We can all remember well those All-Ireland final defeats to Kerry but the last time we met them in the penultimate round of the championship turned out to be one of the great days we’ve had in Croke Park in recent years. I’m delighted to welcome An Spailpín Fánach back into the guest slot to provide some thoughts on that stirring day in 1996.
It hasn’t been a sixty year wait for Sam to come home to Mayo. For a long stretch of those sixty years, seeing JJ Nestor was an impossible dream, to say nothing of the other buck. One day fifteen years and one week ago changed all that, and made Mayo contenders. When Mayo beat mighty Kerry in an All-Ireland semi-final.
Christy O’Connor did a marvellously perceptive interview with John Maughan in the Irish Independent at the start of this summer. O’Connor made the point that this notion of the County Mayo waiting sixty years and counting for a fourth All-Ireland title just isn’t true.
Mayo won three Connacht titles between 1951 and 1981 – 1955, 1967 and 1969. You’re not dreaming of All-Irelands for those thirty years. You’re dreaming of still playing football when you come down from the Reek, and of nothing else.
And it was Maughan who changed that in the 1990s. It was Maughan who made the idea of a Mayo team winning an All-Ireland a realistic proposition. The Mayo teams of the 1980s suddenly began winning Nestor Cups again.
The trip to the Final in 1989 was just that – a day trip, that came from nowhere and returned to nowhere. A Nestor Cup followed by either a game loss or a humiliation in Croke Park seemed Mayo’s natural setting. And then Maughan changed the paradigm.
It goes back to one game. One game where Mayo suddenly became contenders. The events of August 11th, 1996, fifteen years and one week ago, have been swallowed by history and not given the attention they deserve, but that was the day Mayo football’s third golden era began. When Mayo played and beat Kerry in an All-Ireland semi-final.
Kerry then were not as Kerry now. Cork had dominated Munster for a decade as Kerry went through the agonies of not knowing how to replace their seventies supermen, and even suffered the humiliation of losing a Munster final to Clare – who were managed by John Maughan at that time, as history seems to forget.
But 1996 was the beginning of the Kingdom’s return. Kerry returned to Croke Park, looking forward to a handy one against the Connacht Champions and the restoration of a divine right.
But that’s not how it turned out. Kerry got a scutching that day, going down by six points, 2-13 to 1-10. Six points is a hammering. When you remember the Kerry goal was opportunistic, at best, Kerry got handed their hats in a manner that seldom happens them in Croke Park. Least of all from helpless, hapless, hopeless Mayo.
A different Kerry, of course. But Mayo are not so different this year from John Maughan’s team of the mid-nineties. Built from the back, with the artisan favoured over the artist.
It was an epic win, and a marker for the great summers to follow. It isn’t sung in Mayo though; the games that followed have negated the achievement, even though they shouldn’t. The absence of the kill doesn’t take from the sweetness of the chase.
As they know full well in the Kingdom. Kerry dismiss their defeats while Mayo treasure theirs. Kerry treasure the great days while Mayo cover their roses in the thorns of defeat.
This is not the only reason why Kerry have so few bad days and Mayo have so many, but it contributes. We are always eager to find new sticks with which to beat ourselves.
James Horan himself played that day against Kerry, fifteen years and one week ago. He scored 1-1. Horan was an ornament to Croke Park; the bigger the stage the more he turned it on. J-Ho could do worse than to dig out footage of that game and show it to his team, many of whom are too young to remember it. Sunday could be another day when a foundation for another golden era of Mayo football begins.