In the midst of this long break from league action it feels as if it’s the closed season all over again. Time for some rumination, then, and no better man for that than John Cuffe who looks back on how a number of great Mayo players departed the inter-county scene.
Twitter, that necessary and totally unnecessary modern phenomenon of digital ticker-tape with its 140 characters, brought me a small morsel to shorten the night. A tweet from with a photo attached was retweeted into the blogosphere. Attached to its 140 characters was a picture of a red Mayo jersey numbered 24 framed on a wall. Its owner is Conor Mortimer and the inference was that this would be could be his final Mayo shirt.
This set me thinking about the departures and retirement of other men who wore the famed green and red jersey. How did they exit stage left, was there a presentation of a watch and a wallet with a bit of the folding stuff within to speed their journey into the night? We saw them arrive but their departure was different. The bright explosion of youth left behind, as a gnarled veteran shuffles towards the exit, often forgotten by the new love affair with the next great white (green and red) hope.
I did a very unscientific trawl back through the years and looked at the manner of the departure of some of our greats. A common denominator in most departures was that the player left without fanfare or the chance of a farewell from the teeming hordes. Their arrival may have been greeted with an “ahhh” but the leaving was often with a shrug of the shoulders.
Padraig Carney our Flying Doc, brains of the 1948-51 squads, gathered a clutch of medals whilst pursuing a career as a doctor. In 1953 he departed to the USA to pursue his medical career. Coming home for the league semi-final of 1954 where Padraig scored seven of our eleven points in beating Dublin in the semi-final and four points in the final rout of Carlow a fortnight later, proved to be the swan song of the great man.
Photo: The Road to 51 (James Laffey)
Possibly held in reserve until the latter stages of that year’s championship and thus not needed, Mayo failed to keep their side of the bargain, Galway undid them in Tuam. Carney wasn’t needed and when 1955 came around the journey home seemed further. Had Carney lined out against Dublin that year, one can safely assume Mayo would have prevailed and who knows what in that year’s All-Ireland final. A man who locked arms with Kerry, Cavan, Galway and Meath, it was the relatively modest Carlow that saw the last of the great man in our colours at the age of twenty-six.
Mick Mulderrig a boy of nineteen in 1950 and Mayo’s corner-forward was a colleague of Carney. Young Mick looked up to the Flanagans, Langans, Carneys and Mongeys of the squad. Whilst Mick brought uninhibited youth to the party, the older boys shovelled the gravel around. Mick’s swan song for Mayo came after the replayed loss to Dublin in the semi-final of 1955 at the age of 24. The final score was Dublin 1-8 Jimmy Curran 1-7. Yes that’s correct; all of Mayo’s scores came from Curran that day.
When the game ended the enigmatic Mick hitched a ride on the Dublin bus to O’Connell Bridge where he got off. His last words to the Dublin men were: Don’t take on Kerry in the air. They ignored him and were defeated by the aerial supremacy of the Kingdom’s high leapers. It’s fitting that Mick, a man who received his 1951 medal in a brown envelope from the post man, departed from the Dublin bus on O’Connell’s Bridge and into the history books, never to don the county colours again.
Photo: The Road to 51. Peter Solan (left) and Mick Mulderrig (right) battle for possession in the 1951 Connacht final against Galway.
Peter Solan, a shade older than Mulderrig, debuted on the day of infamy below in Kerry when the county secretary Finn Mongey was pressed into action such was the dearth of players available to Mayo. An honourable draw saw some prospects for the group and the famed letter was drafted that bent history for a few years at least.
Solan departed in 1959 after coming on as a sub and scoring 1-2 against Leitrim in that year’s Connacht semi final. Two points separated the teams that day but a chasm in class had seeped from Mayo in the intervening years. Solan, still only twenty-nine, cashed in his chips and slipped back into obscurity once more. A young colleague of Solan’s joined that years Mayo panel, the name was Joe Corcoran. One door closes as another opens.
Peter was a deep thinker. He didn’t feel up to playing against Galway in the 1951 Connacht final, he did and scored 3-1. Despite scoring against Kerry in the semi-final, Peter lost his place for the final. Despite being a named sub and togged out, Peter failed to stand for that iconic photo of the white jersey Mayo men facing into the lens of history. Modest to a fault, Solan felt unworthy. We would travel a long road for his type today.
Dan O’Neill twice hung up the jersey. A kid on his debut in 1952, he picked up a league medal in 1954, a Connacht medal a year later but as his own excellent book Divided Loyalties tells, departed the county after a league game against Sligo in February 1956. A year later, Dan and his Garda colleague Seamus O’Donnell added an All-Ireland medal to their shields, whilst lining out with Louth.
Photo: Divided Loyalties (Dan O’Neill)
Dan returned to the home county and in the month of November 1963 best recalled for the assassination of John F Kennedy, American President and icon on a thousand Irish mantelpieces, Dan played and scored against Meath and Longford. An injury sustained in the latter game saw Dan finally hang up the cloth eleven years after his debut. The grim 1950s had given way to the Swinging Sixties and Dan had his cherished All-Ireland albeit in the Louth corner.
Eugene Rooney packed a lot into six hectic years. A star St Jarlath’s and Hogan cup winner opened the door for All-Irelands at Minor and U21 level with Mayo. An excellent keeper, his promotion to the senior team was rapid and welcomed, leading to a Connacht senior medal in 1969 followed by a national league memento in 1970. A year later saw the demise of a great Mayo outfit. Galway saw them off in Tuam and with it Eugene departed Stateside aged only 23. His loss was partially cloaked up by his replacement the excellent JJ Costello and subsequently Mayo’s self induced 1970s Connacht coma.
Photo: The Green Above The Red (Terry Reilly). The Mayo team that won the 1970 NFL included both Joe Corcoran (on the extreme left, back row) and Eugene Rooney (third from right, back row).
A colleague of Rooney’s who was there before Eugene’s arrival and remained after was Ardnaree’s own king, Joe Corcoran. Jinking Joe bridged the gap from Peter Solon’s departure. Corcoran was a scoring machine, his record only recently nailed. Joe brought intellect and guile to the game, his frees were a bonus. Time marches and the tap on Joes shoulder came in a league game in March 1974 v Tyrone.
As was his wont, Joe kicked a nice 0-3 but that was it. The clock stopped, Joe heels were being nibbled by the likes of the 1971 and 1974 Minors and U21s respectively. Mick Gannon, Ger Feeney and JP Kean were now staking a claim. Genial Joe gathered his kit bag and did what he always did successfully, kick points for fun, this time with the old club side at the back of the grey old Muredach’s, proud Ardnaree.
Willie Joe Padden debuted for the Mayo senior team aged eighteen in October 1977 in McHale Park wearing number nine. Shepherding WJ that day was Belmullet clubman Liam Donoghue. The panel also contained Mick O’Toole from Drum and John Gallagher from Blacksod. So successful, iconic and interwoven into the Mayo fabric that Willie Joe became that the Saw Doctors penned a song around him.
Photo: Mayo GAA Yearbook ’89
The 1989 All-Ireland final was the high-water mark for WJ and the sands of time slowly claimed him back. By 1992 he was in the role of impact sub. His final fling appropriately enough was against Galway as a sub in the replay of that year’s championship semi-final. “Will Galway bate Mayo, not if they have Willie Joe”. Padden saw his part of the deal done that day but that was the album closed.
A sub in the defeat to Donegal a few weeks later, it surely gnawed the soul of Willie Joe as he saw Mayo make heavy weather of putting away the Tir Conaill men. I recall him agitated near the sideline glancing around him awaiting the call to arms. It never came and the lights dimmed on a great player. He had done his bit for the dark county. No more to be given.
Dermot Flanagan son of the Mayo captain, tactician and technical genius of the Mayo 1948-1955 classes stepped into very big boots when he donned the county colours. I think he debuted against Cork in the national league in October 1982. Dermot like the father Sean was a deep thinker. Meticulous in preparation, economical in movement, I often think greater days would have befallen this man if he plied his trade in the last decade.
Photo: The Road to 51
I always saw him in a light that some Mayo players didn’t aspire to. Many were glad to be there, others it came natural to but Flanagan worked his socks of, almost laden with the hand of destiny on his shoulder. Three All Ireland final appearances saw him equal the fathers but Dermot’s returns were in timber plaques or silver. He and we deserved more. Clinically efficient in 1996 at the age of 35, his input into an exceptional Mayo side should never be underestimated.
The dream of the son linking the fathers deeds of forty-six years earlier withered on the Kerry vine in 1997 where the unfortunate Dermot went of injured early in the game. With him went a direct link with the men of yesteryear. If we win the Holy Grail ever, it will be through the grandson or heaven forbid great grandson of the old crop. Dermot bowed out on All-Ireland final day, not a bad day to depart.
Ciaran McDonald was a prodigy probably since he first kicked a ball. In layman’s terms the boy had it all. His Mayo senior debut was against Derry in October 1993 as Mayo went to rinse the horror of the previous debacle against Cork from the collective. This story needs no embellishment or recount of McDonald, his actions and achievements speak for themselves. The biggest tribute I can pay him is this; outside of Mayo many times I listened to people who stood in awe of his monumental skills.
Photo: House of Pain (Keith Duggan)
That he had the skills was never the problem. What he at times lacked was the vehicle built around him with riding instructions to display them. The modern game is long past the notion of give the good boy the ball and let him off. Tactics, cavemen and a win at all costs approach trammel the most skillful. Plan B was always the other option. Was Plan B always used with Mac? Figure that one yourself.
His departure was rather poignant. A break from county football after the corrosive beating to Kerry in 2006 saw him back late to the county squad for the 2007 championship. Galway came to town to wreak havoc and derail John O’Mahony before the train built up a head of steam. After Ciaran entered the fray as a sub he was flattened from an angle he never saw coming. Perhaps the mind was still in pre-season but Galway and its people took great stock from the hit. It’s a measure of their respect for the boy that it took that hit to copper-fasten the defeat of Mayo. Had a few other sacred cows gotten a hit that day it might have woken them up but Galway knew where the totem pole was.
His final act of the season was a two-minute cameo against of all teams, Derry. Back to the future, back to where it started. The score stood at 2-13 to them, we declared an innings of 1-6. What exactly was the rationale of sending Ciaran McDonald in when the game was long gone? Was he expected to score the ten points we were adrift in order to secure a draw? Was it to give the crowd a chance to salute a Mayo icon or was it a back of the envelope move, send in McDonald and shure, well he got his game anyway. No matter, another great slipped into the Derry air before the county turned in on itself and as winter came early.
David Brady came off the pitch as Ciaran McDonald made his cameo in Derry 2007, great liners passing in the Derry sunshine. The times were a-changing and legends were heading to the breaker’s yard, their run was over, their time was up. Brady – feisty, fiery and in your face – wasn’t your typical Mayo player. A cross between the metal that forged Joe Earley and Denis Kearney and the guile of a Joe Langan, Dave Brady was a guy made for battles. Twice Mayo chose to splinter his arse as the tide swamped them, twice Brady was sent in with lifebelts looking for wreckage that was salvageable. The finals of 2004 and, to a lesser extent, 2006 showed how naive we can be. Do you think Darragh would prefer to mark A.N Other rather than David?
Photo: House of Pain
Four All-Ireland finals, four doses of medicine unsweetened and finally put to pasture after another walloping. Dave Brady served the county well. Ironically as the sun set on his career the debate in Mayo was not his retirement in early 2007, no it was this: was he better deployed at full-back or midfield? To the humble grunt on the terrace (of which I am a card-carrying member) Dave Brady was always essential. His debut was against Roscommon in the league back in 1995 in hometown Ballina. His departure log was in credit.
And finally back to the man who started the article and reminisces. I never imagined calling Conor a “man”, he was/is eternally young. If McDonald was an obvious, then Mortimer came ready-made for senior county football. His debut was in February 2002 against Down in the league. He rattled over 0-5 of our 0-10 scores. His first seven league matches saw him run up 2-41, a little under 0-7 per match.
Again his history is recent for all to recall. His departure was of his own choosing. Many of the others never had that option. His stats for last year’s league cannot be ignored; a season by the way in which he passed out Joe Corcoran’s long-held record. Conor notched a healthy 0-39 from nine games. His performance against Dublin last March was top drawer. The league final against Cork saw him nailed on the inside line, often isolated and without back-up. The modern game has its demands though and one of them is that you sometimes gotta do what you gotta do. One particular hit on him had me wincing in the seats. The boy persevered but I could see the pain he carried.
The manner of his departure is his own. For ten years he manned that cockpit of a corner-forward where, if a midfielder or full-back is being cleaned out, usually means the summons ashore for number thirteen or fifteen. That he escaped the shepherd’s crook should not be forgotten. Like McDonald and especially in the lad’s earlier years, was the game plan ever varied for him, was it ever mooted that maybe he might be given a run at twelve or ten where the air is easier to breath?
Conor joins a long list of the faithful who served the county with distinction. Most left without a Thank You, some left without a telegram or phone call and one stepped off the bus at O’Connell Bridge and never looked back. And whilst we would love to have presented the flowers, made the speeches, and stood for the photo, that’s what makes the great game so great. It mirrors life only it’s played out in public. We see it at its most majestic and watch on when it’s at its most painful, most time cursing that it would never be us.