The Tommy McConville Story
Tommy McConville is arguably the greatest footballer to ever play for Dundalk FC. In 2011, two years before his sad death, Tommy spoke to Colm Murphy about his life and career.
Can you tell me about your childhood?
I was born in Father Murray Park and went to the Del La Salle. My father was an electrician by trade. He suffered from Tuberculosis and was sick a lot. My Mother worked in Halidays and was able to get me a job there in the future. I had three brothers: Eamonn, Brian and Walter.
What is your earliest football memory?
My earliest football memory was of playing in the Polo field at school. I remember playing in the Ned Bailey Cup for under 12s for the school. I was playing Gaelic at that point. I started training with the Clans. I couldn’t play soccer for a team. This was a time when the GAA rulebook included Rule 27 that forbid anybody from playing another “code”. We used to play soccer in the street after school. I think I was about 13 or 14 and we got involved with Gerry Gover down in the Fair Green. He entered a team into the Minor League and that was my first involvement with a soccer club. This was Rangers FC and I played with them at Minor League and Summer League level.
Did you enjoy school?
I was decent enough at school. But my heart was in sport. I finished primary school.
What did you do when you finished?
Myself and Jim Smyth left school together and got jobs with a cleaning company. We delivered suits to people from the cleaners for a few pound every week. We didn’t see the money at all as we had to hand it up to our mothers. But that was extra money for the house. I remember getting a job that paid 50 shillings per week more in Kinney’s in Bridge Street. This was a bakery next door. I used to take loaves and cakes up to the Eimear and other places around town. Vacancies appeared in Halidays and in Clarkes. I ended up working in Clarkes for 15 years.
How did your association with Dundalk FC begin?
After I played for Rangers U-17s, Colm Bellew was a coach at Dundalk FC at the time. He was one of the first proper coaches in the country. He asked four or five of us to come up to Oriel Park. Bank Rovers had a few players like Thomas Kelledy, Stephen Maguire and Enda O’Connor. We got into the reserves.
Brian (McConville) was two years older than me. Brian, David McArdle and Kevin Byrne played with a local team that was based around the St Malachy’s Villa’s area called Arsenal. They played in the Dublin Minor League. The three boys got a move to Blackburn Rovers. They were over there for a few years. Blackburn were a big team at the time.
Can you remember your earliest games for the first team?
I got a few first team games in the likes of the City Cup. I got a taste of the first team. I made my league debut down in Turner’s Cross against Cork Celtic. Stephen Maguire and Thomas Kelledy were in the team that day too.
Was it difficult as a “local” player?
We were naïve at that time. It was hard to break through to the first team. If anybody came down from Dubin they were in before us. So you just had to plug away. I was in the reserves for six years. Some people were telling me that I should turn my back on Dundalk FC. But I got thick. I made up my mind that I wasn’t going to give up until I got into the first team.
Six years is a long time to be patient…
Yes, but it was very hard to get into the team. The Dublin lads had much more experience having played in the Dublin minor leagues. The locals had to work much harder. But after a while you had more and more involved. That match down in Cork had three or four us involved. You also had the likes of John Murphy and Patsty McKeown playing. So other players in the Dundalk minor league saw us playing with Dundalk and thought they could make the grade too. So the standards of minor football in Dundalk improved at this point. It was around this point that Dundalk teams started to enter into the Dublin competitions. It was around this time that Brian and the lads went over to Blackburn from Arsenal. When you had players from Dundalk going to England and playing in Oriel it created a buzz around the place.
One of the players that arrived was Jimmy Hasty. What are your memories of Jimmy?
He was a great character. He had his disability but that didn’t stop him becing a great player. He was a lovely man and great fun to be about. He was never in bad form. I would tell people that his biggest asset was his throw ins! This would wind people up! Jimmy would laugh at it. He would go into a card school and deal with one hand or play snooker with a rest. He was a great character. He was down to sign for Sunderland and lost his arm in a mill accident a few weeks before he was due to go over. I have very fond memories of him. Then during the troubles he was in the wrong place at the wrong time and was shot during a spell of tit-for-tat murders. It was desperately sad. We all travelled down for the funeral.
By 1965, you were in and out of the team and you moved to Bangor in the Irish League. Can you tell me how that moved happened?
A former Dundalk player, Ted Harte, was involved in Bangor. My wife lived next door to Ted in Newry. Ted asked her to get me to ring her. He asked me what my situation was at Dundalk. I explained that I was in and out of the team. I was on amateur terms so I could walk away at any time. He offered me a chance to play for Bangor. I told him that Brian was in the same boat. We didn’t have a car at the time. It was years after that we found out – but there was a guy called Eamonn Farrell. He played with Shamrock Rovers. He was playing with Bangor at the time. He would collect us in Dundalk and bring us up. I met with Eamonn a few years ago at the FAI Cup Final – his son is the actor Colin Farrell! The closest I got to Hollywood was when we were driving to Bangor! That gave us a closer connection to the real place!
How did you enjoy that experience?
We only played about six or seven games. Dundalk wanted us back. I only agreed to return to Dundalk after they made a commitment to me to give me a fair chance in the first team. I remember that we playing mid-week against Glenavon. John Murphy was with them at the time. I played well in that game. John asked me what the story is with me and Dundalk. Jim Smith was the manager at Glenavon and John told me that Glenavon would sign me and have me playing in the first team on Saturday afternoon. I went to Tommy Rowe who was Dundalk manager and I told him I wanted away. He went into the directors and came back to tell me that I couldn’t move. His reason was that I was in the panel for Sunday’s game at Oriel Park.
That must have put you in a difficult situation?
I told him that was no good to me. I was in the panel before and they could only select two subs. I could have been sitting in a stand. He reassured me that I would get a game. I told him if I didn’t I was away. So that move was put on hold for a week. I remember playing Bohs and beating them. I played a good game and from that point I was always in the team. That was the big break.
When did you first sign professionally?
Liam Tuohy signed me as a professional. I got to know Liam very well. He was very good to me. I didn’t know anything about signing professional forms but Liam made it very easy and I got a good deal. Liam was very experienced. He had played and won everything at Rovers and had experience in England with Newcastle. He played in Europe.
And your brother also got back into the team at the same time..
Brian came back from England. Liam had never met Brian. I asked him if Brian could come up training with us. He remembered Brian from playing in the Minor league in Dublin with Arsenal. Liam was involved in Home Farm so had his finger on the pulse. So Brian came up the following Thursday for training. He was in the first team on Sunday.
Did you enjoy the Tuohy era?
It was a good time to be about the club. Tuohy was great. He was great as a footballer and great craic afterwards. Everybody respected him and was straight to the point. When we were working it was taken very seriously.
You must have impressed Liam as he was call you up for Ireland duty soon…
Tuohy selected me to the League of Ireland representative team to play the English league in 1971. This was the first representative honour I had every received. Alf Ramsey was their manager and the likes of Gordon Banks, Peter Osgood and John Redford were in the team. They were playing in the Mexico World Cup just one year before. They beat us 2-1 and I was lucky enough to play well. It’s unusual to think now, but Liam was also, while manager of Dundalk, manager of the full-Irish international team. He picked me for a friendly in Austria. There was a lot of English based players who had pulled out for this match. Paddy Mulligan was the only English based player in the team. The rest were all from the League of Ireland.
Your first European experience was against Liverpool in 1969. What are your memories of that match?
I couldn’t sleep in the build up! It was great. The first game was in Anfield. My father was born in Liverpool so he came over. He was delighted. We went around the ground and into the trophy room. We even took him to where he was baptised. We had watched Liverpool on Match of the Day on the Saturday before and there we were playing against them on the Tuesday night. They had fifteen internationals.
It finished 10-0…does that spoil the memory?
No because we learned so much. Yes, they scored ten goals against us but the difference was colossal. We knew we had to work harder to get anywhere closer to that level. That really egged me on. We were not too disappointed with it. We all enjoyed the experience. If you can’t learn from something like that then you need to stop playing football. I had to take the positives after it.
Did you meet Bill Shankly?
Well, I remember after the game. The press was hovering around and we had swapped shirts. We shut the door and just wanted to be left alone. There was a knock at the door. Hughie Fleming was Liam’s assistant and he shouted “Who is it?”. We heard this strong Scottish accent responding: “Bob Shankly”. We opened the door and he had a trolley. Two crates of beer were placed in the middle of the dressing room. He said “don’t worry about that. Nobody would have lived with my team out there tonight. Get stuck into them”. We couldn’t believe it – the great Bill Shankly telling us to enjoy ourselves. It was a lovely touch.
You were a full international and Dundalk’s best player…can you tell me what happened to make you leave the club?
It was 1973. Des Casey rang me up. He told me the club was going to go amateur. He said the club has a few assets and there was a chance to raise money if the club sold them. The only two assets he said were Turlough O’Connor and myself.
And it was Waterford United were came in for you…
The top team at the time was Waterford United. They had won six leagues out of eight. Des told me that Bohs were in for Turlough and Waterford were in for me. I said “Waterford? I’m not travelling all the way down there!” Des told me that they are very interested. He rang me back to ask me to go to Dublin Airport. Waterford were sending up a director, Richie Power, and he wanted to meet me there. So I went up not knowing how a transfer deal was organised and not knowing what I was going to do. I asked him what the bottom line was with the deal. I didn’t want to haggle. First of all he says: “I’m not allowed to leave here without signing you”. I thought that was a good sign! I asked him what the wages were. At this point I was on £25 per week here at Oriel.
He said to me “I was told that I am not allowed to go over £100 per week”.
My head started to hear the ching ching of a till!
I was trying to stay calm but my face was probably blood red. Then he says “that’s not without bonuses”.
But what about the travelling concerns?
He then said that I could travel down on the Saturday and stay overnight before the game and that all expenses would be covered. So that ended my concerns about the travelling as it meant it was just going to be every second Sunday that I needed to make the trip. I was also allowed to keep training with Dundalk during the week.
This sounds like an incredible deal!
That’s not all. I knew I was forgetting something during the meeting. Then I remembered: “What about a signing on fee?” I asked. He said “I’m not allowed to go past £1000.”. I couldn’t believe it. I had never seen £1000! I had never seen more than a few hundred. It was too good to be true.
My next words were “where do I sign?”
He then took out his wallet and handed me £50 expenses for making the trip to Dublin to meet with him. I was making £48 per week at Halidays for my weekly job at the shoe factory!
That’s an incredible story. How did your family react?
I got home and my wife said “there is a smirk on your face – what did you do? You didn’t sign did you? So I explained what the deal was. I gave her the cheque for the signing-on fee. That was the last I saw of that! I used to travel down to Waterford with Tony Mackin and Gordon Parr – a big centre-half who had played with Bristol City who flew from Bristol every week. We would pick him up at the Skylon Hotel in Dublin and then travel down to the game. We won the league title that year. It was the first league title of my career.
What was it like to play against Dundalk for Waterford?
I remember when we played against Dundalk in Oriel Park. Dundalk were at a low. We were in great form. We beat Dundalk 5-1. I went up for two corners and scored twice with two headers! They were trying to celebrate with me and I told them “leave me alone you don’t have the live here!” But I didn’t get any hassle for playing against Dundalk.
And your International career was also going well…
It was great to be involved. In 1972 we went over to Brazil to play in a “mini-World Cup”. We played in Recife and Natal on the coast. We were in a group with Portugal, Iraq and Ecuador.
Going back to your first international caps. What are your memories?
My first cap in Austria was like a League of Ireland team. The 2nd Cap against Russia was a different story. There was only a few League of Ireland players in the team. I was playing alongside Eoin Hand at the back. There was the likes of Steve Heighway and Johnny Giles in the team. I was in awe of them.
Were League of Ireland players treated differently?
There was no looking down on the League of Ireland players. They would say that we were all in this together. They kept me calm during games and helped me hugely. It was like that England game in 1971. It was my first experience of anything like that against World Cup stars. The night before the game we were watching the TV in the bar. Tuohy called me over and asked me if I was alright. I told him I was fine but was a bit nervous. He called over the barman and called two pints. I was wondering who the other pint was for. He says “get that into you” and then called another one. He said “you’ll sleep tonight now”. He was right! I slept well and was fresh as a daisy the next day. You wouldn’t get away with that now!
What was the highlight of your international career?
The French games were the highlight. We beat them in Dalymount and drew in Parc Des Princes. I remember we were invited to a Wolfe Tones concert in Paris the night before the game. There is a photograph of the Wolfe Tones with all of the Irish team at that gig on one of their album covers from that night. Ray Treacy started dancing like Michael Flatley at the gig. We were worried he’d break his ankle and miss the game. After the game we were having a few drinks in the hotel. By about 11.30 that night the Wolfe Tones came into the hotel and started playing a session. By 8 in the morning they were still playing! The French were looking at us as if we were mad. Johnny Giles was the captain and very good and keeping the players together so we could get to know each other. They were always very good to me and encouraging me to just do the simple things.
It was around this time in 1974 that you, famously, almost signed for Manchester United. Firstly, how did you learn of Manchester United’s interest?
It was after the French match in Dalymount Park. After the game, I went back to the Montrose Hotel. Shay Brennan was the Waterford manager and Frank O’Farrell was the Manchester United manager. Shay called me over and said “Would you like to go to England?” I said I’d love to go over and give it a try. He told me he had completed a deal with Frank O’Farrell and Manchester United. I couldn’t believe it. I was on top of the world. I remember Waterford were playing Shamrock Rovers on the Sunday. He told me to bring an overnight bag as I would be flying off to Manchester on the Monday for a medical. The deal was for £28,000.
So what went wrong?
Later on the week Shay told me that Waterford had reneged on the deal. I couldn’t believe it. Waterford’s directors went behind Shay Brennan’s back and told Manchester United that he had no right to agree to such a deal. It was very hard on Shay as he was a lovely man. Nobody could say a bad word about him. They demanded double the price from United for the deal to happen. United told Waterford that they wouldn’t deal with a club that reneged on a handshake between the two managers. Later on that night, Waterford contacted Old Trafford and said they would accept the original offer. United again told Waterford that they won’t deal with a club like that and the deal was off. I got wind of it on the Saturday. I didn’t go to the Rovers game. I went on strike for five weeks over it. I couldn’t play for Waterford again after what had happened.
So this is why you ended up moving to Shamrock Rovers…
Yes. In the meantime, Liam Tuohy got the manager’s job at Shamrock Rovers. He contacted me to see if I would join him at Rovers. I told him I would do anything to get out of Waterford. But I had one condition. I told Liam that I didn’t want Waterford to benefit a single penny by the deal. He wasn’t happy with that. I told him I would rather wait until the end of the year and leave for nothing. Eventually, Waterford held their hands up and agreed they made a mess of the United move. I was allowed to leave for nothing.
It must have been a terrible experience…
It was awful. I felt sorry for Shay. They really undermined him. It became ridiculous. I remember I was at home in Farndreg on a Sunday. Waterford were playing in Finn Harps that day and they drove through Dundalk. The team bus pulled up outside my house. They sent the kit-man in knock the door to see I was going to go with them. He was embarrassed. I told him to return the message that I wished them well in the game but get lost!
Tell me about your time with Shamrock Rovers?
I was there for 18 months. It was enjoyable. The Kilcoynes had taken over. I was still training with Dundalk. We won the League Cup and did well in the league. It was an uncertain time with Rovers with a lot of debate over Milltown. There was a concern that the Kilcoynes wanted to sell the ground. There was a lot of Rovers people very unhappy. They tried to get the FAI to buy the ground and there was talk of a blockade to keep them out of it.
You also enjoyed success playing in the North American Soccer League. How did you first get involved in playing in the USA?
When we won the league in 1973 in Waterford we had a big celebration. Shay rang me when I was home in Dundalk on the Monday. He told me that there was a civic reception in Waterford. I told him I didn’t want to travel all the way back down to Waterford for that. But then he told me that I should come down and bring my passport as following the reception we were going to fly from Shannon Airport across to the States to play in three or four games and celebrate the league success. That changed my mind immediately! We flew into Boston. All our expenses were covered for the games we played. We ended up in Baltimore. The manager of Baltimore was Dennis Violet. He was a Busby Babe and was about to take over at a new club called Washington Diplomats. He asked myself and a few others, like Peter Thomas, Tony Mackin and Maurice Slater, to come back over next year when the Irish season was over to play from April to August.
Was it a good deal financially?
It was a great deal. We were paid £250 per week, free flights for the family, free apartment and a car. It was a no-brainer. I was working in Halidays and had asked for time-off. They agreed the first season but the second time they refused. I quit immediately! The owners owned a hotel on Miami beach. They told us that we could stay there as long as we wanted. I remember paying $22 for the flight and staying there for a while.
And you ended up playing against Pele!
The big team at the time was New York Cosmos. Pele had joined them and they were at their peak. I was captain of the Diplomats and the day before the game we were due to meet for a photo shoot. President Gerald Ford was supposed to be helping to publicise the league and was due to be part of the photograph but he was called away on an emergency in South America. The photographs I have show me before the game with the Cosmos. There was a youth team match beforehand and I was handing him the medals so that he could put them around their necks. Of course, I got his shirt! Always get in early for the shirt!
It sounds like an amazing experience…
It was a great experience but I wouldn’t have wanted to bring up my kids there.
You ended up joining New York Apollo…
Yes, Dennis lost his job at Washington after the ownership changed and I ended up signing for Apollo. There was a lot of Dundalk lads in the league. Jackie McManus was at Boston Minutemen, Ritchie was in Denver, Terry Daly was in St Louis – we’d meet up now and again while out there.
This type of situation couldn’t possibly occur now. It must have been difficult to balance your NASL career with your League of Ireland career?
It was sometimes awkward to ensure my contract situation was right back home. I was never in contract during the summer months. I remember coming back once. I remember I had to come back to Ireland to sign forms to allow me to play in the European Cup. We were still involved in the play-offs in America. I flew home. Signed the forms, back to my Mothers, up the next day and back over to the States.
You have cleared up the incident about Manchester United..now can you clear up how you nearly signed for a Greek club?
This happened when I was back with Dundalk. I was over in the States in Washington DC. I got a phone call from Enda McGuill and Jim McLaughlin. They told me that there was an interest from AEK Athens. I didn’t know how that could have come about. I was curious about it. They told me that he had an agent in London. I told them that when I got back I would see what is what. But they told me that they were holding trials in Athens and that I would need to go over. I spoke with Denis Viollet that there was an opportunity to go full-time in Europe. There was about six days before the next Diplomats game. He got my flights sorted and I made plans to go over. However, we had a lad in the team. He had played for Newcastle and scored a good few goals for them – Paul Cannell. I told him about it and he said: “Greece – they’ll promise you everything. You’d want to be careful there. Look for the money up front. Don’t sign anything and make sure you get the money up front”. So I had that advice in my head when I went over. I flew to New York. Then over to London and then off to Athens. We used to travel to games by plane over there. I felt like I was never off a plane and here I was going half way around the world! I got to London and who was the agent? Ex-Dundalk manager John Smith! I couldn’t believe it. Nobody had told me it was him. I was shown around apartments and the training ground. I played in a trial match and played well. I was full-time and fully fit and the rest of the players were not at that standard. They offered me £6000 signing on fee, free apartment and car plus a full-time deal of £500-600 per week. So, like Paul advised, I asked for the signing on fee up front. They wanted to give me £2000 then and another £2000 at another time. The alarm bells rang with me. I said up front or I am not signing. They offered £3000 but again I demanded it all up front. They couldn’t agree to it so I said that’s fair enough and asked John to get me a direct flight back. I ended up going all over the place to get back to Washington. I was in tatters! A couple of years they got into major problems due to financial problems. FIFA fined them for not paying wages. I was always grateful to Paul Cannel’s advice. I just remember sleeping non-stop before our next game. I had no regrets with it.
It feels like it was just a matter of time before it happened. In 1975 you returned to Dundalk. How did the move happen?
Jim McLaughlin was great. I had got to know him when I was still with Rovers as I was still training in Oriel. The minute he asked me to sign I jumped at it. Even Jim chipped in to raise the money for the fee to Rovers.
What did you enjoy about Jim McLaughlin?
McLaughlin’s style was great. He had team talks but wouldn’t say much. If you weren’t doing your job you would be gone. He’d never shout or roar. He would have quiet chats with people on an individual basis. It was only on the rare occasions you’d hear him letting a roar out. He was ruthless when a player wasn’t doing their job. You’d turn up one day to find a player had been let go and a new man in his place.I remember being in the Regency Hotel across from Whitehall before one of the Cup Finals. We had a pre-match meal of tea and toast or whatever it was. McLaughlin was a bit nervous. He bummed a cigarette off Sean Byrne and he took out a small piece of paper with a list of things on it. He eventually said: “I have this list of instructions. But if you weren’t the best at what you do you wouldn’t be here. Just go out and play”. We all just looked at one another and said “alright boss” and we went out and won. He would rely on the senior players like Keely.
You won the league title in your first season back with Dundalk…
That was my second league title but it was much sweeter. We celebrated for a week. The Dublin lads can never understand it. They’d just go home after the game if they won the league with Rovers or Bohs. If they win the league with Dundalk they wouldn’t get home until Wednesday. I remember Al Finucane of Limerick telling me about losing a Cup Final to Shamrock Rovers. Rovers won and all he saw was the Rovers captain putting the cup in the back of the car and just going home. But at Dundalk it was a weeklong celebration.
Who stood out on that team for you?
Tony Cavanagh was a big part of the first league win. He was in Philadelphia with Bobby Smith who went on to play for the Cosmos. Tony was a great character and it was very sad when he passed on. I remember Sean Sheehy came to my wife’s funeral. Tony Cavanagh turned up with a stick. Sean didn’t recognise him until he went closer. “Jesus Cav – what’s with the stick? Tony said “I have heart trouble, I need a liver transplant and have diabetes…but apart from that I am fine!” That was Cav down to a tee!
And then it European Cup action against PSV Eindhoven.
This was the era of the great Dutch sides. It was great for the town. The experience of the Liverpool game was useful. We knew that they were superior. So we had to keep the ball and frustrate them. When we didn’t have the ball we went hell for leather to win it back. That’s what you learn when you play in Europe. It was a major difference from what we were used to. I remember a lot about the game. It was a terrific experience. You can’t buy memories like that.
Were you confident ahead of the match?
We thought we could do well. After that, nobody wanted to play us in Oriel. It’s not like today where you get into Europe and you play the team that finishes 4th in the league. These were the Dutch champions in the era when Dutch football was at its peak. We played some great teams. We should have beaten FC Porto in particular. We buried them but they scored from a free-kick.
In 1977 you were involved in a very controversial incident before the game with Hajduk Split. Can you explain what happened?
The problem occurred because we were not told the truth. We were heading off on the Saturday to Split. I was unemployed at the time. We were told there would be a match-fee but no expenses. Jackie McManus was the captain. He enquired about this and was told that there was no expenses for loss of wages. He was a teacher in the North. He said he couldn’t go and wished us luck. On the Saturday we got on the bus at the square and there was Jackie. I asked him what was going on and he said that they rang him and sorted it out.
We got to the airport and I asked about the issue. Again, I was told there were no expenses. I wasn’t happy with that at all – I asked them why Jackie was getting expenses and those of us on the dole were getting nothing. It wasn’t a nice situation. Mick Lawlor said that we should just go over to Split and that we would sort it out over there. I said that’s okay and agreed. The gate for the flight was opened and then a club official basically said that there was no point for anybody to go over who wasn’t going to try. I wasn’t happy with that comment and asked for my passport and left. There was a call to me to go out the following day but by then it was too late.
What were the repercussions?
The fall-out was even worse. Jackie was let go because he told me on the bus that his expenses situation was resolved and this was supposed to be secret. Tony Cavanagh was sold to Sligo as a result of it. They got the blame. I felt guilty about that. I was ready to be shipped off also. But nobody said anything to me. Nobody said anything to resolve it. The two lads were let go and that was that. It was worse because Brian scored an own-goal with a diving header in Split! A double whammy!
That situation was put into it’s proper perspective later that season when your brother Brian died a few hours after playing for Dundalk. Can you remember what happened?
The day he died we played in Richmond Park. We got back to Dundalk around 7pm. We went into the Imperial for something to eat. He wanted to go home first. We agreed to meet in Kay’s Tavern later that evening. Later on I was sitting in Kay’s and suddenly Jim McLaughlin and Enda McGuill came in the door. They called me over and brought me into the toilet. They said, “you’ll want to go out to Brian’s house”. They didn’t tell me what was going on. I went out. Brian’s daughter was on the steps crying. There was a big crowd outside the house. I didn’t know if there had been an accident or what.He had finished his dinner and about to watch television. He went into his wife Mary and asked for some Milk of Magnesia. He said he felt like he was going to explode. He collapsed while she was looking for something to give him. Later on, after the funeral I asked Doc Reilly what the story was. He told me it was a massive heart attack. Even if he had been in the hospital he wouldn’t have survived. I had to go around to MJs (a bar on Park Street) to tell my father and then around to my mothers. It was a very bad time.
You played in Dundalk’s next game. That must have been very difficult.
I didn’t really want to play. My mother and father asked me to think of what Brian would have done and told me to go out and play. I probably didn’t want to play but it helped me take my mind of it. It hadn’t sunk in. The team were great. The likes of Johnny Giles were great and organised a testimonial game. He paid for everything. He paid for people to come over from England and to stay in the Gresham.
In 1978/79, Dundalk won the Double. Was that the best team you played with?
It was easily the best back four I played with. We hardly conceded any goals in the league. We were very solid. Paddy’s job was to go for everything in the air. Dermot was very quick. But I used to tell him to give me the ball because he couldn’t play!
You continued to be selected for the League of Ireland team and made a trip in the summer of 1979 to play in Argentina. That sounds like an incredible experience…
It was amazing to play at the River Plate stadium. It was another round-robin competition. They went over to Europe and actually played in Dublin in the first game. We didn’t think it was going to be that crazy. We remembered what the atmosphere was like in the 1978 World Cup with all the ticker tape being thrown from the stands. But we were going around the streets. Every newspaper and magazine in Buenos Aires had some guy called Maradona on it. He was part of the Argentina’s World Cup youth team in 1977 but wasn’t selected in 1978 because he was too young. We didn’t know who he was. We came out onto the pitch up from below. I was standing beside this small barrel chested young man. He was captain that night at just 19 years of age. I remember Paddy Dunning wanted to take a photograph! The atmosphere was incredible. It took us forever just to get to the stadium as the game was sold out. They only beat us 1-0. It was Maradona who scored. We gave as good as we got that night. The next morning we went to Rosario. We got to the final of that tournament. I remember there was a team from the border of Chile on the Andes. We flew there and didn’t know where the plane was landing. It was like a bus stop. We beat them 3-1. Louis Kilcoyne was running the trip and we were due to go back to Ireland. Louis told us that we had to stay. They wouldn’t pay Louis the money for the game until we gave them a replay. We had to stay another two days. We decided we better let them win this game or else we would never get out of the country!
You were back in Europe…and the infamous Linfield match. What are your memories?
It was dangerous. You can’t concentrate to play football in that atmosphere. The referee was Pat Patridge. He was white as a sheet during the game. I remember half way through the second half I was at the edge of the box. In the corner of my eye I see two Gardai run across the pitch chasing a guy with a union jack. It was for about 10 seconds – the ref just waved play –on. He just wanted the game to be over. The linesman was about five yards inside the line because of what was going on behind him. At one point he called the linesman over to him. I remember somebody asked the ref how long was left. Next thing I saw was the linesman running across the pitch towards us. He was nearly at the tunnel when the referee blew the final whistle. Philip Greene of RTE wasn’t far behind them!
It must have been a very surreal experience…
We got on fine with the Linfield players. I knew Warren Feeney from my time at Waterford who played for Linfield that night. I remember the ball went out of play in front of the Linfield fans. I asked him to get the ball for us and he said “Are you mad? I said “sure they are your lot” but he said “I don’t give a damn they’ll go after me too!”.
And then you had to go to Holland for the 2nd leg.
Yes we beat Linfield in Harlam to get through to the next round. They had to pay all the expenses of the game so we didn’t stay long after the game. We were celebrating our win in the airport with a few drinks when the Linfield lads came in. They were not allowed to have a drink and they were all looking very glum. Feeney came over and said “look at that miserable shower over there”. We got him a drink and hid it so that nobody could see!
And then it was off to Malta to play Malta Hibernians.
The pitch over there was like a white tiled floor. The glare off it from the sun was very difficult. It was dangerous. I remember that after that one of the German teams played on it and because of their protest the pitch was banned from future use.
You beat them 2-1 on aggregate and that meant we had Celtic for a place in the European Cup ¼ Final…
We had belief in ourselves. That was the beauty of our team. We worked hard for each other. There were no prima donnas. Jim kept us grounded. If you had a bad day you put your hand up and got on with it. When we got our goal they panicked a bit. This wasn’t in the script. They gave us a lot more time on the ball that we thought we were going to get. Liam Devine nearly scored an equaliser too when he had a shot that just went over the bar. There was a great build up to the second leg. There was a great build up. People keep asking me about the miss but it doesn’t annoy me. I managed to buy my house with that miss – I backed Celtic! I wouldn’t miss a chance like that. Seriously though, I was in a no-go area when I got up that far in the pitch!
A few years later you also gave Tottenham Hotspur a big scare.
I remember that Tottenham were worried about coming to Dundalk. They refused to change in Oriel Park as they wanted to get in and out as quickly as possible. That didn’t offend us. This was 1981, a very bad time in the troubles. I remember on the day of the game Steve Perryman, the Spurs captain at the time, gave us a big “Alright Lads” in a cockney accent. He then made the mistake of wishing Dermot Keely luck. “Good luck??? I’ll give you good luck out on that pitch!” That was the end of the niceties! We were very unlucky in White Hart Lane. Paddy Dunning wasn’t great on his feet and it just deflected off him before Garth Crooks scored it. We were sick.
You won another league title in 1982 with another strong team…
Yes it was a strong side. We had Barry Kehoe in the team by now. Barry was a very good player. He was very unfortunate in his life. It was easier for Barry as he was going into a good team. We encouraged him not to worry about a mistake. He was able to learn from his mistakes and nobody gave out to him. He was eager to learn the game and listened. He was a great asset to the team with a great left peg. The left side of our team in 1982 was very well balanced as you had Martin Lawlor just behind him.
You played your final League of Ireland representative matches in the summer of 1982 in Brazil…
Brazil wanted to play against a European team before the World Cup. Zico scored four that night. We used to get an Irish missionary priest who could speak the lingo. We met up with him and he brought us to the hotel on the day of the Brazil game. We had trained in the morning and went back to the hotel for lunch. It was about 5 hours before the game. We sat down to relax and there was live coverage of a game on the TV. We casually asked what the game was. “That’s Brazil against Ireland,” we were told. We couldn’t believe it – that was our relaxing over! I thought, Jesus Christ we are in for a hammering! I was captain that night. The place was hopping when we arrived.
You got Zico’s jersey!
Just before the game I asked the priest what the Portuguese for jersey was. He told me “Camiseta”. I wasn’t sure if he was joking. But as the referee was tossing the coin for kick-off I said “Zico – Camiseta?” He gave me thumbs up. About five minutes into the game about four or five of our lads came near me and gave me abuse! “You b$&$*Ks McConville – I just asked Zico for his shirt and he said “No – Capitano!” I had to tell them to shut up and get on with the game!
There was also a trip to New Zealand?
We went there because, again, they wanted to play a European team before the World Cup. They had been drawn against Scotland in the World Cup and I remember Jock Stein was there to spy on them. He was with the Scottish BBC commentator Archie McPherson. We had some good crack with them that night. The travelling was unreal.
What was it like when Jim McLaughlin decided to leave the club in 1983?
He left a big void. I wasn’t particularly shocked. It looked like there was a bit of disagreement between him and the board. It’s a pity that it happened. I thought he should still be Dundalk manager long after I finished. He continued his great work at Shamrock Rovers and Derry. Dundalk should have been clever enough to realise what you have you keep. You have to remember that there were a lot of players at other clubs who wanted to come to play for us. The likes of Sean Byrne, Pop Flanagan and Keely were at St Pats. These types of lads were ringing us up or asking us on inter-league trips if we could try and get them into Oriel Park. They took a cut in wages to play for Dundalk because they wanted to win things. When you win things the money will come later. They wanted to be playing in Europe and in Cup Finals. That tells you of the calibre of player Jim McLaughlin brought in. The money was not the issue. It was the winning. He head-hunted players very well.
You finished playing at the end of the 1985-86 season and worked under Turlough O’Connor. Was that a difficult experience for you?
Turlough arrived in my last season. I had a contract and was in the first team. He took in a lot of players that he had in Athlone. It didn’t feel like a Dundalk team. He kept saying to me “Mac, remember if you can get a club we won’t stand in your way”. I remember he asked me to play for the reserves and having a disagreement with Turlough. After that game he asked me to report for Oriel Park the next day because he was starting me in the first team match. I didn’t really understand it. Then afterwards he’d remind me again that if I could get a new club to go for it. Eventually I had to say to him “look, who is going to sign me at my age?” It was my last year at Dundalk and I could not have got as good a contract anywhere else.
This sounds like a sad end to your Dundalk career?
Well, this is back a long time ago and I respect Turlough O’Connor greatly now and get on with him very well now. He had tremendous success at Dundalk and I would not take anything away from him.
When you talk about your career it’s obvious that you enjoyed every minute.
That’s absolutely true.