A former pro soccer player, Mick McGovern played for QPR and Swindon before helping the Exiles stun Leitrim in 1977
By Damian Dolan
More at home on the soccer pitch than the Gaelic football variety, Mick McGovern was the unlikely hero of London’s historic 1977 Connacht Championship win over Leitrim.
Despite only taking up the sport a few years earlier, McGovern top scored for the Exiles that day in Carrick-on-Shannon, scoring 0-3 (2f).
On QPR’s books as a schoolboy, he’d signed professionally for the West London club when he was 16.
He later played for Swindon before enjoying a long and successful semi-pro career with his hometown club, Hayes.
As well as the likes of Rodney Marsh, he can also count Les Ferdinand as a former teammate – the pair reached a Wembley cup final together with Southall FC in 1986.
McGovern the experienced ex-pro, and Ferdinand the young and emerging talent. Ferdinand would go on to star for QPR, Newcastle and England.
The first London-born player to represent the Exiles in the Connacht Championship, others would follow in McGovern’s footsteps – Brian Grealish, Dennis Diggins, Senan and Paul Hehir, Adrian Moyles, Liam Gavaghan and Philip and Killian Butler, to name but a few.
Still new to Gaelic football, 15 May 1977 was a step “into the unknown” for London’s ex-professional soccer player.
“You didn’t appreciate how big it was at the time, you just got on with it,” reflects McGovern from his home in Hayes, West London. “We just weren’t expected to win.”
“The likes of Billy O’Connell and Jerry Mahoney were top players – they’d all played county before. But I was new to the whole thing – for me, it was an adventure.”
McGovern remembers the excitement of the build-up and on the day itself. Amongst the crowd were his parents, and other members of his family.
His mother came from Glenfarne, Manorhamilton, in Leitrim, and his father from Glangevlin in Cavan.
“It was a buzz walking out before the game with the band playing. It was a massive occasion and a huge game for us,” says McGovern, who turned 70 in February.
“It was an exciting time and a great experience.”
He recalls the team training away at Wormwood Scrubs in the lead up to the game. In charge was Sligoman Jim Colleary, who’d won a Railway Cup with Connacht and been on the London team two years earlier which had lost to Mayo in Castlebar.
“Jim was experienced and very good,” says McGovern, who recalls London being “quite comfortable” against Leitrim, on their way to a famous 0-9 to 0-6 victory.
Galway in the semi-finals on 12 June would prove a very different proposition, however.
“The Galway game was a massive step up from Leitrim – it was chalk and cheese. They were at a different level,” he says.
McGovern still chipped in with 0-2 in London’s 5-13 to 1-9 defeat in Ballinasloe. It would be another 36 years before the Exiles reached another Connacht semi-final.
Hayes born and bred, McGovern attended Botwell Primary School and Our Lady and St Anselm Secondary School.
Growing up, his passion was for soccer, not Gaelic football. His exploits at schoolboy level soon gained the attention of some auspicious clubs.
Arsenal and Watford were both keen on signing the young McGovern, but it was QPR who won the race. He joined the Loftus Road club in 1966 as a 15-year-old apprentice.
Arsenal rated McGovern enough to express their disappointment at his decision in a letter to the family, in which they added that he could still have a “very bright” future at the Gunners.
But QPR it was, and he was immediately the youngest member of the club’s Division 3 promotion winning squad of 1966/67. Rodney Marsh was the team’s star man.
The West London club also won the League Cup that season. The first Division 3 side to reach a cup final, QPR came from 2-0 down to beat Division 1 West Brom 3-2 in front of 100,000 at Wembley.
“I’d played a game that morning for the QPR youth side in the South-East Counties league, and then we all went to Wembley for the cup final,” says McGovern.
“It was fantastic; it was a great comeback.”
McGovern had earlier gained a level of fame when he found Marsh’s lucky St Christopher medallion, which he’d lost on the Loftus Road pitch during QPR’s League Cup semi-final win over Birmingham.
McGovern received a £10 reward from Marsh, who went on to score in the final against West Brom.
McGovern’s first-team debut came away to Plymouth Argyle on 26 December 1967 in a Division 2 league game.
“Making my debut as a youngster was a big thing. We travelled down to Plymouth by coach on Christmas Day,” he remembers.
“There were no hotels open, so we had a Christmas dinner at a farmhouse half way down.”
McGovern, still only 16, lined up in a holding midfield role that afternoon against Plymouth as QPR won 1-0. The club would finish the season in second place.
He subsequently signed pro for QPR under manager Tommy Docherty along with Ian Gillard, who went on to make nearly 500 appearances for the Hoops and was capped by England.
“It was a buzz. I only did two years as an apprentice – it should have been three – and then signed pro,” recalls Mick.
“It was a big thing. You get your blazer and slacks, and you got a bank account!”
He adds: “Tommy was great for youngsters and bringing them through. He’d give young pros a chance.”
In total, McGovern made 12 first-team appearances for QPR during the course of his Loftus Road career.
After a loan spell at Watford, he signed for Division 2 side Swindon Town for £10,000 in February 1973.
The Swindon manager was Les Allen – father of Spurs’ Clive Allen – who’d been at QPR with McGovern. He made his Swindon debut against QPR ironically.
Over the next three seasons, he scored three goals in 33 games for the Robins, while also enjoying spells at Brighton and Aldershot.
He left Swindon at the end of 1975 and joined Southern League side Hillingdon Borough, as he moved into the semi-professional game.
The 1976/77 season saw him playing for Harrow Borough in the Isthmian League Division 2.
By then, GAA had become a way of keeping up his fitness levels during the summer months, before the soccer season started up again.
McGovern’s relationship with Gaelic football began unremarkably – “just kicking a ball around” in Brookside Road in Hayes. A ground once called home by St Brendan’s GAA club.
Perhaps inevitably, he began playing a few games for the Brendan’s.
“I was a bit raw,” says McGovern. “I suppose I shouldn’t really have been playing Gaelic because you still had to sign a [soccer] contract. You wouldn’t get away with it now.”
In 1976, he helped Brendan’s to intermediate league success, and reach an intermediate championship final.
While he hadn’t grown up in the sport, like a Billy O’Connell or Jerry Mahoney, McGovern’s natural fitness and soccer skills meant he “picked it up quite quickly”.
“I loved playing Gaelic. I just wish I’d started playing it a bit earlier. Catching the ball was just a bit unusual at times,” said McGovern.
“Brendan’s always had a few hurlers in the team, and that was a good experience because they were tougher than tough.”
McGovern’s St Brendan’s teammate Eamonn Brettt also played in London’s win over Leitrim in 1977.
Brett had reached a Minor All Ireland with Mayo, before going on to play senior for the green and red – his senior championship debut came against London in ’75 in Castlebar.
He was always in awe that McGovern could reach senior level, having been introduced to the sport so late.
“Mick was a great athlete – he had speed and acceleration. I was brought up playing football in Mayo, so for him to get to that level being London born said an awful lot for his talents,” said Brett.
London’s history-making summer of 1977 over, 26-year-old McGovern signed for his hometown club Hayes that July – although he’d also help St Brendan’s win an intermediate championship later that year.
Over the course of the next eight seasons at Church Road, McGovern “bestrode Hayes’ midfield like a Colossus”, racking up 405 appearances and scoring 27 goals.
The “undisputed club captain”, he led Hayes to London Senior Cup success in 1981, and was twice named the club’s Player of the Year.
“We had a great few years – we were always classed as a good senior side. Church Road was great,” says McGovern.
Hayes commitments aside, he still managed to represent London twice more in Connacht, against Sligo in ‘78 and Galway in ’79.
He also helped Brendan’s reach a senior championship semi-final in 1978 – but minus the absent McGovern they lost to Parnell’s.
He was on the London panel to face Mayo at Ruislip in 1981 – London’s first home game in Connacht.
On 20 January, a letter from then London manager Pat Griffin notified him of his selection and urged all of those on the panel to “do everything possible” to beat Mayo.
McGovern still has the letter, delicately stored in one of several scrapbooks from his playing days – both Gaelic football and soccer.
It concluded: “Do it for the County of your adoption, your club, yourself and your family. You will never regret doing your best.”
In 1985, he joined Southall and in his first season helped the club reach the FA Vase Cup final at Wembley – 18 years after he’d watched QPR lift the League Cup there.
“I was the old man with a load of youngsters,” says McGovern, who was 35 that Wembley day. Among them was an 18-year-old Les Ferdinand.
“You could see by the way Mick conducted himself that he’d been at a pro club. He did everything properly,” Ferdinand told the Irish World.
“That was my first insight into how a professional footballer lives, and he was brilliant with all of the players, but especially the young boys coming through, encouraging us.”
“We looked up to Mick – there was a lot of respect for him.”
Ferdinand added: “On the pitch, he was a cut above the rest. He never looked flustered – he never looked like he was in trouble. Everything looked so easy for him.”
McGovern looks back on that 1985/86 season as a “fantastic one-off year”.
“Les’s goals were the main reason we got to Wembley. The semi-final was a two-legged affair against Wisbech. We drew 2-2 in the first leg at home and we were down in the dumps,” he recalls.
“One of the guys was working up there in Wisbech and he got the local paper, and they were already booking their coaches for the trip to Wembley!.”
And perhaps with good reason. Wisbech hadn’t lost at home for two years. But it was all the motivation Southall needed.
“He brought a load of papers back and plastered them up in our dressing room. We didn’t need any training from then on!,” adds McGovern.
“Les got two goals in the second leg and we won 3-1. We completely dominated them.
“Les was class; he’d just run away from people. Big clumsy centre halves would try and clump him, and he’d just bounce off him.
“Along with his football skills, he was such as physical force. He had thighs like Stuart Pearce.”
McGovern’s Wembley outing was not to have the same happy ending as QPR’s in ’68, as Halesowen lived up to their favourite’s tag to beat Southall 3-0. For Halesowen, it was their third Wembley final in four years.
But it’s still a fond memory amongst many from his soccer playing days.
When it comes to GAA, though, McGovern will always be synonymous with that day in Carrick-on-Shannon in 1977.
Compared to his London teammates that afternoon – most of whom had played county at senior, Minor or Under 21 level before setting foot on that pitch that day – McGovern’s path to Páirc Seán Mac Diarmada was definitely the one less travelled by.
“At the time you don’t take it all in, but when you look back you think ‘how did you do that?,” McGovern reflects.
Well, they did, and McGovern and the rest of that London team has enjoyed a very special place in the county’s history ever since.