\"Liam

Liam Hayes

Cancer won't beat my pal Liam Hayes

\"Liam

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.

We made mistakes along the way, loads of mistakes if truth be told, and there were fraught moments when we re-mortgaged our own homes in an effort to pay the wages of those we had asked to share the dream with us.

Tensions were high at times -- he once tried to take my mobile phone off me which almost led to a complete breakdown in our relationship -- but we soldiered on, always in the belief that what we were doing would eventually pay off and make sense.

And it did, but not before we’d turned The Title into Ireland on Sunday, the full blown newspaper that is now theIrish Mail on Sunday and not before we had to sell out to Scottish Radio Holdings for the first decent offer that would keep us afloat.

Liam soldiered on with SRH for a couple of years and I left to go back to the sports beat -- I eventually ended up back at the Star -- and our paths have crossed regularly in the years since we both left The Title in other hands.

A serial entrepreneur, Liam launched the Dublin Daily and the Gazette Group, published several books including Brian Cody’s, and generally proved himself as adept as a businessman as he was as a footballer and an award winning journalist.

Along the way he’s married his delightful wife Anne, welcomed four wonderful children into the world and enjoyed his life.

About two months ago we met for a pint in a wonderful little pub on the Strawberry Beds in Dublin, a pub we used to hide in of an afternoon when it all got too much in the publishing world.

Liam was in great spirits. He had left the Gazette Group behind and was about to go full throttle into life as a publisher of Ireland’s best sports books.

Little were we to know, though, as we supped our pints of Heineken that afternoon that a soon to be discovered lump on his neck was cancerous, and a sign of a more ominous threat than he could have imagined when he first discovered it during a routine shave.

I make no apology for telling you that I cried the day he told me his cancer news. My wife’s mother died of the dreadful disease just a few short years ago, and everyone I know seems to have been touched by it in some cruel way.

Thankfully, as Late Late viewers -- you can still see it on the RTE website -- will know, Liam is going to fight this all the way.

His doctors have told him he has at least an 85% chance of survival, and already the chemotherapy and the steroids have stripped him of his hair and left him in need of that Guinness hat.

We’re having lunch on Friday, but only if a necessary check-up ahead of radiotherapy goes to plan and he can take time from his big battle to shoot the breeze with a cantankerous old gobshite like me and accept his new headwear.

I hope he makes it, not just on Friday but in this fight with a disease that puts all our moaning about the economy and deficits and bank loans into perspective.

The only thing I can definitely tell you about Liam Hayes at a time when sport seems irrelevant, is that he will beat cancer or die trying. That’s the way he’s always been.

Good luck pal. We’re here for you.

PS: Liam’s brilliant book "Out of Our Skins" has just been updated and re-published. You can find out more at www.liamhayes.ie

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