1966-67 season, I scored about 20 goals, the next year about 30 and in the 1968-89 I’m told I scored 56 goals.

“In 1970, when I went back down to 30 goals for the season, people said I was going downhill and having a bad season. That’s the life of a striker.

“Goalscoring came natural to me. Some people liked the way I played, others didn’t.

“Liam Tuohy always encouraged me. He always told me just concentrate on what I was doing and to do it the best I could. He let me get on with my job and I helped score some important goals. I have nothing but admiration for him.”

The following season was arguably the pinnacle of Leech’s career as Rovers sealed a historic sixth consecutive FAI Cup title, with Leech netting twice against Cork Celtic in the 1969 final replay.

It’s a feat made all the more remarkable when you consider that Rovers have only triumphed in the competition four times over the following four decades.

And Leech’s dominant displays that season resulted in him being named the Soccer Writers’ Association of Ireland [SWAI] Personality of the Year.

“Prior to the 1969 final I hadn’t played for six weeks, it was against Cork Celtic and I don’t think I got a touch of the ball in the first 60 minutes and I was replaced. In those days, the pitches were terrible.

“I had a bad knee, but I was delighted to give it a go in the replay. There was rain that evening, it softened the pitch and it helped me to get two goals that night. You can get lucky with the way things work out.”

International recognition deservedly arrived that season as Leech was called-up for the World Cup qualifiers against Czechoslovakia, Denmark and Hungary.

“I remember hearing the news for the first time when I was walking down O’Connell Street and the Evening Herald advertising stand said ‘Leech called into the international squad’.

“To say I was delighted would have been a complete understatement. It was only then that I realised how important it was to maximise your performance at whatever level you were playing at.

“Until then I never thought I could play for Ireland. It just wasn’t on my radar. Then after I got my first call into the side, I would be really disappointed if I wasn’t picked. It would really deflate me. There was nothing better than to be involved with the international team.”

But what should have been a dream debut was cut short after a nasty challenge by a Czech defender resulted in Leech needing 10 stitches.

“I went down the wing and the defender caught me in the thigh. He got a yellow card, but if it happened today there would be calls to ban him for life.

“In the League of Ireland the defenders were tough and hard but they wouldn’t break you up like the European lads would. They would pull you and drag you all game and spit in your face.

“We then went on to play against Hungary, which was one of the highlights of my career. In 1966, I went over to watch the World Cup in England because my aunt had a place over there.

“I went over with Noel Ryan, who later went on to become one of the founders of Crumlin United. We went to a few matches, but one of the best matches I ever watched was Hungary against Brazil.

“Hungary won 3-1 and it was the greatest display of football I’ve ever seen. They had players of unbelievable ability. Little did I know that just a couple of years later that I would be playing against them for Ireland.”

World Cup qualification eluded Ireland but the Boys in Green, with Liam Tuohy now in charge, were invited to take part in the Brazilian Independence Cup in 1972.

Leech, who won eight caps for the national team, scored his only two goals for the country in the victory over Iran and in the defeat to a Portugal side that helped eliminate Ireland from the competition.

Source: retroloi/YouTube

“Brazil had lost out on hosting the World Cup in 1970, so they decided to host this tournament and Ireland were invited over,” Leech explains.

“That was an amazing experience. It was the home of football. To play in 50,000-seater stadiums with moats around them was incredible. I had never seen anything like it in my life. It must have been for crowd control because they are so fanatical over there.”

A year later a move to Waterford ended Leech’s hugely successful seven-year stay with Rovers, with the striker yearning for a fresh start.

“Liam had actually gone back to Rovers at this stage and I felt I needed a change. I became one of the senior players and Liam also felt that I had been the club too long.

“I actually went down to Waterford, who would have been the most successful teams at the time, but they were a side in decline, even though we won a couple of cups and had some success.

“I went back to Shamrock Rovers after a couple of years away in 1976, and we won the League Cup but it was a very young team. A lot of young players were brought in. I didn’t feel the mix was right. I don’t think anybody benefited from the situation.

“John Giles then took charge of the club in 1977. I scored against Dundalk in his first game in charge, but he wanted a full-time setup. I had just got married and I was starting a family, I couldn’t risk going full-time, I had other responsibilities.”

Eamon Dumphy and John Giles John Giles and Eamon Dunphy. Source: ©INPHO

Despite his many goals, Leech failed to win a league title with Rovers, finishing runners-up in three consecutive seasons between 1969 and 1971. An achievement he acknowledges is a painful omission from his decorated CV.

And although he made a couple of appearances for Bohemians after joining midway through their league-winning 1977-78 season, he never looked for a medal at the end of the victorious campaign.

For a man that was a linchpin in one of the most celebrated Shamrock Rovers sides, to receive a medal for being a fringe player would hold no significance.

Leech finished his career with short spells at Drogheda United, his beloved St Pat’s and Dundalk before hanging up his boots.

Unsurprisingly, a move into coaching followed with Leech taking up the assistant manager role with the Lilywhites.

“I started with Dundalk, but my time with Ballyfermot United was easily the most enjoyable. We had good lads and enjoyed some success with the club, which makes it all the better.

“I also coached the Garda soccer side and we reached the first round of the FAI Cup for the first time. We went on to lose to Derry, but it was one of the biggest crowds I’ve ever seen up there for a game.

“I then took the Athlone Town job for my sins in 1990. They haven’t changed after all these years.

“We were training in Dublin. The premises I booked were never paid for. We then trained in Fairview Park after the Belvedere U11s. It was a shambles. Cheques started bouncing. Players weren’t being paid. It was a complete mess.

“I brought a good bunch of lads with me to the club. We survived in the league. I don’t know if the club wanted me for another season, I knew I didn’t want them. I also had more responsibilities with my job with Guinness so I couldn’t stay in management.”

After 30 years in football, Leech believes he could have achieved more in the game. But he still considers himself one of the lucky ones.

“Sometimes in football people get the breaks, while others don’t. My brother Bobby did his cruciate ligament playing for Rovers when he was 17. He didn’t play again for two years.

“He played with me then down in Waterford, and after a couple of weeks he did his other ligament. He missed six or seven years of playing football, and I believe he could have been an exceptional player.

“My son Mark, who also played for Shamrock Rovers, also had injury troubles. He broke his leg twice, once with Pat’s and then again at Shelbourne. When he got the second injury, he had to make a decision and focus on a career outside of football.”

Leech, who will celebrate his 70th birthday next year, is quick to downplay his legacy in the League of Ireland.

He says he just did what came easy to him – something that happens to be the hardest thing in football – putting the ball in the back of the net.

“I was somebody that enjoyed playing football. If I gave some people some special memories that makes it all the better. But I never look back at the goals or check where I am on the goals list. It’s all in the past now.”

This is Cork… there’s no way those f**kers are coming down and taking the league from us’

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