Cancer won't beat my pal Liam Hayes


This is the story of a Guinness baseball hat designed for American tourists, and a Meath football legend’s battle against cancer at a time when he should be enjoying his life.

We’ll start with the hat, currently on sale in the Guinness shop that is a visitor’s Mecca in the duty free area of Dublin Airport.

I was there on Saturday morning, en route to the wonderful new Wembley Stadium for a rugby match, when the hat sent a “come and get me” plea in my direction.

I’m in the market for such a hat, you see, for my good friend Liam Hayes who, as anyone who watched Friday night’s Late Late Show online or read the Sunday Tribune can tell you, is currently battling against cancer at the ripe old age of 48.

A month or so ago, when Liam first told me of the arrival of the dreaded C word on his family doorstep in Lucan, I promised to buy him a hat. A nice and warm but tacky hat, and I’m determined to live up to my promise.

He’s already losing his hair and, like me, he’s of an age when the cold of an Irish winter can be an uncomfortable intrusion when the hair is no longer in place.

So I texted Liam from the departure lounge on Saturday morning, hours after his very honest and very moving interview with Ryan Tubridy, to tell him that I’d found the perfect hat.

Hours later, by which time I had already arrived in London, he got back to me and insisted I buy two hats exactly the same, and we’ll both wear them whenever and wherever we get out to play golf again.

We will play golf again, trust me, which is why I’m heading to one of those gift shops off Grafton Street on Friday to buy two of those Guinness hats with the weird mixture of tweed designs that have American tourist written all over them.

And yes, I will be proud to look like a Yank on the first tee in Headfort, probably sometime next summer, but only so long as Liam is beside me on that tee-box. I know he will be.

No matter what this Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma does to Liam Hayes, it’s not going to kill him. His spirit and his fight won’t let it.

He hasn’t told me as much. He doesn’t have to. I’ve known of Liam since I was 14 and he was the brilliant footballer up the road in Skryne who all of Dunshaughlin knew would go on to play for Meath long before Sean Boylan and his magical hands were ever heard of.

Even as a strappy teenager a couple of years ahead of us at St. Patrick’s Classical School in Navan, Liam Hayes was a Gaelic football star in the making and a midfielder of real promise with club, school and county.

By the time I was 16 -- and he was 18 -- we’d met and started to work together in the sports department of the Meath Chronicle, the office that started so many of us off in the world of journalism.

Liam was already a trainee on the staff of the Chronicle when I took my baby steps on the road to a lifetime’s worth of memories on the sidelines of sport’s great dramas.

My initial brief was to cover hurling matches in Meath. He covered senior club championship games -- often with the notebook in the back packet of his Skryne club shorts, so to speak.

We grew up together in that Meath Chronicle office on Market Square, shared ham salad rolls in Joe Smith’s pub, shared nights out in Diamonds and Spiders and even went to a Boomtown Rats gig together in Castlebar with two local girls who didn’t become our wives.

As his GAA star went into the ascent, so did Liam Hayes’ journalistic career. Without him I wouldn’t be annoying you on these pages today, not least because he passed the Irish Voice baton on to me all those years ago, as Liam was the original Voice sports columnist when the paper started up in 1987.

When Liam moved to the Sunday Press in the mid-‘80s, those of he left behind in Navan were desperate to follow in his footsteps and make the big move to the nationals. Thanks to Liam’s help I eventually got there, via the Sunderland Echo of all places.

Less than a year after I had left for Wearside in England, I met Liam for lunch on a long since gone Chinese restaurant on Dublin’s Westmorland Street.

I mentioned that I had applied for a job on the soon to open Irish Star and had heard nothing in return. That very afternoon Liam met the future sports editor of the Star in the lift in the Irish Press building and mentioned my name and my application.

Within a week I had an interview, within a month I had started work on Ireland’s first -- and still best -- tabloid.

Thanks to Liam I ended up at Euro ’88 and Italia ’90 and USA ’94 with the Star while he was winning All-Irelands and National Leagues with Meath and Boylan just as he had always promised to do.

Thanks to Liam I went on the road with Jack’s Army. Thanks to Liam I got the opportunity to act as a co-founder with him when he launched Ireland’s first sports paper, The Title,in 1996.

The Title was meant to be an Irish version of L’Equipe but the market here wasn’t ready for such a bold venture.