Any day that a county loses the services of two of the five players who have made the most number of appearances for them is a sad one indeed. So the news yesterday afternoon that both James Nallen (who lined out 132 times for the county, an all-time record) and David Heaney (whose 108 matches places him fifth overall in terms of appearances) had decided to call it quits made it a sombre day for Mayo supporters everywhere. Both men experienced major highs and sickening lows over the course of their long careers as inter-county footballers, both gave their all and more in trying to get us to the promised land. They both deserve our heartfelt thanks for their selfless contribution to the cause down the years.
James Nallen was the last link the current squad had with that great 1996 team, a side we can now, at this remove, acknowledge as the best the county has produced since the All-Ireland winning teams of decades ago. With just a tiny sliver more of luck, they would, of course, have been All-Ireland champions themselves and I can think of at least a few worse teams that managed to get their hands on Sam.
A young and energetic Jimmy Nallen was a key member of that formidable Mayo team and he should obviously have won an All-Ireland medal but the real sadness, I think, is that it should have happened so very early in his inter-county career. When he was still there in 2004 and again in 2006, we were all hoping he’d win it before he hung up his boots but the reality is that had he – and the rest of them – won it in 1996, they’d probably have gone on to win a few more in the years immediately afterwards.
James made his first appearance in the colours in a league match against Galway in February 1995 and the replayed All-Ireland final the following year was only his 19th senior game for the county. It was, though, in his 17th senior appearance that he really announced his arrival on the inter-county scene in such coruscating fashion:
Sport can be so cruel in terms of the hands that it deals out and James Nallen’s lot to be the only player to line out in all four of those finals we lost between 1996 and 2006 is about as cruel as it comes. The pitiful sight of him being withdrawn from the fray after just ten minutes of the 2006 final, a match we’d already lost at that stage, was particularly painful to witness and it seemed almost certain then that we’d seen the last of him. But, of course, we hadn’t and instead he battled on for three more campaigns, in the process laying claim to have been our best performer over the course of the 2008 championship. His last appearance for the county was last May where he came on as a substitute against New York in the first round of the Connacht championship.
David Heaney’s first outing in the colours came two years after James Nallen’s debut, with the Swinford man first appearing in a league match against Clare in Ennis in February 1997. He came on as a sub in the Connacht semi-final against Leitrim that year but it was in the All-Ireland semi-final against Offaly later that year where he made his first senior championship start.
David played in all three of the finals we lost to Kerry and it will probably be his miscast role as full-back in the 2004 and 2006 deciders (in particular the latter) that he’ll be remembered for most. If so, that would be unfair because his placing at the edge of the square was simply confirmation that we had no recognised full-back and the fact that David was prepared to line out there was ample proof of his willingness to play whatever role his county demanded of him, no matter how thankless it might be.
Like James, David battled on after the most recent All-Ireland scorching and over the past few years he remained a key figure in the side come championship time, even if it was becoming ever clearer that his stamina levels wouldn’t enable him to see out a full seventy minutes of championship fare. He lined out for us for the final time, back at midfield where he’d first made his name with the county in 1997, in last year’s All-Ireland quarter-final against Meath.
The announcement that both James Nallen and David Heaney had retired made the national airwaves yesterday and it was only right that this news was broadcast across the country because both players were important figures on Mayo teams that dared to believe they could claim the ultimate prize their sport has to offer. Becalmed as we now appear to be – a fact noted this week by Sean Rice in the Mayo News – the notion that the county was recently enough punching at such a level seems somehow difficult to believe. But we were and we managed to do so because players like James and David were willing to stand up and be counted when it really mattered.
Now that the book has been closed on their long inter-county careers, we need, as Noel Connelly has said, to see the next generation of leaders stepping up to the plate. If the next cohort of senior players prove to be as good a bunch of leaders as the last group – including James Nallen and David Heaney – were, then maybe we shouldn’t be as down in the mouth about our near-term prospects as so many of us (including myself) currently appear to be.
Thanks for all you’ve done over the course of those long, long years at inter-county level, lads, and thanks too for your contributions to all those great memories, not to mention all those dreams of what might have been.