Mickey Linden was one of the greatest forwards to grace the playing fields of Down, Ulster and beyond. He had a pace and athleticism that saw him play until the age of 56 and dip his toes into athletics.
By Michael McMullan
THE day Mayobridge great Tom O’Hare brought the Sam Maguire Cup to the local school was five year-old Mickey Linden’s first memory of Gaelic football.
The sight of the glistening silver was something Linden would never forget. It was the beginning of a 23-year journey that would see him take ‘Sam’ back to Mayobridge after Down’s next triumph.
“I remember this huge cup coming to the school…the excitement and the size of it,” he recalled.
With competitive club football absent until u-14 level, Linden found other ways to plant the seeds on one of the GAA’s greatest careers. School dished up the first delight.
“Mrs Delargy, Lord have mercy on her, she got football going in the school and loved it,” Linden said. Their school football season revolved around two games with Burren.
“We played them home and away, they usually won one and we won one,” said Linden of games against a team with John ‘Shorty’ Treanor in their ranks. It was their All-Ireland and first memories of action.
The local youth club offered a range of sports. Tennis, basketball, you name it, Linden embraced them all.
After moving on to St Mark’s, Warrenpoint, he was part of Down u-14 and u-16 winning school teams as his footballing pedigree grew legs.
At home there was a huge Gaelic games’ focus. His father Eamon played for Mayobridge. His mother Isobel came from a family of 13. Some of the girls played camogie for Down, while Mickey’s uncles Mick and Ronan (Sands) shared time with him on the Down team.
“My mother was a real driving force for me at the time,” Linden said. Wherever there was a sports day, she’d ferry them along. Dromintee, Saval, any location – it didn’t matter. If there were races, Linden was never far from the action. The pace that terrorised defences on the playing fields of Ireland was always evident.
The Community Games in Mosney was another regular fixture. While Mickey was competing in the long jump, his younger brother Peter was on the Cloughmore winning football team.
“They won the All-Ireland, but I was five or six days over-age,” Mickey said of an amalgamation of Rostrevor, Burren, Warrenpoint, Mayobridge and Clonduff that had Ross Carr on board.
But Linden’s days would come by the bucketful. He would play for Down until a final appearance, coming on as a sub, 12 days shy of his 40th birthday in their drawn Ulster final with Tyrone in 2003.
He tipped away with Mayobridge seniors until 2007, his last outing being an Ulster Club exit at the hands of Dromore.
His cutting edge extended into a competitive running career and weaving his magic for Mayobridge Thirds until 2019 at the age of 56.
“I was always very quick,” Linden said of his natural athleticism. He puts his stamina down to the “mile and a half” daily run home from school.
He’d run for two telegraph poles along the road, walk until the next one, repeating the drill until he was back home, where he’d kick ball until dark.
Linden laughed at the suggestion that it was the early days of interval training long before Pete McGrath would test them to the hilt on the fields and hills of the county.
Before developing into one of the greatest forwards to grace Croke Park, he was utilised at midfield in his early years. The fact the Down teams he would play on were littered with men who played at midfield for their club stood to them in every aspect of the game.
All through his early years, Linden was the engine of Mayobridge underage teams. Silverware was sparse in a club where the flagship senior team hovered in the Down’s basement.
Their fortunes changed in Linden’s first year of minor when they won the championship with a 0-7 to 1-1 victory over Bryansford. Linden scored all but one of the ‘Bridge tally.
“It was only really when I went into the county teams and later on for Mayobridge (seniors) that I moved up into the forward line,” he outlined.
His county minor career came to a empty-handed and disappointing end. Down led 2-6 to 0-0 in the 1981 Ulster Minor semi-final, with a spot in the final with Armagh in sight.
A Down team that also included Ross Carr and Brendan ‘Bundy’ Mason were reeled back in and were holding on in the last minute.
“With a penalty and the last kick, Terence McGuckin stuck the ball in the net and Derry won by a point,” said Linden.
He had more joy at u-21 level as Down lifted the Ulster title with a two-point win over Antrim in 1984 before going under to eventual All-Ireland champions Cork who had beaten Derry in the minor decider three years earlier.
By that stage, Joe Lennon and Tony Hadden saw enough to call Linden into the senior squad, straight out of the minor grade.
“It was the days when there were three National League games before Christmas and I made my debut in a draw with Meath in late 1981 in Newcastle,” Linden recalls.
He made his Ulster Championship bow later in the season in defeat at home to Tyrone. Five points from Greg Blayney wasn’t enough to cancel out Frank McGuigan’s goal in a four-point defeat.
“I always thought whenever I was coming up that I was doing well,” said Linden of fulfilling his ambition to play for Down.
“The fact I had made the Down minors, I always felt I would go on and play county football, I wasn’t under any illusions that I wouldn’t.”
A win over Armagh in the 1983 National League final was another ingredient as Down looked to build a team to challenge at the top level.
Three years later they came close to toppling Tyrone on their way to the All-Ireland final defeat to Kerry. “Pat Donnan was doing goals and was said to have carried the ball back over the (goal) line,” Linden said of the contentious decision that turned the game.
With the sides level, 0-6 each, referee Michael Greenan’s umpires adjudged the Atticall ‘keeper to have carried Plunkett Donaghy’s hit and hope shot behind the line.
“His feet were over the line, but he always claims the ball wasn’t over the line…it was a crucial score,” Linden added.
Derry beat Down in Páirc Esler on their way to the 1987 Ulster title and 1-5 from Monaghan ace Eamonn McEneaney knocked the Mourne men out in the semi-final on the Farney County’s way to winning Ulster 12 months later.
“We had a good enough team that year (1986), but we didn’t push on to the next level. It was really when Pete (McGrath) came in that things changed,” said Linden on Down’s standing.
McGrath was involved in a litany of St Colman’s MacRory teams and managed Down minors to the 1987 All-Ireland. He knew the landscape.
“We had wee James (McCartan) and Conor Deegan coming through off that team,” said Linden of Down’s missing links.
“We had the basis of a great team there anyway with Ross and Greg. (Peter) Withnell came in to full-forward, you had Barry Breen, Eamonn Burns and Paul Higgins.”
Linden stressed the importance of the crux of their players operating at midfield for their clubs. They were streetwise, strong and comfortable on the ball.
“We had men you didn’t have to coach, they just knew how to play” Linden added.
“They were all-round footballers, they could’ve played anywhere. You could’ve put Paul Higgins at full-forward, it was that sort of a team.”
McGrath came into a team that nobody wanted, with Linden comparing it to the county’s current managerless situation.
But Pete wanted it. He knew the raw material and he had the mettle to pull the pieces together to challenge the best.
Linden recalls McGrath’s ‘unbelievable” speech when he first addressed the squad in the autumn in 1988.
“Everybody in the room bought into that and saw the passion he had for the county…we never looked back after that,” he said.
“It was the way he spoke and how he believed in the players within the county.”
It galvanised the room with everyone glancing around and now prepared to “give it a lash” on the back of McGrath’s infectious enthusiasm.
“From that (1987) minor team, James (McCartan) was something special, an exceptional player and Conor Deegan was what we needed at full-back.
“We had plenty of good all-round players, but full-back was a problem for us at the time and Conor slotted in.”
In attack, Down always had a tradition of playing the early ball into their attack. With the ball in hand, the head went up and a pass is delivered into space. The ‘one bounce’ ball forwards love was their currency of choice.
Linden name-drops Shorty Treanor and Bundy Mason as the examples of what the county were producing.
There is also the mystery of moving Ross Carr and Gary Mason from defence to their new wing-forward slots.
There is a school of thought that it was selector John Murphy’s call. Others credit McGrath.
“You’d have to ask Pete about that one,” Linden said with a laugh of the “phenomenal decision” to help shape their attack.
“You had men with great feet and brilliant free takers. They were half backs and even Gary had played at full back for a while.”
Linden hammered home a penalty as Down stepped out of the 1991 starting blocks against Armagh in Newry.
Their next outing was the defining moment, a semi-final with a Derry team Linden rated very highly – they were Down’s barometer.
Derry’s Eamonn Burns notched 1-5 as they came back from chasing the game. He side-footed Brian McGilligan’s squared pass to the net and his wonder point off the outside of his right foot had Derry on their way to Clones.
Then came a massive moment in Down’s season. When Barry Breen was awarded a free, up stepped an ice-cool Ross Carr to save Down’s bacon with a monster equaliser.
“The first game gave us the belief,” Linden insists. “When we drew with Derry that day… the belief it put into that Down team was a major, major factor for us going on to win that All-Ireland.”
In the replay, nine Carr points left it comfortable for Down before Linden tapped a late penalty over the bar in a 0-14 to 0-9 win.
“They (Derry) had such a great team. We were able to compete with them and after beating them in the replay we knew were one of the top teams,” he said.
The years of sprinting between those telegraph poles came to good use against Donegal in the final. Linden sprinted onto a thumping ball from Greg Blayney, leaving Sean Bonner and John Joe Doherty in his wake, before neatly tucking the ball under goalkeeper Gary Walsh.
The goal catapulted Down to Ulster glory and into an All-Ireland clash with a Kerry team, their ‘Golden Years’ behind them.
“The confidence was in the team and we didn’t fear Kerry,” Linden felt of a day when two Withnell goals did the trick for the Ulster champions.
Linden felt all the pressure was on Meath going into the final, after their mammoth 10-game journey that included four games to eventually get over Dublin.
In the build-up they were billed as the team that couldn’t be beaten and it took the pressure off Down.
With just a hour on the bus to Dublin, the Down men could sleep in their own beds to maintain their pre-game routine.
“Myself and Brendan McKernan would go down to St Mark’s (Warrenpoint) school and kick a few balls in the morning just to loosen up before heading to get the bus in Newry,” Linden said. It was geared at clearing the head more than anything else.
“It was a bit of a ritual, I lived in the ‘Point at the time and Brendan lived down the road from me. Everybody wants to talk about the match and the last thing you want to talk about is the match.”
After going two-nil down, Down bounced back and were 0-10 to 0-5 ahead by the time Linden took a McCartan pass six minutes into the second half. After tipping with his right foot, he turned back inside Kevin Foley to curl over with the left for his first point of the game. On top of his pace, the accuracy off either foot made Linden unmarkable with the right service.
The gusto with which Linden celebrated his first All-Ireland final point rubber-stamped Down’s dominance. It got better seconds later when Linden’s composure and vision made Barry Breen’s fisted goal.
“Meath came back at us and Colm O’Rourke coming on was a big factor,” Linden said.
The Royals were back to within two points thanks to O’Rourke’s input and a goal from Liam Hayes. Down also needed a vital save from Neil Collins to deny Bernard Flynn.
“Who knows what type of a game it would’ve been if he (O’Rourke) had started,” Linden admits.
There were no words to describe winning an All-Ireland. For Linden, the memories will last forever.
As the victory cavalcade inched its way through the throngs of fans in Newry, he recalls the “unbelievable” scenes.
“Coming down past Bridge Street and seeing it packed as far as you could see with people,” said Linden, who remembers being concerned for the safety of fans being pushed up against the side of bus.
A tour of the county would follow and a few exhausting days coming to terms with it, but Mayobridge was one of the stops in the wee hours of Tuesday morning – Linden’s special moment.
Introduced to the crowd, on the back of a lorry, on home soil, Linden remembered two people in his speech. Barney McAleenan’s advice on taking on defenders and Tom O’Hare telling him of the bravery needed to reach the top. Both stood him in good stead on the biggest stage of all.
Linden describes that Down team as “phenomenal characters” and the most “determined heads” you’d care to imagine.
“They’d nothing in their head only winning,” he stressed. “Anybody outside the team probably wouldn’t have known it, but once the door of that changing room closed everybody was on the one path.”
Down lost their Ulster and All-Ireland titles at the hands of National League champions Derry in an Casement Park cauldron the following year before being hammered in the rain of Páirc Esler in 1993.
“I just felt we got carried away with the success of ’91 and hadn’t got back down to earth for a couple of years,” Linden admits. It was that simple.
“No matter how much you say it in a changing room, people just aren’t working as hard or haven’t the same mind-set as they had when they hadn’t won it.”
Success had taken away their edge, but it was the pain they “received severely” – at the hands of Derry – that manifested into tunnel vision ahead of the 1994 season.
It would be a season where nobody could stop Down and Linden in particular. Jerome Quinn’s stats in his Ulster Gaelic Games Annual from 1994 tell it all. Of Down’s combined 4-70 over five championship games, Linden scored 0-17 from play, assisted 3-9 and was fouled for a further eight points. It was a staggering return in a season that crowned him as the undisputed player of the year.
Was there a different or more defined individual training approach that season?
“Not really,” was Linden’s response. “I just had a huge belief in my own ability at that stage in my career. I just thought that whoever was going to be on me was going to have some job to stop me.”
It wasn’t something he trumpeted, but tucked deep in his mind-set. He kept his head down and knew, with the right service, he had the tools for the trade.
“What gives you confidence going out onto the field is that you have the ability and have the training done,” Linden said.
With his pace and Greg Blayney’s telepathy, Down had their passport to wreaking havoc.
“Greg is one of these players that wins so many breaks around the middle and as soon as he wins it, it’s head up and bang,” said Linden.
“He knows I am going to be on the move and I know he is going to be looking for me, so you are one step ahead of your defender right away.”
And it just wasn’t just Blayney. Down were blessed with players to delivered the killer pass.
“It is not a 50-50 ball you’ve got to win,” he continued. “They were giving you the ball on the bounce, you are going to get it and if you have the pace to take the man on, you are away.”
The general theme to Down’s preparation centred around one word – Derry. It was time to get even and the right the wrongs.
“That spirit we had for ’91 was there, if not far more evident going into ‘94,” Linden said of their visit to Celtic Park, the home of the All-Ireland champions.
“There is no way we were losing that game, that’s just the way it was. I have never ever been in a changing room like it in my life.”
For Linden, the game was on “a knife-edge” and he knew Derry would retain the Sam Maguire Cup had they emerged as winners. That’s how much that was at stake.
Linden tortured Gary Coleman and his five first-half points from play had Derry on the ropes, with Kieran McKeever called over to close him down in the second half. Fergal McCusker squeezed home a goal to give Derry breathing space and, just like 1991, they were on their way to victory. Enter substitute Ciaran McCabe. After taking a pass from Linden he crashed the ball to the net to win the game with a landmark moment.
Monaghan, Tyrone and Cork were all swept aside with relative ease on their way to an All-Ireland final meeting with Dublin.
“To beat Dublin in Croke Park was a huge challenge, but I’d say we were favourites going into that match,” was Linden’s take on the 1994 final.
With the core of their 1991 team on board, and having ousted Derry, it left them in pole position.
They needed another Neil Collins intervention to deny Charlie Redmond from a penalty and Linden to put James McCartan through for the easiest of finishes to score Down’s goal.
“I will always say the first one is the sweetest,” said Linden, comparing his two All-Ireland medals.
“You have longed for it and the second one was extra-sweet for me because I had such a good year, but I would still go back to the first one.”
He doesn’t think Down should’ve added a third All-Ireland title during his era. Other players maybe have other ideas, but he’s happy with his lot.
Linden’s county career continued until he was 2003 without any more silverware, but a promising Mayobridge side were on the title trail in search of a first O’Hare Cup since their second title in 1919.
Their journey was rags to riches with Linden winning every league medal as they build from Division Four to the top of the tree.
“The winning minor team of 1980 was the backbone of the senior team over the next ten years,” said Linden of a group who were the nearly men in the cut and thrust of the championship.
“We were beaten in about maybe seven semi-finals over 15 years, my heart was broke and I thought we’d never get one, but ’99 changed all that.”
Taking a successful Downpatrick team to a semi-final replay and the 1998 final defeat to Rostrevor were the moments they’d glimpse into the winning enclosure without getting in.
Everything changed in 1999 on the back of another minor title with a team that provided Benny Coulter, Mickey Walsh, Brendan Grant, Ronan Sexton and Ronan O’Hare from Down minors’ All-Ireland winning formula.
“That team totally transformed us and the success of the club,” Linden said of their influence over the next decade.
“Those players changed the balance of the team. Benny, Mickey, Ronan (Sexton) and Brendan all played senior county.
“The talent of Benny at that age, he could play anywhere and Mickey Walsh was the same. He played centre half forward, had vision and he could kick points,” said Linden, who put him in the same bracket as Greg Blayney.
“He (Walsh) got injured and didn’t fulfil his potential at county level, but he was phenomenal for us.”
After a career as a ruthless assassin, Linden was the playmaker as Mayobridge got the monkey off their back in a 0-14 to 0-8 win over Burren at a windy Newcastle.
“I was 36 at the time and was so delighted to get over the line and win one,” said Linden, who added another six senior medals and retired before their five-in-a-row was complete with their last in in 2008.
He ranks 2001 and losing to eventual All-Ireland champions Ballinderry as their best chance of Ulster success
Three years later, as player-manager, Linden shipped a heavy Francie Bellew challenge in their second Ulster final.
“I only saw the first half, I was carried off and was in the Royal (hospital) for the rest of it,” he said. “I remember nothing and don’t want to.
“They (Crossmaglen) were an exceptional team at that time…it was crazy, like a county team. We weren’t far away and were unfortunate against Ballinderry, I suppose that was our best chance.”
In the years that followed, Linden was lighting it up for the reserves team and despite interest from senior manager Eamonn McEneaney, a return to the senior team never happened.
But Linden’s sporting journey was nowhere near finished. When he was touching 40, a chat with Masters’ running sensation Patsy Forbes at a GAA Writers’ function in Donegal planted a seed that led Linden to the starting line of Belfast’s Mary Peters’ track.
A runner up spot made him ponder his chances and he armed himself with a conditioning programme from Mayobridge man Michael Walsh.
“I started to work a bit on it. I went down to the Masters’ Championships down Portlaoise. I won a few medals at that. I did that for about 10 years and I enjoyed that,” Linden said of his new lease of life alongside a club football career that was heading towards Mayobridge Thirds’ team.
“One or two” athletics events fitted snugly around Linden’s football. It allowed him to compete on the national masters’ circuit.
“I was stronger at the shorter event, the 60m than at the 100m,” Linden pointed out. “When I was 50, I set a new Irish record (7.86 seconds) for a 50-year-old at 60m in Portlaoise.
“I thought I may as well go ahead and compete in the World Championships when I’m at it, so I went over to Budapest and got to the semi-final (with 7.88) which I was delighted with.”
With nothing left to prove, the running was parked, but football continued.
Twice a week, he’d train for Mayobridge Thirds with a game every weekend. He was among the “older boys” in a team used to offer recent minor graduates an avenue into senior football.
An enjoyable conclusion took Linden up as far as the end of the 2019 season and a Premier Reserve final win over Saval in Ballyholland, his last ever game for the ‘Bridge.
There weren’t many boxes he hadn’t ticked and he even found time for involvement with the Ireland International Rules’ team under Pete McGrath.
“That was unbelievable. I was coaching the team, taking the warm-up and acting as the runner during games,” he said.
During his playing days, Colm O’Rourke had asked him on board, but a relegation game for Mayobridge was a much more important autumn fixture in the calendar.
“I didn’t care, that sort of game isn’t ideal for a light corner forward,” he laughed.
Linden’s career didn’t need it. He had “absolutely” no regrets from a stellar career, something the tone of his voice backs up.
“There were a hell of a lot of bad days, but the few good ones you have make up for them all,” he modestly concluded.
“Every time you are beat in a championship, no matter which it is, is a devastating blow to you for weeks…those days you get over the line and get a bit of success make up for it all.”
The boots were “polished off” last weekend for a penalty kick fundraiser in memory of his former Down u-21 captain Martin Lynch.
That’s where his involvement ends. There are no more exhibition games in the pipeline. The golf clubs are his new companions to give one Gaelic football’s greatest exponents an competitive outlet.
In a play on words from Toyota’s marketing slogan of the mid-nineties, the Down banner at the back of the Canal End terrace in the summer of ’94 said it all – the man in front is Mickey Linden.