Mickey Linden is the finest footballer of the finest generation, a man with no limitations and a burning desire to be the best.
Universally accepted as one of the greatest players ever to grace the game, the Co Down talisman went about football in the right manner, becoming known for his pace and his ability to score with either his left or right foot.
Mickey achieved the highest honours with a quiet but assured ruthlessness and shone brightest in a team loaded with superstars. A true gentleman on and off the pitch, it was my pleasure to talk to him earlier this week...
Oisin: There was a fear that you may have picked up Covid-19 during a ski trip in March. How have you been?
Mickey: I think I had it. I was skiing and came home on March 14, the day before they closed the resort down. I had a bad headache for four or five days and flu-like symptoms, so I self-isolated and was off work and haven’t been back since. I had no energy at all and I would feel that after all these years I know my body better than most. The funny thing is I had no temperature and none of the family seemed to be affected.
Oisin: As someone who is always active, how has the coronavirus pandemic affected you?
Mickey: Well, I’m a driving instructor, so I have no work at the moment. As regards a return, I will be one of the last. The good thing is my wife is off work also, so we’ve been keeping active and walking twice a day. We’ve been getting up the Mournes, which has been great because before the lockdown work was extremely busy and it will be hectic whenever I return. Like most people, I’ve been painting the house and gardening — the garden has never looked as well. I’m getting the odd game of golf in too.
Oisin: GAA is coming back, but is it too soon or have all the correct procedures been put in place?
Mickey: I think that it’s been managed fairly well up to now. Going back with small numbers in a phased return to play is very sensible. Also, the fact that it’s going to be clubs first with what won’t be huge crowds is sensible. Let’s hope everything stays on course and there are no further spikes in the virus.
Oisin: You are seen as a hero in Down and throughout Ireland. How does that make you feel?
Mickey: To be honest, I don’t pass much remarks. It amuses the kids when people come up to me, people saying hello on holidays when they’ve never met you before. That’s the beauty about the GAA. You can meet anyone from a different county and instantly that connection is there and you can pass a couple of hours talking about football.
Oisin: Does it ever get tiresome?
Mickey: Only sometimes if someone wants to talk football and you’re in a hurry to get somewhere. Otherwise it’s fine.
Oisin: Give us a flavour of what it was like to play in those All-Ireland-winning teams.
Mickey: In the mid 1980s we had a good team. Good players like Greg Blayney, Ross Carr and DJ Kane were playing and we were not far away at all. It was only when James McCartan, Conor Deegan and Greg McCartan came in that we realised they were the missing links in the team. The difference in the 1990s was the depth of the squad — you just had to look at the players sitting on the bench to realise how strong we were. Those players coming in had won an All-Ireland minor title and they were used to winning. They were big personalities but were quiet to begin with. The voices in changing rooms around that time were DJ, Ambrose, Ross, Eamon Burns, Paddy O’Rourke and Greg. They had a lot of experience at that stage and were great leaders in their own right.
Oisin: Everybody who has won Sam has their own special memories. What are yours?
Mickey: There are lots of things in the aftermath of winning Sam that were very enjoyable and those memories are great. But for me, I go back to beating a very good Donegal team in the Ulster Final in 1991. That’s the greatest feeling you can have. Walking down the hill in Clones after winning, with the crowds on the streets, it’s just a great buzz.
Oisin: Why were Down so good back then?
Mickey: As I said, we had a great team in the 1980s. We were very close in 1986, maybe even a little bit unlucky. By the time 1991 came, we had confidence that we were in the top five or six teams in the country. With the additions to the squad, we had that extra bit of belief in the team. That’s how we were able to push on.
Oisin: You are renowned for your longevity in the game. What gave you the hunger and desire to continue throughout the decades?
Mickey: The longevity thing is mainly because I was able to avoid major injuries — no broken bones, no operations. I think I had a good make-up and build. With my pace, I was able to avoid a lot of collisions. My peripheral vision was very good also. That allowed me to see the tackles coming.
Oisin: Ryan Giggs turned to yoga to prolong his career. Did you try that near the end of your playing days?
Mickey: No. I’ve actually done some yoga since I finished playing, but when I played I didn’t practise yoga at all. I was fit all year round and my appetite never waned. I’ve been hovering around 12st and 10lb for about 30 years now.
Oisin: What major positive changes did you see in the GAA in your playing years?
Mickey: (Being allowed to take) frees from the hand was the big positive rules-wise. It sped up the game and made it a much more entertaining spectacle. It definitely helped my game, with Greg Blayney and those guys pinging passes to me.
Oisin: How frustrating has it been watching Down flatter to deceive in recent years?
Mickey: Very frustrating, a bit like the game of Gaelic football in the last number of years. It’s very rare you see a really top-quality game. There is such an emphasis now on possession that there are very few 50/50s, but they add to the entertainment value. Down have suffered from having a small team. As far as stature goes, we haven’t produced enough big men to win possession around the middle (of the park). That’s been a big part of the problem.
Oisin: Is there hope for Down going forward?
Mickey: Plenty of hope. We’ve good minor and Under-20 teams. It’s unfortunate we won’t see the Down minor team this year as they are an exceptional outfit. I hope they change the age grade back and give them the chance to play next year. I’ve managed Mayobridge minors and there is loads of talent in the county, so hopefully in five or six years these guys will have Down back challenging for major honours.
Oisin: How can Down become a top county again?
Mickey: (We can do it) if we keep bringing the youth through and improve the calibre of players and find the right manager to take them forward. In the meantime, we have a lot of work to do coaching-wise, especially at primary school level because there isn’t enough going on.
Oisin: Who was your toughest opponent?
Mickey: Kerry’s Kieran McKeever.
Oisin: He keeps popping up. I read recently that Peter Canavan said he was his toughest opponent also. What made him stand out?
Mickey: He was just a really sticky defender, always niggling and a tough boy. There were no verbals. He just got on with his job.
Oisin: Who did you love playing alongside?
Mickey: Ambrose Rogers. He was great at directing things from full-forward and he looked after me, especially in my early years.
Oisin: What is so special about the GAA?
Mickey: Pride in your community and the identity. No matter where you go, it’s easy to make connections that maybe would not be possible without the GAA.
Oisin: What player past or present would you have liked to have played alongside?
Mickey: Mikey Sheehy from Kerry. He was an artist. I played against him once. He was such a class player. He had style, vision and was a score-getter.