Dave Woodhall writes about a former player in the wrong place at the wrong time.
For every young unknown player who makes the step up to a big club and becomes a success, there are many more who get there and for whatever reason, make little impact before moving on, a bit older and a lot wiser. Alfie Hale was one such name. Born in Waterford on 28th August 1939, Alfie came from a footballing family. Hs father, also named Alfie, played for their hometown team as did his brothers George, Dixie and Harry, all of whom also appeared for Ireland at some level.
Alfie was a prolific goalscorer with Waterford and soon attracted attention from over the Irish Sea. Villa came in with a bid of £5,000 during the summer of 1960 and Alfie headed to Birmingham, albeit with more reluctance than most players who had made the same journey. “I didn’t want to be there. I was told by Waterford that I needed to go, because they needed the money,” he said many years later about the circumstances surrounding his transfer.
Alfie had scored on his Waterford debut and did the same for the Villa, scoring the consolation in a 3-1 defeat at Leicester towards the end of the season. He played in the following game, another defeat, this time against Manchester City. Alfie then found himself in the reserves for most of 1961-62, although he was picked for five games during the winter of 1962, and in these Villa were unbeaten. Three league games saw two wins and a draw, while Alfie played in the fourth and fifth rounds of the FA Cup, scoring in a 2-1 win over Huddersfield in round four.
However, with Bobby Thomson and Ron Wylie sharing the inside-left duties there was little opportunity for progress, particularly for a young Irish lad whose heart had never been in the club, or indeed, in Birmingham. “I didn’t like the big city, I didn’t like all the smoke. Outdoors was all my life.”
Hale later spoke of his unhappiness during his time at Villa, criticising manager Joe Mercer and his coaching staff, saying younger players were bullied by senior members of the playing staff and that anti-Irish sentiment was rife. “There was only one lad there that I could really talk to — Peter McParland, the Northern Irish international and a Scottish international, Jimmy MacEwan, who was very good to me. The players who I played with during the week wouldn’t talk to me. One guy used to give me a real doing about being a Catholic, the Pope and whatever.
“It came down to the coaching staff. They were the biggest bullies of the young lads. There was one guy in particular, he was a Scot and he didn’t like his own Scots. And he certainly didn’t like the Irish, he made that very plain. But in this day and age, it wouldn’t be tolerated at all. But we just put up with it.”
However, it has to be said that no other player from that era has ever made similar claims and there was certainly enough of an Irish influence in the team during the time for such attitudes to have been made public if they had arisen.
Hale made his international debut while he was still a Villa player, in a 3-2 home friendly defeat to Austria during April 1962. In total he won fourteen caps and scored two goals for the Republic. He moved to Doncaster Rovers on a free transfer in July 1962 and did well with the fourth division club, scoring 42 goals in three seasons. This was followed by a year with Newport County, where he scored 21 times in 34 league games, then moved back to play in Ireland. He had two further spells with Waterford, and played for several other clubs before finally retiring, well into his forties – while player-manager for Thurles Town he became the oldest goalscorer in League of Ireland history, as well as the first to score in four separate decades.
He had three spells as manager of Waterford, winning the League of Ireland Cup, and as Cork Celtic manger he won the league title. He also became a successful businessman in the Waterford area, where he still lives. His sons, Darryl and Dean, continued the family tradition by playing for the club where their father, now aged 83, remains a legend.