Next Saturday will mark our first senior championship clash with Down but it won’t be the first time we’ve met them on the field of play. John Cuffe looks back at previous memorable encounters we’ve had with the Mourne County.
Their five All-Irelands surpass our three, ours came in the first half of the last century and their initial ones from the Swinging Sixties. Both counties are seen as footballing counties first and both have their share of legends. Both heal fast and move back up the pecking order.
And yet they have never crossed paths at championship senior level. They have at minor and U21 though, plus a league final. Down never lose finals in Croke Park they say. Partially true, their minors bent the knee in 1966. Mayo possessed a stellar minor team (pictured below); it was their fourth final in an eight year period, three early ones being lost.
Eugene Rooney, Seamus Hughes, Seamus O’Dowd, Tom Fitzgerald, Des Griffith and Sean Kilbride became solid seniors, most picking up a national league medal along with two Connacht senior medals in the 1967-1970 era. Down lost but their star men two years later stitched a side that put Kerry to the sword in the 1968 senior final. Sloan, Colm McAlarney, John Purdy, Cole, Rooney and Murphy won Celtic Crosses.
We came across them again in 1977 were they saw off another fine Mayo minor outfit. Belmullet’s WJ Padden, Tom Reilly (Cavan chairman today) and Mick O’Toole were stand-outs. Time was to pass until they met in the 1999 minor final. Inverse numbers there, 1966 turned into 1999. Willie Joe was replaced by Billy Joe but Mayo minors were eternal then.
Down shaded it but a fantastic Mayo minor team reaped a rich harvest. Pat Kelly, Coady, Conor Moran, Gill, Gavin Duffy, BJ and Alan Dillon gave/still give the county some service. Rugby claimed a pair; soccer claimed O’Hara and managers were indifferent to Brogan from Knockmore who was useful.
Benny Coulter was the Down talisman that day, still is though. By 2005 Down beat a Mayo side out of sorts, Pat Spillane made a joke of them that night on The Sunday Game, he referenced trips to Knock, McStay just said we would keep trying. Strange that a team that had Cafferky, Noone, Barrett, Cunniffe, Hanley, Campell, Kilcullen and O’Shea succumbed so easy to Down?
A year later most of the above named were All-Ireland U21 champions. The sides met again in 2009 in Longford where their U21s surprisingly in my view beat a good Mayo side containing Keane, Vaughan, McLoughlin, Parsons, AOS,Douglas and Doherty, perhaps having Gibbons and Alan Freeman as subs that day didn’t help our cause. They may have offered an alternative on-field.
Poland and McComiskey were their go-to men with a solid midfield of McGee and Fitzpatrick. Rewind the clock a year and we were in Croke Park together. They lost to Wexford and we lost to Tyrone in Round 4 of the qualifiers. We were getting close to meeting them but didn’t quite get to swop phone numbers at senior level. We then shared Croke Park with them again in 2010. We got a humping in the League Division One final, they got the same in the Division Two decider. For us, Sligo and Longford finished the rogering a month or two later. Down however gave Kildare and Kerry a little of their own medicine before losing the All-Ireland final to Cork by a single point.
So finally we get to dance together. They will fancy this one. But so too will we. In the league final of 1970 (Mayo team pictured below) following a controversial semi-final one-point win for Mayo over Derry, Down were scorching favourites to tan us. We traded point for point, and then they got a penalty. The great Paddy Doherty hit the post with it. The rebound travelled out thirty yards and wound up in the Down net after a series of Mayo moves.
Mayo went berserk scoring three more goals. Ball in hand, wave after wave of Mayo assault broke Down’s back. The final score was Mayo 4-7 Down 0-10. It was glorious. The All-Ireland winners of two years previous were laid to waste. So we fear only fear itself facing them. I see us as fine, my fear is that we will get yet another refereeing performance going against us. Otherwise we will knock Down down.
Photo credits: Pictures of Mayo minor All-Ireland winning team of 1966 and Mayo NFL winning team of 1970 from Terry Reilly’s The Green Above The Red. Photo taken at the end of the Down/Mayo U21 All-Ireland semi-final in 2009 from my own collection – WJ.