This time last year, I did a few pieces in the run-up to our Connacht semi-final with Sligo (which I didn’t repeat for the final as we were on our hols in the two weeks leading up to it, which will be the case again dish ear) and, in this somewhat becalmed period prior to this year’s semi, it’s time, I guess, for a similar exercise. This time it’s the Rossies and with less than three weeks to the match, there’s only time for three sets of reminiscences. Just as well, though, as emigration and an absence of fanaticism for a time meant that I wasn’t around to witness at first-hand a number of those seminal clashes between the counties that have taken place over the past few decades (the ones in 1989 and 2001 are obvious gaps) but there are a few encounters that do stick out in my memory and it’s those that I’m going to cover between now and throw-in on the 20th.
Unlike last year, this year I’m going to start with the one furthest back in time. I should, I know, open with 1980 as I was there in the Hyde to see our lads getting their holes well and truly kicked by a rampant Rossies side that completed a provincial four-in-a-row that day, a feat that included beating us in every one of those years. But I won’t because I can’t remember all that much about the day or the team and so my recollections would be brief enough. And, of course, we did get a pasting so it’s as well to draw a veil over that one.
I was there in McHale Park in June 1983 as well, when we recorded our first championship victory over the Sheepstealers since 1975. As well as being our first in five attempts over the Rossies, I recall that match as being the one where I first started to shout in earnest from the terraces. Up till then, I was a meek and rather timorous observer of the on-field action but that day I recall hearing this stream of foul-mouthed invective, the source of which I eventually realised was internal. Suffice to say, I’ve never looked back since in that department.
But it’s not 1983 I want to talk about either – instead, it’s two years later when the county burst back onto the big stage and eventually gave us plenty to be proud of in Croke Park in August and September of that year. I followed the county team closely then and coming into that summer, our hopes were on the rise. A number of the All-Ireland U21 winning team from 1983 – Peter Forde, John Maughan, John Finn, Kevin McStay, Noel Durcan and the mercurial Padraig Brogan – were stepping up to senior level and Galway, who had scraped by us in the previous two years before underperforming in the All-Ireland series, looked to be definitely on the way down. We had the winners of Leitrim and Sligo in the semi-final and then what we thought would be another showdown with Galway in the final.
Our optimism back in 1985 wasn’t, however, completely based on cold-hearted logic (then again, is it ever?). We didn’t get out of Division 2 in the league and while that was nothing to get unduly alarmed about, our ten-point defeat to Limerick in the second round of the Ford Open Draw Cup (remember that?) certainly was. The Brother was based down in Limerick at the time and he came back the following weekend with doom-laden tales of high balls our backline couldn’t cope with which we brooded over while ingesting copious volumes of alcohol.
The stories out of the camp weren’t hectic either, especially the one doing the rounds about Billy Fitz. The tale we were hearing was that Billy had let rip at a training session about wayward shooting in the forward line, which resulted in one of the team suggesting that perhaps Billy should tog out himself. Which he proceeded to do, mutating in the process from selector to squad member, at the ripe old age of 42. Set against this somewhat quixotic development, however, was Liam O’Neill’s coup in getting All-Ireland medallist Sean Lowry – who was living in the county at the time – to declare for us. As a result, when the team sheet for the Leitrim match was announced, any bemusement at Billy Fitz’s inclusion in the first fifteen at top of the left – a full twenty years after he’d made his first appearance for the county – was tempered by the naming of the hugely experienced Offaly All-Star at full-forward.
We weren’t all that impressive that day up in Carrick and although we won easily, by 2-11 to 0-5, neither Lowry nor Fitzpatrick managed to get onto the scoresheet. With Eugene McHale notching an impressive 1-1 off the bench, the Garrymore veteran was obviously going to be under pressure to hold his place for the final. Leitrim, who had beaten Sligo in the first round, never got going against us and so we left Carrick that day none the wiser about how good we were. We could, however, see that the unexpected experiment of playing Martin Carney at corner-back was one that was working and, of course, the Donegal native went on to have an inspired summer in that position.
We still didn’t know who we’d be facing in the final either. Roscommon had held Galway to an 0-11 each draw the Sunday before we played Leitrim, with a late Dermot Earley free bringing the home side level at Hyde Park in a match where the Connacht champions had led by five early in the second half. They’d surely have won it had Ricky Flaherty succeeded in getting past Gay Sheerin when put clean through shortly before Earley’s leveller but the veteran keeper pulled off a point-blank save to keep the Rossies in it.
The replay took place two weeks later in Tuam and it was there that Galway finally lost their Connacht title, with the Sheepstealers coming through on a 1-14 to 1-12 scoreline. Writing in the Indo, Donal Keenan – a man, of course, with Rossie roots – described this encounter as “the most exciting Championship match in Connacht for years” and Roscommon’s defeat of the three-times provincial champions saw them installed as strong favourites to claim their first Connacht crown in five years when they faced us in the decider on their home turf in mid-July.
We came into that final completely under the radar, as all the talk beforehand was of Dermot Earley, Pat Lindsay and the other remnants of the great, what-might-have-been side of the late Seventies. Common consensus had it that the Rossies would win this one with a bit to spare – Mitchel Cogley, writing in the Indo the day before the final, opined that it would be a “big surprise” were we to halt Roscommon’s gallop – but those of us who had been watching our progress over the previous months were confident that common consensus was up its hole.
The Rossies were clearly trading on past glories while Liam O’Neill had put together a nicely balanced outfit at the heart of which were those high-achieving U21s from two years previously. Back in those days, information overload wasn’t the problem it can often be now and it was simply the case that the country at large knew little or nothing about our emerging talent. I recall chafing in the office on the Friday before the game as a pompous fool from Wicklow – a guy who knew feck all at the best of times but at all times enjoyed hearing the sound of his own voice – echoed the line that it’d be Roscommon’s day come Sunday. Through gritted teeth, I laid out our case but I knew I was wasting my breath and so I decided to let the lads do the talking on the pitch instead.
We murdered them, of course, and long before the end – by half-time, in fact, where we led by 1-9 to 0-1 – we knew that we were going to prevail with plenty to spare. Still bleary-eyed from the Live Aid extravaganza that was on TV all day and most of the night beforehand, even we couldn’t believe the way our lads tore into the Rossies from the off as we blitzed them in an opening half where their only score was a Dermot Earley free ten minutes before the break. Once Noel Durcan had scored our first goal, there was clear daylight between the teams and by half-time the only issue that was still to be resolved was how much we’d win by.
Our second goal midway through the second half is probably the memory that stands out for most people of that awesome performance in Hyde Park (aside of, course, from the sight of Willie Joe and a few others chairing Dermot Earley off the field at the end of the Gortaganny man’s final Championship appearance for his county). Jimmy Burke launched a daisy-cutter from 50 yards out on the left which dropped in over the Roscommon defence and was gathered by Sean Lowry who smashed it past the flailing Gay Sheerin. That was when the first of the home supporters started to leach out of the ground as we sat back to enjoy our canter into the winning enclosure and to think ahead to the county’s big day out in Croker the following month.
We won by nine points in the end, 2-11 to 0-8, and the team that prevailed that day was this one:
MAYO: Eugene Lavin; Martin Carney, Peter Forde, Dermot Flanagan; Frank Noone, John Maughan, John Finn; TJ Kilgallon, WJ Padden; Henry Gavin (0-1), Jimmy Burke, Noel Durcan (1-1); Kevin McStay (0-7, five frees, one ‘50’), Sean Lowry (1-0), Eugene McHale (0-2). Subs: Padraig Brogan for Gavin, Des McHale for Brogan, Billy Fitzpatrick for McHale.
Incidentally, the pictures included here were ones I took myself in that pre-digital era and they remain the only ones I ever took at a Championship match until I started to do so more recently in digital format. The quality – like that summer’s weather – wasn’t hectic but they do help to conjure up memories of what was a special day for the county. It was one, for sure, that left the pundits scratching their heads, as a Mayo win was something that simply hadn’t been countenanced.
I remember a very young Michael Lyster – he used to smirk in that annoying way he has back then too, only the smirk he had then was plastered across a far more attenuated visage than it is nowadays – asking the late Enda Colleran on The Sunday Game that night for his Man of the Match and his being amused to note that this would be the first time ever that a Mayoman would get such an accolade on the programme. Colleran, sporting a lurid patterned jumper which was the standard uniform on TSG back then, gave it to Dermot Flanagan but, on that day of many heroes, most of us felt that our main man in Hyde Park had been the truly outstanding John Finn.
John’s name wasn’t a household one in the Gaelic football world up till then but it was destined to become one before the summer was out and, sadly, not for the right reasons either. The manner in which he was assaulted in the drawn All-Ireland semi-final against the Dubs the following month – an incident for which the perpetrator was never identified nor punished – left a sour taste for most Mayo fans on what otherwise was a proud and defiant day for the county.
That drawn match was one of those shoulda-coulda-woulda games: we were almost beaten by half-time but Padraig Brogan’s electrifying performance off the bench in the second half turned the match our way. We had them by the balls at the end but the final whistle came too soon for us and so we were left with memories of that point blasted over by Billy Fitz and TJ’s long, loping run before he steadied himself and boomed over the equaliser. But we knew, deep down, that we’d left it after us.
And we were hopping mad, too, over the thuggery done to John Finn, not least because of the scurrilous talk from the Dubs that our man had got what was coming to him. More than once in the days immediately after the game, I came closer than I’ve ever come before or since to trading blows with someone over the finer points of Gaelic football.
We needed to get our hands on the Dubs again straight away and I still believe that if we’d got them the following weekend, we’d have torn them limb from limb. However, scheduling was a more genteel affair back then (and TV coverage as well – the replay wasn’t even shown live) and, with Kerry having also been held to a draw by Monaghan in the other semi, the powers-that-be decreed that there would be a three-week wait for our rematch with the Jacks.
Padraig Brogan succeeded in lighting up that one too, with an outrageous goal from more than 30 yards out, but that was one of the few high points on a disappointing day for us. Big Tom Byrne, who started in place of Sean Lowry at full-forward, never got motoring and although Willie Joe owned midfield all day, our forward division never functioned in the way that it needed to for us to prevail. We went in at the break a point up but we’d missed far more chances than we’d scored while the Dubs, surviving on the proverbial scraps, were far more economical in front of the posts. An early second half goal from Ciaran Duff left us trailing and while Brogan’s thunderbolt made us believe again they eventually killed us off with scores that included another goal from Duff. Although we left Croke Park on that September Sunday with our heads held high we did so, nonetheless, as a defeated army with the lads having eventually yielded on a scoreline of 2-12 to 1-7.
The minors’ superb All-Ireland victory two weeks later (still, despite last year’s heroics, our most recent win at this level) dulled the pain more than a little and when the league got going again – as it used to in October in those pre-backdoor days – there was a noticeable pep in the team’s step, as well as a concomitant increase in the numbers coming through the turnstiles. The summer’s exploits made us believe that greater things were around the corner and a confident Autumn campaign in Division 2 of the NFL, which concluded on the first day of December down in McHale Park where a huge crowd saw the lads fairly sock it to the Dubs, meant that we would enter the New Year with momentum behind us and with soaring ambitions for what lay ahead. For sure, it was going to be our year and it couldn’t come soon enough.
Next week: 1986.