Mickey Linden – don’t over complicate a simple and beautiful game! Audio of our interview included.

After this interview with Mickey, I scored 1-8 at my next training session. I really hadn’t played like that in years and was marking a good and athletic defender too. This is not written to brag but to say the performance was fuelled by some key insights that are included among many gems of wisdom from this proud Down man.

Here’s ten of the best bits of advice from this prolific forward and 1994 Gaelic Football player of the year.

Deadly forward play:

1. You don’t have to be greedy to be great:

“I would say going into a county trial as a forward with a selfish outlook is an incorrect mindset. Better the manager sees that you took the correct option every time rather than a pot shot from 40 yards out on the wing instead. Work the percentages and play the ball into a better angle or search then pass to someone in a better position to you who can finish the score”. 

Down v Meath - All Ireland Football Final
Look up to see the best option.

Mickey also had this important advice on how to mould better attacking players as their coach.

“I find when managing teams that you have to address selfish forward play because if you don’t address it fairly quickly then they get into a bad habit of just going down their own avenue the whole time without seeing around them, particularly the young fellas.

“It can be hard to change a fella’s habits. When they’re used to doing that at under 14’s and under 16’s and then they come to minor it’s hard at that level to try and change that habit.

“You have to be harsh on them because if they don’t change at an early stage then when they go to senior, they are not going to be the same player they should be. Even though they have all the ability and skill in the world they have to have the vision to see the better option”.

2. Develop the skills of the game first and foremost – both feet kicking of notable emphasis:

“The best advice I have received from a sporting stand point and would like to pass on is what my coaches told me – just practice your skills. If I was to give advice to any young fella who is coming up it’s that cause it’s so so important to practice your skills and get better at your skills – the rest will develop. When your skills are good at a young age, you’ll always be able to make yourself stronger or able to run longer but it’s getting those skills right at a young age that will carry”.

“It’s all down to hard work and practice. Youngsters who want to excel must be working on the ground skills like the pick-up, darting runs, quick turns etc. and the gaelic skills including fist pass, shoot and kick pass especially off both feet, right foot, left foot. You know when I was growing up, we had a ball wall to practice against. So now I would encourage the lads coaching that you have to be doing this with the players on a regular basis because if you want to become them to become great at the game it’s all about using both feet. The players themselves should practice outside training. So, it’s just practice, practice, practice, practice…”

Down v Cork - GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Semi-Final
Cut across and kick with the left or go straight and pop it over with the right. It’s nice to have options!

3. Overcoming the defender’s dark arts – the first run ain’t to get the ball:

Mickey had to mark defenders who were as tough as teak and some would go through him for a shortcut. There was one slight problem they had however, they had to catch him first and with that electrifying place it wasn’t easy.

“The main defense mechanism for me was that I realised in order for me to deal with these defenders with the dark arts was that I would have to get super fit and run these guys. Because if I’m on the move they can’t hold on to my jersey, they can’t deal with my pace so if I can be on the move early that makes their job tougher. So that’s generally what I did. Just kept on the move and probably became a nightmare for any corner back because I didn’t really stand still”.

Mayobridge v Ardara
He won’t be walking for long…

“I would do a wee evasive run before getting the ball to lead the defender one way and then check back and that check back is going to get you a couple of yards to get out in front of him. If you time that perfectly when you for example see a free at midfield, you know that Greg Blayney’s gonna pick the ball up and look for you and that understanding comes from playing with somebody a long time. That’s his style of play, get the ball quick and get the ball moved in. Quick and early. When you play with somebody for 10-years or more that’s how your mindset will work. It becomes a good habit once you’ve done it many times. That’s very hard to deal with for a defender”.

Unfortunately, one famous collision against Crossmaglen’s Francie Bellew resulted in a bad injury for Mickey and one that could not be avoided by nimble footwork. He had this to say on the unfortunate incident:

“I think the bad hit was intentional. It is how I see it because he had the opportunity to put his hands out and stop me but he just turned his shoulder into me and he knew what he was doing and he took me out. Now I’m not saying it was a great ball from Benny, it was one of those balls where I was catching in the air and I was turning coming down with it but I would always feel there’s an unwritten rule you don’t go to take somebody out like that. You could do serious damage there. I certainly feel he had the opportunity to just put his hands out and shield me then stop me but he turned his shoulder into me and went straight through me”.

I asked Mikey would he mind if it was one of his own players on an opponent that made such a hit.

“Of course, I’d take them aside and say it’s not on. You don’t do that on the field. And from that particular event the rule was changed. The rule was then changed to a frontal shoulder which is now a red card and that happened after that incident. It annoyed me more that the referee didn’t penalise him. The referee on the day didn’t even give me a free I don’t think. And he didn’t penalise him at all. He didn’t get a yellow card or a red card or anything. Pat McEneany was on the sideline, he wasn’t reffing the game and he said that was a red card offense. And the ref on the day didn’t give either”.

4. How to avoid becoming a flakey confidence player:

“Generally, when I missed a chance my thought process was just forget about it and on to the next one. It never really affected me. If I hit a couple wide it wasn’t going to affect my next one. If you do let it get to you then you’re going to lose your confidence and you’re not going to be able to score the next one. Missing is one of them things that happens so just go for the next one”.

Dublin v Down - All-Ireland Football Final
Mickey had a great confidence to take defences on at pace.

In order to be a talismanic attacker then you need to have the utmost confidence in your ability. Mickey’s quote above demonstrates this. Also worthy of note from another sport is that the great basketballer Kobe Bryant holds the record for the most misses in NBA history. Imagine if he had of let those misses play on his mind? Would we even be discussing him years later…?

5. Skills first then strength to survive and thrive.

“I had a set of dumbbells since I was 14 and worked religiously with them. Later, when I went working, I was a motor mechanic. Motor mechanics are always pulling and taking off wheels or pulling at brake pads and doing all that stuff and so it’s a manual job where you’re constantly lifting and pulling all the time so that in itself gave me that toughness”.

“We had a strength and conditioning coach in my early Down days called Mike Bull. He was a pole vaulter and came into the Down set up. He did strength and conditioning, a lot of plyometrics and all that type of thing but we didn’t do any heavy weights at that stage. There was no heavy lifting or heavy squatting or anything like that. It was all light weights and even from the age of 14 or 15 I had that set of dumbbells at home and it was always arm curls, chest flies and chest press with them and that would sort of give you the upper body strength just to withstand that shoulder charge or whatever. Personally, I never really believed in heavy weights anyway. If you are quick and fast you don’t want to use too many heavy weights because it could penalise you and take the speed of you. I’d be a big believer in light weights with higher reps for gaelic football”.

Mickey Linden 32136c30
Fending off the challenges.

Mickey mentioned who was the hardest defensive player he played against and why that player’s style stifled him.

“One of the best players I marked was Robbie O’Malley – a guy from Meath. Smart guy, he would have covered my runs, would have marked in front of me and instead of looking down the field, he would have been looking at me. He would have stood off me, four or five yards and covered my runs, whenever I went to move, he had that run covered. Then when he knew the ball was coming when I was definitely going for that ball and he would cut across in front of me and at times cut the ball out. He was just a smart player and I had never had anyone do that on me before”.

Why not look for it over his head then Mickey?

“You can try and combat it that way but then you have to try and push him very far out and that ball is very hard to get from somebody out the field. It’s a very precise pass. And you have to go close to the keeper, they can cut it out if it’s not pinpoint…”

He also mentioned the best player he played against ever and also had the luck to mark. He had this funny memory of the occasion…

“The best player I played against generally speaking was probably Jack O’Shea. The engine he had, the ability he had, he could fetch ball, he could kick ball, kick points – do everything. He’s just a phenomenal player. He’ll never make a full back that’s all. It was near the end of his career and we were playing a league match down in Killorglin and I was playing full forward and they probably were experimenting. I think it was maybe about 1990 or 1989 and he was coming to the later end of his career and it just didn’t go to well for him. I think I scored 3-4 or something. But he’s still the best player I ever saw play. Apart from the fact he’s not a full back.”

Assertiveness makes for a better player and a better team:

6. Stand up and be counted:  

It was rumoured Mickey had said something along the lines of ‘I’m the best player in the country’ and to get the ball into him – I asked him if it’s true and how it had been communicated to the team.

“It was actually a team meeting in Newry before the All Ireland Semi Final in 1991 and we were gonna play Kerry. I wouldn’t really have been outspoken in the dressing room because I suppose there were a lot of leaders in that team. I just felt this is my time to stand up and show the lads I have that confidence in my own ability. I believe in myself. I felt that if I have the confidence to stand up and say this that it would give them the belief too that I am as good as anyone out there if not better and to get the ball into me because I don’t care who’s marking me. I have the speed to take on anybody. That was the point I was getting across. I hoped they would also have the same confidence in their own ability and learn from my confidence. There was truth in this rumour but it wasn’t said to Ross Carr, it was said to the whole team. Ross was the man who repeated it outside the changing room. Do you understand the point of why I side it?”

Who wouldn’t want to give the ball into such a talented forward with the self-confidence to match it…

There are other moments when Mickey regrets not saying his piece.

“It’s about having good leadership within your management team and we had John Murphy and Pete McGrath. Very very good at keeping fellas feet planted on the ground. We had an issue with it in ’92. I would have said that some fellas never got grounded after that all Ireland final and probably one of the reasons why we got knocked out in ’92 was because of that. Some fellas that were in the squad didn’t realise how hard they had to work to get to where they did the year before. You could sort of sense that in training and although it might have been talked about – I don’t think it really got through to some of them. What they had achieved last year and what they did to achieve that, I think they were thinking this is just going to happen every year. Then they realised that there is somebody coming that’s hungrier than you this year. The fact that you’ve done it before, the edge is with them and not with us. It took us two years to get the edge back again… The necessary hunger was missing with a couple of players that I felt these guys are not really tuned in here. I probably do regret not bringing that to a head earlier and I was thinking it would maybe work out on the day but it didn’t”.

7. Pride yourself on consistency:

Winning player of the year can’t be achieved off the back of 2-3 stellar performances but through delivering consistently great performances throughout a whole season.

Unlike Paul Gavin who achieved player of the year and had specifically written down that very goal at the beginning of the season, Mickey had a different approach.

“No, I didn’t have it written. My goal was just be the best I could be and make sure that every game I go and play that I have a big impact. Consistency was always a huge thing with me. I always believed that if you want to be a great player then you have to be consistent. You have to be good every game. You can’t be hot and cold. You have to be consistent in your performance and that drove me on you know. If you’re going to be the best then you have to be consistently good”.

Mickey Linden 42948c4
Muscles get tired but the will to win lives on!

I love this outlook. A nice definition of resilience is that it is passion backed with perseverance. Priding yourself on consistency shows that you value perseverance but what about the passion? How was it wearing the red and black of Down?

“It’s just pride. It’s just a great, great feeling and as a young fella that’s what you want to do. You want to play for your county and just wear that red and black. It’s just everything! And then of course if you get to wear it then you want to win an All Ireland. That’s what every player’s dream is. Jack O’Shea said it’s very unique that 30 fellas are going to walk behind the artane band and I was lucky enough to do that twice, that’s just what we all play football for”.

Just how nerve wracking is that pre-match lap with the artane band?

“I was very relaxed then. It’s just when we were in the changing room waiting to get out on the field that the butterflies would be there. Once you get out on the field, I actually enjoyed that parade around. Just took it in and thought this is fantastic and as you know the colour of the red and black it just stands out so well and it’s just an unbelievable feeling you know”.

8. Knowing when it’s best to clear the air:

Early in his Down footballing days Mickey had to deal with the fact that some forwards weren’t releasing the ball to him when he was in a better position. This may have been a case of lack of trust preventing them from doing this as Mickey wasn’t as well established at this point however it could also have been a ploy to protect or ensure their place on the team at the expense of overall performance. What to do?

“After the game, I would have said it to them. You have to get the head up and see if anything better is on. Especially if they miss two or three in a row, you’re going to have to take better options. Normally players like that – management will tell them very quickly anyway”.

Down v Meath - All Ireland Football Final
An honest group with talent leads to a performing group.

It takes confidence to provide this feedback to teammates because you don’t know how they will react. However, always remember that you are doing it for the greater good and that can help you develop into a stronger person and make your team stronger.

“It was really important you know because you have to have clear the air talks to see what’s happening and if somebody is not doing the right thing they were going to be told. You know we had characters on our team and there are no back doors on them. You were told up front very quickly. That’s a good thing! You don’t want anything hanging in the air, it’s just sorted out right away. That helped the whole bond of the team as well to know that nobody is going to accept any nonsense”.

Life after football and healthy ageing:

9. Stop stopping!

If you were active then get back at it and keep it going.

Mickey didn’t settle solely for a sporting career that began and end with Down. He still plays Gaelic Football with his club Mayobridge and up until a few years ago he was winning 60m All-Ireland sprint medals too.

Get moving and active and then keep it that way is advice he lives by for healthy ageing.

Woodie’s DIY Master Indoor Championships of Ireland

“Well I never really stopped training at any stage. I stilled played seconds football and now thirds football and I’m actually playing in a final tomorrow. I’ve always kept fit… I did a little bit of athletics but I haven’t done that this last couple of years. ”

He matches this exercise with solid efforts on nutrition and rest.

“Sleep is hugely important, I was the sort of person that needed 7 or 8 hours every night and I’m a very light sleeper so I need a dark room, a quiet room”.

And what about the grub?

“I ate fairly well. I wouldn’t be one for eating fry ups and things like that so I sort of ate well right through my career.

“Breakfast back in my Down days was probably just bran flakes and milk with some banana and blueberries in it, lunch was probably just a salad or chicken sandwich. Lucky enough I’ve got a great wife who’s also a great cook so she always looked after me well. Dinner would have been meat and veg”.

And also worthy of note was the fact that Mickey drank very little.

“I drank very little. Didn’t really drink much at all until I was after 27/28 sort of age then I’d have a couple of pints max. Even then I wouldn’t have been a big drinker. It just never sat well with me. That’s a good thing! I would have had just one or two and that’s it. Happy to leave it at that you know”.

Well with all that health seeking behaviour it’s no wonder he’s still kicking points like this then!

10. Give and get motivation from others.

It’s important to note that Mickey’s sporting passions are not just focused on his own pursuits. He gives much to Mayobridge in the form of coaching youth teams and also gives much to local parent by taking two early weekday circuit trainings for this busy demographic.

“I run a wee cicuit training class twice a week at a quarter past 6 in the morning until 7 for the local people and then I do all that circuits myself so that keeps me in good shape. I do that from September right through until June. A lot of people love it. Especially a lot of ladies, that’s the only hour they have in the day because they have to get the kids out to school, come home from school and they have to get dinners and there’s no time in the evening so that hour they have before the rush to train, they love that”.

Ireland v Australia First Test
Mickey leads by example which is probably why he has got so involved in coaching – people do as you do not as you say!

Here are his tips on healthy ageing following the caveat he gives on the danger of being inactive as you get older.

“The likes of my circuit training class are so so important to so many people. Positive local proects for local people in villages like here. That word should be put out and more projects should be funded by the government to have these facilities available for everybody to go to and at a very low cost to get more people active. The importance of that going forward is huge. Muscle wastage as you’re getting older is real so you need to be doing some sort of exercise to slow down muscle wastage because it’s a big big factor in injury. Exercise is also for your mental health as well. Just to get out and do something is so so important whether it’s walking, running, circuit training, some form of exercise. It should be promoted far more than it is”.

Mickey also mentioned the cardiac scoring of the members of the all ireland final teams in ’91 – Meath and Down players. 8 of the Down players had high calcium scores which means they would have an increased risk for coronary vessel disease and they needed a follow up consultation as did one of the Meath players. This highlights the importance of getting out and getting tested for this particularly in your 40’s and 50’s as it is better to know than bury your head in the sand which could leave you with years less of impact and wonderful memories you could have had. Click here to read more about how these tests were carried out and followed up on.

The Down 1991 Jubilee Team at Dublin v Mayo - GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Final
Mickey recieved a calcium plaque score of 0. This bodes well for his coronary vessel health.

Now it’s best to leave it in the words of the man himself.

“Live every day like it’s your last. Remember your health is your wealth – to be able to get up and to do a bit of work or walking in the mountains and the fields, you should appreciate being able to do that and it’s just a fantastic thing to be able to do. To be able to get out of bed every morning and be healthy – that’s the most important thing.”

Click play below if you want to listen to the whole interview (apologies that it drops in parts (only a very small amount) due to a little technological glitch).


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