After the success of Peter Suddaby the previous season, for 1980/81 Alan Mullery thought he could pluck another solid, unspectacular player from the lower reaches of the Football League and turn him into a successful top flight player. Step forward Ray McHale, who hadn’t even played Second Division football in his career:
From the Brighton v Aston Villa match programme in December 1980:
The first Albion signing during the close season was a name well known around the lower divisions of the League but previously unknown in the First Division.
One of four nominations for the ‘Third Division Player of the Year’, named in the Players’ Division Three ‘All Star Team’ and captain of the Swindon side beaten in the League Cup semi-final, the 1979-80 season had been highly successful for the son of a Sheffield steelworker.
A move to the top division had hardly been further from Ray’s thoughts when Alan Mullery decided to sign him back in May in the deal that took Andy Rollings to Swindon. However when the chance came he decided to take his opportunity.
McHale signed as a pro for Chesterfield at the age of 21 in September 1971. After a spell with Halifax, he joined Swindon Town in 1976 where he established a reputation as a highly influential midfielder. Indeed, Albion fans may recall the match of New Year’s Day 1977 when McHale ran the midfield, helping Swindon to a 4-0 lead before referee Alan Robinson abandoned the match after 67 minutes due to an unplayable pitch. In the rescheduled game, played in May 1977, McHale’s two goals for Swindon helped to defeat Brighton 2-1, costing the Sussex club the Third Division Championship. At the Wilshire club, McHale even reaching the League Cup semi-final in 1979/80, where McHale converted a penalty at Molineux in a narrow 4-3 aggregate defeat to Wolves.
He hadn’t really been looking for a move but money was tight at Swindon so the club had decided that they could perhaps recoup some cash by selling him. He faced a choice of going to Luton or coming to the Goldstone and plumped for the opportunity to play for the first time in Division One.
However in the Swindon side he played at the central part of midfield while the superb form of Brian Horton in that position has meant little opportunity for Ray to fill that role at the Goldstone.
Says Ray, ‘I have played wide but I don’t really think I have the pace to play there at First Division level. I found it very difficult to try and adapt.’
Naturally he still has hopes of earning a regular spot in the first team but any forecast of his immediate future must be only conjecture.
Here is McHale making his Seagulls’ debut on the opening day of the season, against Wolves in a 2-0 victory:
Making up for his lack of pace, you can also see him here pulling the shirt of West Brom’s winger Peter Barnes:
McHale played the first seven matches before being dropped by Mullery. While struggling to find his feet on the pitch in Division One, he did seem to quickly settle to life in Sussex:
One of the Albion’s family men, Ray, and his wife Jacqueline have two children, 13-year-old Nadia who goes to the Tideway School in Newhaven and Andrew, aged nine, who attends the local Hodden Primary School in Peacehaven; Andrew, incidentally is a budding full-back with Saltdean Tigers.
The family pet dog Sandy, occupies much of Ray’s leisure time and he gets a real ‘kick’ out of walking with Sandy over the Downs at the back of his home.
While football is his profession Ray is tops at the Albion among the squash players and is a regular member of the Corals’ club team at the Nevill Boad courts. In fact he reckons that wife Jacqueline must be a realsquash ‘widow’ as he plays almost every evening Apart from playing highly competitively at squash he occupies a fair amount of time coaching in football. He is a full FA badge holder and has recently been helping with coaching at Sussex University He looks to a future career in the game when his playing days are over and he feels that coaching is more than just a job. He thoroughly enjoys it and works hard with the youngsters he teaches.
There are many professional footballers who spend much of their time in the lower divisions, some even who play professionally in non-League football for years. Most would give their right arm to play in the First Division.
Ray McHale is one player who has adorned the lower divisions with some grace and has then had the opportunity, at least, to try the First Division. Whether or not his future lies at the top level remains to be seen, what is certain is that Ray McHale will always have his heart in football and, talking with him, one gets the impression he will always be able to earn a living from the game he loves.
In the end, the transition from Third Division to First Division proved too much. After just 13 appearances for Brighton, Barnsley snapped McHale up for £60,000 in March 1981. He helped the Tykes put the Seagulls out of the League Cup in 1981/82 in a 4-1 pummelling before moving again, this time to Sheffield United at the end of that season.