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Such a perfect day

FORTY YEARS ON Pictured are the Mayo team which beat Kerry in the All-Ireland U-21 Final replay of 1967. Front, from left: Tom Fitzgerald, Joe Earley, Des Griffith, Willie Loftus, Eugene Rooney, Jimmy Ryan. Back: Paddy Grehan (supporter), Seamus O’Dowd, Jim Smyth, Noel McDonnell, Tom Kean, Christy Loftus, Willie McGee, Tom Cafferkey, John Gibbons and Martin Flatley.

Such a perfect day

Forty years on, ‘four-goal Willie McGee’ remembers a glorious victory

Daniel Carey

FORTY years on, the bare statistics still jump off the page. Four goals, in an All-Ireland final, against Kerry … all scored by the one player. It’s hardly surprising that whenever Willie McGee’s name is mentioned, the conversation quickly comes round to one particular day.
On October 8, 1967, the Newport man rattled the net four times as Mayo won their first ever All-Ireland Under-21 football title. The 40th anniversary of that momentous achievement passed yesterday (Monday).
“It’s something that I’ll never forget, because it has stuck to me,” McGee told The Mayo News last week with a laugh. “It has never left me to this day, that tag. I didn’t realise the extent of the achievement until it sunk in afterwards. I remember when I came off the pitch, my late father met me with a hug and he was crying. And I was wondering really why he was crying! I suppose if your son scored four goals in an All-Ireland final, you’d be crying as well! He was crying with delight.”
Like Big Tom Byrne in 1978 and Michael John Mullin in 1985, McGee’s name will forever be linked with a piece of All-Ireland glory. Not that the celebrations after that successful replay were terribly wild – in fact, he doesn’t think there was even an official presentation of medals. Having finished the game in Ballinasloe, he togged in, showered, got something to eat and drove back to Dublin, where he was a Garda in Pearse Street.
“I went down and got the Irish Press at one o’clock on the Sunday night,” he remembers. “And on the very back page of the Irish Press, in very big, bold letters, it said: ‘Four-goal McGee a hero’. I couldn’t believe it. Needless to say, I couldn’t wait to see the Independent then!”
According to The Mayo News report of the game, all four goals were ‘brilliantly executed’. The first came within a minute of the start, as McGee ‘flung himself headlong onto a centre by Tom Fitzgerald and punched the ball … to the corner of the net’. Number two came after 25 minutes. “Running out onto a high lob dropping about 14 yards out,” The Mayo News reporter wrote, “[McGee] turned in the air, and as he was grounded … he connected with the ball, sending a left-footed shot screaming to the right-hand corner of the net.”
Just before half-time, the flame-haired attacker ‘rose to a centre by Seamus O’Dowd … and flicked the ball past a bamboozled Josie O’Brien.” Our correspondent described McGee’s final goal as ‘probably the most brilliant of the four’, and it’s the one the man himself recalls most vividly.
“I remember catching a high ball, turning, selling their full-back a dummy and burying it from a good bit out,” he recalls. “Sometimes you get the opportunity to stick away a few chances. An odd time you get them and other ones you miss, but on that particular day, I was just lucky enough to get the four strikes on cue.”
His first half hat-trick had given Mayo a nine-point half-time advantage. Yet Mayo fans remembered the drawn final, where an eight-point interval lead was wiped out and only a late Seamus O’Dowd equaliser denied the Kingdom. McGee says with a laugh that he’s ‘glad’ Kerry came back that day in Croke Park – “If they hadn’t, I’d be just an ordinary ex-Mayo footballer!”
“The two corner forwards [from the drawn game] had to replaced because they were two guys in Maynooth seminary – Micky Lally and JJ Cribben,” he added. “They were replaced by Jimmy Smyth and Des Griffith. Two Claremorris men replaced the two seminarians, and they played very well.”
Despite being domiciled on the east coast for more than four decades, McGee has never lost touch with Mayo. He’s had a long involvement with the Garda GAA Club in Dublin, but also raises funds for the Burrishoole Golf Classic. He’s a member of the Green and Red Golf Society, and served as captain two years ago. Oh, and he still gets The Mayo News every week!
Having spent 36 years in An Garda Siochána, he retired from the force in 2002. The former Detective Superintendent now works with Axa Insurance, where he specialises in fraud investigation.
He still runs into some of his old comrades.  John Gibbons, whom he lined up in front of for many years. Joe Earley, who was corner back in 1967. His club-mate Christy Loftus, the aforementioned Des Griffith, and Eugene Rooney, now based in New York. Sadly, the last time a large number of them were all together was at Joe Langan’s funeral last year.
Both McGee and Langan played their part when Mayo won the National Football League in 1970, alongside many from that ’67 Under-21 success. But the decade which followed was a barren period in Mayo senior football. Cast your eye over the names of those involved and one wonders where it all went wrong. There was a lot of talent there, McGee agrees – “It may not have been cultivated properly at the end of the day, but it was a good team.”
McGee went on to score three goals in a Connacht senior championship game against Leitrim, and no fewer than SIX in one match in Chicago. But the strikes he is most fondly remembered for happened on a wet October day in Duggan Park. And the nickname ‘six-goal Willie’ will hardly catch on at this stage.