Born in Botany Bay, NSW, McHale moved to Victoria at the age of five and played football with Christian Brothers College, East Melbourne, then Coburg Juniors.
At his first try he was rejected by Collingwood, but then impressed in a pre-season match against star centreman Fred Leech. He became one of the most durable players of all time, stringing together 191 games in a row between 1906 and 1917. At first he was a half back, but then moved into the centre and really built his reputation.
Even early in his career he had the uncanny knack of being able to read the game and gauge his opponents. He played in Collingwood’s flag side of 1910 and was in the runner-up sides of 1905, 1911, and 1915.
He captained the side in 1912-13 and part of 1917 when the team won the flag. He was not, as legend would have it, Collingwood’s first coach. In 1912-13 he acted as captain-coach, from 1914-17 as playing coach and from 1918-49 as non-playing coach.
McHale did not concentrate on individual skills coaching – he left that to his assistants, but he could inspire the team with his speeches. A tough disciplinarian, he believed in players keeping their places and sticking to a game plan.
A key part of the McHale way was the Thursday night training session which involved full-scale match practice which he would umpire. It was a skill game. He had his eyes on particular players, and he would watch everything. The uncanny ability to assess footballers was apparently an intuitive feature of McHale’s makeup even in his playing days.
He did not like the star system and even insisted on getting the same money as his players. Under his coaching Collingwood won eight flags.