Ahead of Kiltane’s big day out at Croke Park this coming Sunday, this guest piece by Roger Milla, which was first published on the site in September 2011, is worthy of a second airing.
Photo: @pbrogan1 via Twitter
At the age of four, young lads are taken down to the park in Bangor Erris and taught to solo the ball, to pick it up at speed, to hand pass, to field and to challenge – the skills of our game. It is no different throughout Erris and, having taught these skills in Germany, I know that there is a connection between all of us who have been so inculcated. But some were born merely to participate and others to dominate and so with thanks to our aptly named host blogger I would like to give you my memories of the men who dominated my youth even more than Liam Brady, John Barnes, Mark Knopfler and Bruce Springsteen.
It’s a Munster championship day in Killarney and the streets are packed with Kerry supporters, you duck into The Tatler Jack for a pint or two and admire the jerseys which adorn the walls, the Kerry greats and the respected opponents. Immediately you see Gabriel Irwin’s jersey and of course further on hangs, as is his due, the jersey of the great Willie Joe Padden. Surely any Mayoman would feel the swelling of the chest just as I did, but an extra wave of pressure to the cavity came as I knew that these were Erris men like me. To find that they were thought of as exceptional by Kerry supporters was a source of great pride – yes, they were always my heroes but surely a hero held in high regard by the foe is the greatest hero of all?
I must confess that when Gabriel Irwin broke into the Mayo team he wasn’t really on my radar. He hadn’t attended school in Belmullet, played for the parish of Glenamoy (which played junior football when they could get a team together at all) and what’s more Eugene Lavin was a fine guardian for the Green and Red at the time. All the better when he proved to be a gifted custodian in the massive games that were the Connacht finals, the All-Ireland semi and the All-Ireland final of ’89. It was always his agility which impressed me the many times I saw him play for Mayo: he pulled off saves that would have impressed any watching soccer scout. He served us fantastically well in those four or five years as Mayo’s number one and I am proud to say he is a fellow Erris man.
And as for Willie Joe, what more could possibly be written? His iconic bandage in our semi-final in ‘89 summed up how he served our county, his All-Star awards to my mind a poor return for a man of his ability, it is impossible for me to mention where I come from to any GAA supporter without them mentioning his name. He will be the Mayo footballer foremost in people’s minds long after he departs this earth. He plucked the ball from the air regardless of the number of challengers and could then take it on or pass it with hand or foot; he was the complete Gaelic footballer. That his jersey resides with the greats in The Tatler Jack is no surprise. That the man behind this blog chose his name as a pseudonym is only logical.
Mayo has been served well by Erris men throughout our years of contesting the All-Ireland Championship – my uncle speaks of the McAndrews of Kiltane who were exceptional talents. Most Mayo supporters would recognise the name of Johnny Carey who was an All-Star before I was born. Very good players like Joe Lindsay, Ciaran and Sean Carey, John Conmy, Billy Joe Padden, Stephen Carolan and now Chris Barrett and Mikey Sweeney all pulled on the colours during my own years as a supporter. If we can gripe that some did not get the chance, or enough chances, well we are not alone or indeed different to any other parish or area of our island.
There have been a lot of discussions on this blog about what our county has to do to win the All-Ireland title once more, distinguished journalists and learned bloggers have all added to the debate and it has been a pleasure to read and to contribute. When we do win it, however, we can safely say that it will be because we found a manager with a vision, who then found the players to implement it and all of whom overcame Mayo football’s particular historical burden and indeed thrived on the pressure of it. But more, much more than all of this, it will be because, at the age of four, young lads are taken to the park in Bangor Erris and to the pitches of the parishes all over our county and taught to solo the ball, to pick it up at speed, to pick out a pass, to field and to challenge.