No team for the Derry game to report on yet – I’d thought that it would have been named last night, what with the match being played on Saturday, but I suppose we can expect to see it later on this evening. The Indo had the story yesterday about Pierce Hanley’s knock and the likely unavailability of Super Mac but that was old news. There don’t seem to be any other fresh injury concerns and so the main taking point will obviously be what kind of defensive lineup is selected. There’s little point speculating further at this stage on that particular issue.
Bereft of team news, I was casting my mind idly back earlier this morning on previous clashes with the Oak Leaf lads. We haven’t, of course, ever played them in the Championship before (and we’ve never played a Championship match in Ulster before, I bet) and we haven’t clashed in the league much in the 21st century either. I have, howver, two very clear memories of being at matches against Derry – one extremely sweet, the other less so – which I thought were worth sharing.
The sweet one first. This was all the way back in 1983 when Mayo’s U21s (with Johnno at the helm – a good omen or what?) squared up to Derry in the All-Ireland final. Myself and The Brother had followed that precociously talented side through Connacht – where we beat the bejaysus out of Sligo and Roscommon – and down to Ennis where, despite having Padraig Brogan unfairly sent off, we sent the Kerrymen packing in the semi-final. Then it was onto the final in Carrick-on-Shannon against Derry, where we were in control for most of the 60 minutes, until Derry hit us with a sucker punch of a goal to force a replay.
This took place up in Irvinestown in Fermanagh and a crowd of us went up on a bus to it. Going to the North was a very different experience back then – there was a proper border post (manned by the British Army) to get through and then, a few miles on, a UDR (remember them?) checkpoint. Eventually, we made it to the ground to see another tight contest between two evenly-matched teams. Derry got a goal early in the second half, at which point it was starting to look grim, but that was just what our lads needed to get them going. Almost 24 years on, the only one of our flurry of scores that I can remember was Sean Maher’s bullet of a shot that was still rising when it hit the net but I do remember that we owned the final 15 or so minutes and won comfortably enough in the end. For some odd reason, I can also recall the headline in one of the dailies (though I can’t remember which paper it was) the following day, which said “Late Mayo spurt decisive”. It sure was.
That team represented, to a large extent, a Golden Era for us and formed the backbone of the senior team that was to propel us back onto the big stage later in the Eighties. The likes of Gabriel Irwin, Peter Ford, John Maughan, John Finn, Sean Maher, Padraig Brogan and Kevin McStay were all destined to become household names in the colours over the remainder of the decade but, for me, the real star of that team was the no.10 Ger Geraghty who was one of the classiest footballers I’ve ever seen. Sadly, the times being what they were, he emigrated (to the US, I think) soon afterwards and so never got to display his sublime skills for the Mayo seniors at Croke Park.
The second memory is a more recent one, this time from 1996 when we faced Derry in a league semi-final at Croke Park. I had only just – about a week or two previously – returned to live in Ireland following an eight-year absence and I remember in my final few weeks in London plotting about my chances of seeing the lads in action again soon after returning home. (This was, remember, before the era of cheap flights when you couldn’t just hop on a plane home for any old reason, such as going to a match.) Mayo had wintered in the twilight zone of what was then (and will, once again, next year be) Division 3 of the league but, under John Maughan’s tutelage, a resurgence had begun. I remember diligently seeking out all the match reports – the local library stocked the Irish papers (no widespread availability of the Internet then either – emigration was an altogether different experience in those days) and so I was able to keep myself well versed on how things were going. Shortly before I un-emigrated, Maughan’s men ambushed Meath in the quarter-final to set up the semi-final clash at Croke Park with Derry.
I don’t have any clear details on this match stored in my mental hard drive but I do recall we were badly beaten – I think it was by eight points – and that it pissed out of the heavens all day. It was my first time being in the new Cusack Stand at Croker (that was the only bit that had been rebuilt at that stage) and while it did look impressive, the rain and the hammering we were taking from Derry took the gloss off the experience. Leaving Croker that day, I didn’t think we’d be back there later in the year but, of course, not only did we get there, we took Kerry to pieces in the semi-final (that still has to rank as my favourite Mayo match of all time, surpassing even last year’s win over the Dubs) and we came, literally, to within the bounce of a ball from capturing the Sam.
Memories, memories. Come on Johnno, time to name the team!